The big, bad enemy of change

The big, bad enemy of change

It is Wednesday evening and you are sitting on the sofa munching away on some popcorn instead of going to the gym as you promised yourself.  – You take the chocolate bar and before you even know what you are doing it is gone. Oh my, the diet will never ever work.  – Where are the carrots I wanted to have for lunch break? Oh, yes, of COURSE I forgot them at home. Again!!! – It’s already so late. Why did I miss that it is five o’clock? I really want to be home early. I don’t get it.

Why don’t I have enough willpower to “just do it”? I really want to lose weight – so why can’t I resist the chocolate? Why am I too stupid to remember the carrots? Why don’t I register the time?

It is not your willpower. You are not stupid. You don’t lack discipline. The obstacle is your autopilot.

The human autopilot

Humans are on autopilot most of the time. About 80% of what we do is driven by automated actions. You dress automatically. You drive to work automatically. Ever had the situation of not remembering exactly how you drove home? – That’s being on autopilot!
Every routine and habit is an element of our overall autopilot. The full program develops while we grow up and it adapts itself continuously without us even realizing it. Disturbances make us feel uncomfortable and we tend to avoid this. To successfully establish new habits and routines we need a strategy that works around this effect.

Why do we have an autopilot?

Your brain is lazy. No offense intended – mine is too. Actually all our brains have developed over time into really effective systems. Saving energy and attention is a top priority. In ancient times this was crucial: Energy in form of food was always scarce, so it needed to be saved. And it was necessary to pay attention to the really dangerous situations especially when hunting and gathering. Always being alert is simply too energy-consuming and strenuous.

Once the autopilot is programmed it sets in as soon as the cue occurs: To walk into the kitchen in the morning is enough to start the program “Breakfast routine”. And then you run through your routine not looking left or right. That is a very good thing, because your breakfast is made even though you are not really awake before your first cup of coffee.
If you do something on a daily basis in always the same way your brain has learned it and now keeps it this way: It is a routine. You get your result, so no changes necessary. Driving to work or to the supermarket is an automated action. Ever needed to go somewhere else in the morning and found yourself on the way to work? Yep, that’s a routine in action.

Habits belong also in the category of autopilot, but are smaller programms than routines. In the case of habits your brain has figured out that a certain action makes you feel good. So logically it makes you want to repeat the action again and again. It scans for cues to exert the action the same moment it is present. An example is reaching for your cell as soon as you hear a PING. Ah, a message! 🙂

The tricky thing about habits and routines is that only the presence of the relevant cue is necessary to make you act. Everything happens quickly and without you quite noticing what’s going on. This age-old mechanism simply helps to repeat actions that make us feel good and it reduces the amount of attention you have to spend on things you do on a daily basis.

All is well – until it is not

As long as you adhere to your pattern you feel safe. As long as there is no disturbance and the programs can run unchanged and unchallenged it means for your brain that all is well. The moment you do something different or ignore a cue your mind is on red alert: What is going on? Why don’t we perform the next step? There must be danger around!

You can check it out yourself with interupting a habit: Disturb the programming the next time you want to grab a bar of chocolate. Try to stop your routine and observe what happens. Most probably you have already the taste of chocolate on your tongue before you even open the wrapper. And if you don’t take the chocolate you will feel uncomfortable. Something like frustration, anger or you may even feel slightly down. And this only because you didn’t yet get what your brain expected to get.

There is simply a discrepancy between what the brain expected and what actually happened. Now your brain alerts you in a situation you would usually run through more or less without noticing.

In the case of the chocolate bar your brain waits for the promised reward and it has ways to make you get it anyway. The bad feelings should go away now! So you exert the routine: Grab the chocolate and eat it. – Ah! This just feels so good. The sweetness of the sugar, the crunch of the nuts, the rush of a sugar high. Life can’t be so bad, if there is chocolate in it.

And here you go: You are back in the old, auto-piloted pattern and your brain is relieved: No more danger!

Notice what happens when you change the way you do things

Your brain wants you to be safe and sound. Therefore it makes you stick to your well-proven routines. To change them you observe first what is really going on, how you act, what your routines are.

So next time when you are about to ditch the idea of going to do some sports or to not eating that chocolate bar, try to stop for a moment. Kindly look inside. Notice exactly how you feel. Curiously explore the thoughts in your mind.
Then remind yourself that you only feel uncomfortable because you are doing something unfamiliar and that this is the reason why you feel uncomfortable. That acting against your autopilot is what makes you feel itchy or nervous or cranky.
Then think about why you want to do what you were about to do.
That’ll help you to overcome the warning signal of a disturbed autopilot and then you’ll be able to continue with what you wanted to do.

Another approach is to work with establishing new cues for a new behavior. But that is another story to be told another time.

For now be patient with yourself, challenging a hard-wired routine is not done so easily. With a more intentional and conscious approach you will be able to establish a new routine over time and your brain then waits to get the reward of a run or a nice yoga lesson or eating that bowl of salad.

Summary

  • “Autopilot” is a complex interplay of several psychological mechanisms that help you through your day.
  • Your autopilot exists to save energy and to reduce the number of necessary decisions you have to make each day.
  • All your habits and routines that start as soon as a certain cue occurs form your autopilot.
  • Autopilot makes you feel comfortable. All is well, there’s no need to pay attention.
  • Disturbances of your routine feel unfamiliar and therefore uncomfortable.
  • To avoid this feeling of discomfort you slip back to your “old” pattern.
  • To get out of your rut and change your behavior you need to consciously interrupt your standard program for a certain situation AND acknowledge the real reason for your feeling uncomfortable.
  • To change and introduce a new behavior you may need a more intentional approach.

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