“Mum, it’s been over a month since we no longer need to wear masks in public. Yet I still see more people with their masks on than off. Why?!?” my daughter asked, perplexed. Indeed, the Multi-Ministry Taskforce announced that from 29 August 2022, mask-wearing is no longer required in most indoor settings.
Darling, I replied, people are creatures of habit. We all have patterns that we are comfortable with and while some adapt faster to change, others stay longer in their fixed routines.
Brain on Autopilot
You see, when we are learning something new, our brain activity increases to process and make sense of new information. Yet, our efficient brain is also constantly looking out for repeated patterns in order to ‘automate’ them. Imagine how enormous our heads would be if our brains had to continually process every.single.piece of information our senses transmit.
To conserve energy, we subconsciously convert sequences of recurring events into autopilot routines. This frees up our brain’s capacity to focus on other important thoughts, like planning the details for a trip, crafting a brilliant email, or solving a difficult Maths problem.
When we understand how a habit is formed, we start to appreciate what this can do for us. We can end disempowering habits and start new routines that serve us. Imagine how much more you’d enjoy parenting if your children automatically did their homework after school, cleaned up the house, and happily go to bed when it’s time. Like clockwork, these are routines you can create.
The Power of Habit states that more than 40 per cent of our daily actions are automatic. My personal observation is that the percentage is higher for people who aren’t aware of their unconscious automation and possibly lower for those who regularly train themselves to spot their patterns.
Since habits account for 40 per cent of our actions, why not use the same neurological patterns to create habits that work for you? Try these five simple steps to stop ‘automatic transmission’ and start being present.
Step 1: Identify Specific Habits
Every habit loop starts with a trigger. It sends the brain into automatic mode and tells it which habit to use. The routine (physical, mental, or emotional) is the resulting sequence of actions. Finally, the reward helps your brain figure out if this particular loop is worth remembering for the future.
1a. What is one of your own routines you want to change?
For example, the habit I wanted to change was biting my fingernails. My trigger was so automatic that it took time for me to discover that there were a few.
Running my finger across my nails, looking for a rough edge was one physical trigger. Feeling excited, nervous, or bored were emotional triggers, while trying to distract myself in the moment was a mental trigger.
The routine is often the easiest to spot when we take time to observe repeated patterns. Remember that it can include the way we respond to our partner, children, helper, or different family members. There is a predictable way your child responds when asked to do their homework. Likewise for siblings who seem to be perpetually at loggerheads.
1b. List down one routine for each family member
Most of our replies are automatic and not new. They started out with original answers, yet over time, if we really looked, many of our responses are habitual. These individual responses are important because each creates a ripple effect, shaping the collective family culture at home.
Bring the topic up at dinnertime or have individual conversations with each family member. Share your own trigger, routine, and reward example, and then ask if you can share what you’ve observed about them.
Step 2: Identify the Triggers
When I got my kids to do the exercise, each of them discovered their triggers. One discovered the start of her emotional routine was triggered by her little brother’s crying.
She would first feel irritation, followed by a strong desire to get away from his cries. Increasing annoyance would spiral into a huge upset and conclude with an explosion where she would scold him for being such a baby!
Naming the different emotions she experienced in that predictive order helped her identify a routine she was not aware of. The act of distinguishing her trigger and routine helped her realise there were different ways to get peace (the reward).
As we talked, she mused that the first time she scolded him, it probably worked. That was two years ago. Scolding him in the present was no longer effective because he just cried louder. Yet, she was so stuck in her emotional routine that she would automatically scold him, even though it no longer achieved the reward she wanted.
Another child identified how the thought of “Mummy’s not around” was her trigger to quietly watch YouTube on her laptop. She would quickly search for a video and binge-watch her five favourite YouTubers’ latest videos. The reward for her was laughter because the videos are so funny!
Breaking down each part of the routine and identifying the triggers brought so much laughter, as confessions and eureka moments illuminated persistent habits that each of us were so unaware of.
Step 3: Change the Routine
After identifying the unwanted routines and their triggers, we brainstormed new actions to replace the old patterns.
The eldest, who was triggered by her brother’s cry, decided she would hug him. It didn’t matter how she felt in the moment, because her new action would spark a different sequence of events.
She shared how it was difficult for her to hug him initially, because all she wanted to do was to distance herself from his cries. Yet, as she stuck to this new routine, she discovered how therapeutic the hug was for both of them! She began to empathise with his upset and realise how effective a hug was in getting her reward — peace.
Step 4: Change the Set-up
Her sister, who was always caught watching videos, realised that certain factors were at play for easy temptation. Her laptop was positioned just diagonally to her right, playing music while she did her homework. The entire set-up made it super accessible to key in a search as soon as Mum stepped out
She decided to keep her laptop off and listen to the music from her sister’s laptop, which was a desk away. That other sister has a strong sense of justice and does not enjoy watching videos. This simple switch removed the temptation while allowing another family member to contribute to her.
I loved how different family members came together to brainstorm and support each other in creating different routines. Bonus!
Step 5: Increase the Reward
“Also, when I feel the temptation, I will ask you if we can watch TV!” the same daughter added.
She shared how watching TV with her siblings was a greater reward in terms of the longer duration, company, and peace of mind. She was never at peace when she had to hide from me, and this new arrangement made us all happy.
“And if you watch without asking, you will NOT watch TV that night, deal?”
To this, she nodded enthusiastically. I made a mental note to accede to her TV request if they completed their responsibilities for the day.
Create Empowering Habits
I used to busy myself reminding each child to do their homework and their household chores. This only added to my mental workload. I was not happy!
So I created an after-school routine where homework came immediately after shower and snack. The faster they finished their homework, the sooner they got to enjoy the rest of the evening. Whether it was cycling, swimming, playground time, scrapbooking, or Lego play before dinner.
Today, the new routine means homework and individual chores are completed before dinnertime. Every school day, only those who complete their responsibilities qualify to watch TV or play games. I’ve gained so much time and mental space after two weeks of establishing this routine, since I no longer need to be present or issue constant reminders.
Be Adaptive, or Be Left Behind
While we’re on the topic of creating positive patterns, what is a habit you want to inculcate today? Why not the habit of being adaptive?
Being adaptive is completely different to adapting to change. One personifies versatility, while the other moves to stay relevant. The mindset of the former actively initiates change while the latter passively reacts to change.
In the book Who Moved My Cheese?, two mice embody adaptability while two little people adapt to changes. Sniff and Scurry were ready when their cheese supply was gone because they expected it. Hem and Haw, on the other hand, took some time to realise the cheese was not going to come back and had to uproot their routines if they were going to stay alive.
There are many ways to develop being adaptive. Besides questioning fixed routines that no longer serve us, be on the lookout for different ways of doing the same thing.
As a reminder to enjoy change, I use my left hand to brush my teeth every morning despite being right-handed. Combining a different action in an established routine keeps me present instead of fixating on how things ‘should be’. Sometimes, the entire family uses our non-dominant hands during dinner, just to throw in some fun and remind ourselves to be comfortable with changes.
It is such a privilege to be the only animal species that can change and create any habits we choose. It just takes awareness and repetition of the same routine until the trigger and reward become intertwined.
Remember, first you make your habits, and then your habits make you. So, let’s get comfortable tapping into our creativity and resourcefulness, because in an ever-changing world, the adaptive thrive!
Featured image: Ketut Subiyanto