Most human behavior is unconscious. Some of that behavior is dictated by our hard-wiring, but we also have scripts that are not hard-wired that we follow every day without thinking too much about, such as:
- Brushing our teeth
- Driving to work
- Compulsive e-mail or Facebook checking
- Shopping for and eating the same foods over and over again
- Biting our nails
- Swearing when something doesn’t go our way
- Saying “please” and “thank you” (or other things, depending on how we were raised)
- Talking to strangers
- Not talking to strangers
- Apologizing for ourselves
- Never apologizing for ourselves
- Suppressing desires that seem inappropriate, or that we perceive will get us into trouble if acted upon
- Not paying attention to the world outside of our incessantly chattering mind
These kinds of things are habits – learned, automatic patterns of behavior. A chosen behavior quickly becomes relegated to the realm of the automatic when we keep doing it. In this manner, we operate on autopilot more often than not.
If you can accept the premise that we are overwhelmingly creatures of habit – that our habits to a certain extent rule our lives (or at least significantly impact them) – then it makes sense to:
a) become more aware of our habits (it’s much easier to observe others’ habits than our own),
b) decide which habits are serving us, and which are not, and
c) make a conscious decision to introduce helpful habits and discard the less-than-helpful ones.
Simple, perhaps, but not necessarily easy. After all, the more we engage in any behavior, the more we reinforce it. And many of our habits have been developed and solidified over years, if not decades, of repetition. “Old habits die hard,” the saying goes. Addictions are notoriously challenging to overcome. Some habits we may be able to develop (or destroy) on our own; others may require varying degrees of social support and/or intervention.
But if we are going to be ruled by our habits anyway, doesn’t it make sense to start choosing some of these habits – some of these “rulers” – deliberately? Freedom, it would seem, lies not in the absence of such rulers, but in our ability to rule our rulers – to choose the ones that form the backdrop of our lives, rather than have them chosen for us by default.
Whom – or what – are you currently choosing as a ruler? A tobacco company? Your television? Your computer? The opinions of others you don’t even respect or admire?
Observe any behavior of yours and ask yourself: do I want this to become a habit, something I do automatically without having to think about it? Is this something that is likely to create good long-term results? If so, keep doing it! If not, choose something better. Choose it enough times, and it becomes a habit.
What kinds of habits would you like to internalize? What behaviors, if habituated, would help you feel happier, healthier, freer, more successful, and more aligned with your deepest values?
“You can choose a ready guide in some celestial voice
If you choose not to decide, you still have made a choice.
You can choose from phantom fears and kindness that can kill;
I will choose a path that’s clear – I will choose Free Will.”
from “Free Will” by Rush (lyrics by Neal Peart)