The biology of habits

Ninety-five percent of our brain activity isn’t conscious. Our unconscious brain controls a lot of things we think we are in conscious control of, like the food we stuff in our mouths or the emails we check compulsively during a meeting. Sometimes we do have conscious control of these things, but often we do not.

Once we start doing something (like flossing our teeth, or checking Facebook at work when we get bored) we eventually don’t have to think about it anymore. Our basal ganglia take over. It’s easy to see that sometimes this automatic action is a good thing (such as doing our yoga first thing in the morning) but often it is not (like biting our nails).  Good or bad, we can manipulate these habits into being.

In The Happiness Hypothesis, Jonathan Haidt used the metaphor of an elephant (the automatic process – our habits) with a tiny rider atop (the controlled processor – our willpower). As much as we might want the rider to direct the elephant, the rider is only the elephant’s guide. The elephant is in charge and pretty much goes where it is used to going, stopping for things that pack a reward (like food or love) and running from things that signal danger or discomfort. The rider can provide direction, but only when the elephant doesn’t have conflicting desires of its own.

The emotionally intelligent person, according to Haidt, has a skilled rider who knows how to distract and coax the elephant without having to engage in a direct contest of wills. And even when the rider is able to change the elephant’s behavior, it requires a big investment of energy.

If we want to live with the greatest ease and power, we need to invest in training the elephant, not convincing the rider. This does not mean that we give over the best parts of ourselves by focusing on unconscious habits. Your rider can do incredibly complicated, beautiful, sensitive things that habit can never replicate. But the rider is easily tired and fuel inefficient. It doesn’t have the same stamina to make decisions all day long. Moreover, the rider (conscious thought) is slow, processing about 50 bits of information per second. In contrast, the elephant (our unconscious brain) processes about 11 million bits per second.

Your brain, unlike your mother, does not distinguish between good and bad habits. Once we form a habit, the neural pathway that controls that habit exists in our brain forever. Although it is nearly impossible to eliminate a bad habit, you can conform it into a good habit.

There are three essential components of a habit. The first is the trigger – these can be emotions, times of day, sounds, smells.The next component is behavior. This is the path the elephant walks down. For instance, when you finish your breakfast (trigger), you brush your teeth (the behaviour, or the elephant’s “path”). The last component is the reward. Reward is what determines if a routine is worth remembering or repeating in the future. The rewards needs not be complicated or external, like money or food. In fact, internal and non material rewards are easier to tie to the routine and tend to be immediate, for instance, the endorphin rush after exercise.

Knowing this makes it easier to start to craft your life to build better habits. Start ridiculously small and, when you are ready to invest more time and effort into a major habits overhaul, do so. A good book to help you is Christine Carter’s The Sweet Spot.

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Yama and Niyama: the first two rungs of astanga yoga

Some people go to yoga class to stretch and strengthen. There is however a spiritual component to yoga which is basically the same as any world religion or spiritual practice, with the same basic principals for leading a good and moral life.

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These principals are meant to be practiced at all levels – thought, word and action. They are ideals whose perfection one becomes more aware of on increasingly subtler levels as one progresses on the path of yoga.

The yamas are moral disciplines and restraints which regulate our relationship with other individuals. The niyamas are constructive observances designed to organize our personal lives. Briefly, the yamas and niyamas include:

Yama:

AHIMSA: non-violence with mind, action and speech, non-hurting, non-injuring, non-harming, and not killing.

SATYA: Truthfulness, meaning the avoidance of all falsehood, exaggeration and pretense and is necessary for the unfoldment of our intuitive, discriminating faculties.

ASTEYA: Non-stealing. This refers not only to stealing physical objects but also to taking credit for anything that is not rightly ours.

BRAHMACHARYA: Literally, “walking in Brahman”. It is the control of sensual desires, allowing one to channel that energy to higher purposes. Although Brahmacharya is frequently translated as celibacy, it more properly refers to continence, in either celebate or married life.

APARIGRAHA: Non-possessiveness. This means using the things of this world for their intended purpose, without feeling that you own them or are owned by them.

Niyama:

SHAUCHA: Purity. Purify the body by eating healthy foods, and purify the mind by ridding oneself of undesirable thoughts or emotions.

SAMTOSHA: Contentment. Not allowing outside influences to disturb your inner tranquility.

TAPAS: Literally, “that which generates heat”. This refers to those actions, disciplines, and austerities which purify the mind and the body and increase desire for enlightenment.

SVADHYAYA: Self-study.This refers to the study of the scriptures and of the internal states of consciousness.

ISHWARA PRANIDHANA: Literally means “surrender to the ultimate”. When you unite your will with that of a higher principal. all egotism, pettiness, and selfishness are removed.

yoga

The Frugal Gardener: The $100 Challenge

I have instituted for myself a $100 Gardening Challenge. I would not, I announced to my colleagues and friends, spend more than $100 on my yard and garden this year. “Good luck,” they said, because even those not as crazy about their garden as I am spend far more than that.

Gardening in Canada is a multi-billion dollar business. Even my financially responsible friends who find all sorts of ways to keep their grocery, gas and clothing costs down, and do their own household repairs and renovations to save money, will joke about the huge hemorrhage of cash that happens every spring with their yard and garden. They shrug in a “nothing you can do about it” kind of way.

But I think there are things you can do about it, and some things you should do about it. For instance, many flowering bedding plants have been treated with neonicotinoids, which are implicated in bee colony collapse. When I went to a garden centre this spring, a sign proudly announced that their bedding plants were 70% neonicotinoid free. That’s nice, but which 70%? As a consumer, this isn’t useful.

So I decided to drastically cut down on my flowering bedding plants and grow from seed. Here’s a picture of my front flower bed, which traditionally I have filled with petunias. This year, however, I filled it with Johnny Jump Ups, all from seeds I gathered myself. This plant will naturally seed itself down, and those seeds will survive the winter. Perennials tend to die because their roots get frozen, so are not a good choice for an above ground planter like this. Seeds from tough little plants like Johnny Jump Ups are a good choice.

johnny jump ups

There are many other ways you can cut your gardening costs – composting to improve your soil rather than buying soil conditioners or soil, laying down newspaper and covering with mulch (possibly obtained for free from the wood chippers of a tree removal company?)  rather than using landscaping fabric (I have a particular hatred of landscaping fabric, see this overview for all the reasons you shouldn’t use it), host a plant swap, rain barrels, drip irrigation, and propagating your own plants through cuttings or root division.

Why not give yourself a similar challenge? The actual monetary limit will depend on the size and style of your property, but it’s an interesting exercise and a mindful gardener may find it useful.

Holding Yourself to Your Own Standard

It’s easy to slip when we set out to change and master our behaviour. Life’s distractions get in the way. Here’s a technique that’s simple but focuses your intention on whether or not you have held yourself to your own high standards in the course of a day, as explained by executive coach Marshall Goldsmith.

Every evening, or at the end of the workday depending on your questions, take some time to answer a series of questions that force you to evaluate whether you have been true to your behavioural intentions. Marshall Goldsmith pays someone to call and ask him these questions, but I’m far too thrifty for that. If one of my questions was “Did I do my best to steward my financial resources responsibly today?” then if I paid someone to ask me that the answer would obviously be no. But, the advantage of Marshall’s way is he can’t wiggle out of it. The guy is calling and asking.

Everyone will have a different set of questions, some as little as 3 or 4 and others as many as 20 or 25, but here are some basic ones I would use:

  • Did I do my best to set clear goals?
  • Did I do my best to make progress towards goal achievement?
  • Did I do my best to find meaning?
  • Did I do my best to build positive relationships?
  • Did I do my best to be fully engaged?
  • Did I incorporate vigorous physical activity as well as stretching into my day?
  • Did I do my best to eat a healthy diet?
  • Did I do my best to respect the environment by reducing, re-using and mindfully consuming?

The wording “Did I do my best” may seem repetitive, but it’s important because it makes you accountable for your actions, rather than focusing on outside factors. There are certainly forces and systems that influence and affect your life, but that’s not what these questions are about. As Viktor Frankl wrote, “When we are no longer able to change a situation – we are challenged to change ourselves.”

I said this technique was simple, but that doesn’t mean it’s easy. Marshall tells his clients that within 2 weeks half of them will have given up on the daily questions; they will abandon them rather than face the constant failure of their own test.

That said, the questions can work effectively because they reinforce our commitment. They ignite our motivation where we need it, not where we don’t – the questions focus on where we require help, not where we’re doing just fine. They also shrink our goals into manageable increments. Little by little, day by day, we can strengthen our habits.

They also highlight the difference between self-discipline and self-control. “Behavioural change demands self-discipline and self-control. We tend to use these terms interchangeably, but there’s a subtle difference. Self-discipline refers to achieving desirable behaviour. Self-control refers to avoiding undesirable behaviours,” Marshall says.

Most people are better at one than another and we can phrase our questions accordingly. “Did I do my best to limit my sugar consumption?” calls for self-discipline, while “Did I do my best to say no to sweets?” hints at self-control.

Best of all, the questions provide structure. Marshall claims we’ll never get better without structure and intuitively this makes sense.

.Hoot by R. Hannah

Getting un-stuck

We all feel stuck sometimes. Here is a toolkit of exercises that could help you get un-stuck. Experiment to see which ones work best for you.

cat in wall

1. Find the reasons why it’s all just perfect.

Seems strange, but bear with me: your mind will figure out how if you point it in that direction. Say to yourself, “This situation is perfect because…” and brainstorm five reasons. Find the truth in each of them. Now what looks different?

2. Put on a soundtrack.

Pick a favorite song and connect to the mood of that song. Play the song out loud or just think of it. Then apply the mood of the song to how you look at the situation.

You might bring the spirit “What a Wonderful World” to the argument with your mother-in-law. Bring the mood of your favorite jazz piece to the last minute work assignment your boss just handed you. What feels different now?

3. Go to 10,000 feet.

Close your eyes and take a magic carpet ride into space. Take your time. Take some deep breaths. When you reach 10,000 feet, take in the gorgeous view and then look down at your current situation from a great distance. What’s clear now that you are looking at the big picture?

4. Ask yourself, “What would make this fun?”

Oh, if we all asked that question more… what a world we’d create. Brainstorm ten ideas that would make the situation more fun. Then pick a few and experiment with them.

cat_laughing inside

5. Ask for a dream.

Ask your mind to work on the problem in your dreams. Give yourself a few days for the dream to show up. It maybe obviously relevant or connected through the language of metaphor.

6. Time travel.

Imagine a visit with a fulfilled, older version of yourself, one on the other side of this situation, fifteen or twenty years from now. Ask him or her how she navigated it. What was really important? What advice does he or she have for you?

mastermind then and now

7. Time travel (with the gear in reverse).

Pay a visit to your childhood self. Visit yourself as little girl or boy in one of your favorite childhood places. Sit down and play for a few minutes. Then ask that younger you what he or she makes of the situation, and what he or she would like you to do. What new possibilities do you see? What’s happening with the child in you?

8. Tell the truth.

Just tell the truth, including the parts that feel scary and vulnerable to share. Including the parts you’ve been repressing or avoiding. That unfailingly shakes things up and breaks stagnation. Be diplomatic, be kind, be your wise and sensitive self–but state your truth.

9. Take care of yourself.

In difficult situations, we typically focus on how they (those other crazy people) should be different, how they are wrong.

Bring your attention back to yourself. What do you need to do to take care of you? What do you need to protect your sanity, act in alignment with your integrity, and be the happy camper you want to be? Take care of your needs and watch your relationship to the situation change.

10. Draw some pictures.

Doodle, paint, make a collage. Borrow your kids’ crayons and draw. Let your right brain take over as you make some pictures about the situation. You’ll process and evolve your feelings as you do.

11. Surrender, completely.

Feeling like you are banging your head against a wall or swimming upstream signals a need for surrender. Surrendering doesn’t mean endorsing or even tolerating what is happening; it just means accepting reality.

State what is. Make peace with it. Take five deep breaths, breathing in what is. Let go into it. Notice what new possibilities or insights appear over the next few days.

12. Gather new information.

Speak with someone involved in the situation, who is likely to see it differently than you. Ask them five open-ended questions about the situation. Here are the rules: no statements or reactions on your part. Just brief, curious questions. No questions longer than ten words. No “yes/no” questions (i.e. “Do you think Jane is being unreasonable?”).

Ask “what” or “how” questions (“What do you think about all this?” “What do you think is needed to resolve the situation?”). Use all your experience watching legal dramas too: no leading questions.

13. Look for the pattern.

Something feeling familiar about this situation? Another jerk in authority? Another person abandoning you? Another situation where you are feeling betrayed or powerless or sad or whatever it is?

Look for the pattern. When in your life have you felt this way before? That will point you towards your part in creating the situation, your own issues and side of the street. Once you are looking there, your understanding of the situation will shift.

14. Get in the water.

Some day, science will be able to tell us why, I’m sure. For the meantime we can rely on personal experience to know that something magical happens with problem-solving when we bring our problems to water.

Take a shower, take a bath, go for a swim, or listen to water sounds near a fountain or on your computer. Water gets stuck stuff flowing.

15. Move.

I know CEOs who swear that their five-minute walks around the block are their most productive times of the day. Moving our bodies gets our minds and emotions moving. Only the crazy culture of mind-body separation we live with would have us think the best way to solve a problem is by sitting still at a desk thinking about it.

Take a walk, do some stretches, work out, or dance, and then see what has shifted.

16. Become the representative of love.

I don’t want to choose a favorite child from this list, but for me, the most powerful way to get unstuck is this one. I ask myself, “What would it look like to be the representative of love in this situation? What would it look like to bring love into the room, into the conversation?”

Or I set an intention, “May I be a representative of love.” This lifts me out of anxieties into a higher purpose. It reveals a new way to see things, uncovers new things that need to be said, and shows me what I (and my ego) can let go of. From there, I can have real impact.

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borrowed shamelessly from: http://tinybuddha.com/blog/16-ways-to-get-unstuck/  by Tara Sophia More

Am I the only one who hates the Maxi Skirt?

#youlooklikeasisterwife

Further to my last post: a minimalist wardrobe involves eschewing trendoid fashion, and one fashion item I will be glad to ban from my closet is the frumpy, soon to be dated maxi skirt or dress.

inspired-by-the-runway

I’ve seen these baggy items around campus, often being held up because for some reason the hems are dragging in the dirt. They do not look sexy, nor do they look professional, nor are they even all that comfortable when you factor in everything you have to do to keep them from being caught in car doors, getting caught under rolling chair wheels, or even off the toilet seat. That’s a lot of fabric to wrangle.

They look, in fact, like you are trying to hide your legs but still say you are wearing a skirt.

Say no to the maxi dress ladies. You’ll be throwing it in the Goodwill bag next year anyway. Respect the effort and ecological resources that goes into making fabric and clothes, and buy something that’s classic and will serve you for a long time.