Do you have free will? How often do you exercise it throughout your day? If you really stop and think about it, you may realize that much of what you do is habitual—that is, a large portion of your time is spent doing routine activities. Habits are things we do regularly and often, to the point that we no longer need to think about them; they have their foundations in neurology, and specifically, within our memory.
Procedural memory is the neurological process involved in doing things. Different from declarative memory, which is knowing things—facts, figures, and trivia, for example—procedural memory works at the level of the unconscious mind. In other words, we don’t have to think too much about the processes being carried out—they become part of our neurological wiring.
Not every procedural memory process is habit, as many are simply needed for normal functioning like walking, washing or cleaning oneself, or finding and preparing food. In the modern world, it would also include things like operating machinery—cell phones, computers, cars, or for some, even flying airplanes. We learn them, and then they become a natural part of our everyday lives.
What are Habits?
Habits, however, are a subset of procedural processes, such that whatever we do often enough (not necessarily a function or common to all people) becomes lodged into our procedural memory. Consider what it was like when you first started wearing a wrist watch or a wedding ring—probably unusual at first, but then it just became habit.
And, of course, there are the obvious ‘bad’ habits, like smoking or nail biting, ones which we work so hard to break; but what we often don’t realize is that some of the ways in which we spend our time can also act as bad habits. These distractors, or ‘time killers’, actually prevent us from starting or carrying out what we would really love in life. So, if not careful, we may find ourselves living in habitual low priorities instead of within our inspired purpose.
How much of your day is spent taking part in low priority habits?
Television watching, social media, marathon texting—while each one of these may be entertaining, and maybe even serve a useful function for some, for most people, they are just distractors.
Okay, so we have all succumbed to low priority actions at one time or another—we don’t have to beat ourselves up about it. But as I asked earlier, do you think you have free will? In the sense that you have the capacity to consciously change any pattern in your life, then yes you do. Compulsive overeating, drug abuse, giving in to victim mentality—all of these are habits—and you have a choice to create different ones in your life (especially your thinking).
Creating New Habits
Creating new habits—ones aligned with your greater purpose—starts with knowing your values. If you fail to identify, and align with, your highest values, you will never connect to your life’s purpose. Without knowing what you would love in life, it’s pretty hard to establish which habits are best to serve you; so I encourage you to get in-touch with what you love the most—and don’t stress about it, because you know; just listen to your heart.
When you get in-touch with your values, you can determine which habits will serve you the best, whether that’s reading a new book every week, saving 10% of your income regularly, doing your daily yoga practice, or waking up at 5 am every morning. And it will require repetition: Anything that you do over and over again becomes lodged into your procedural memory and becomes habit over time.
I find that the best way to break old habits is by starting new ones. Listen, I’ve kicked cigarettes, and I’ve kicked drugs, so I know how to break habits; and at least one essential factor is to establish new patterns. But beware—if the new habit is not aligned with your highest values, then you won’t do it for very long, that I can assure you.
So you’ve got to start by knowing yourself. What are your highest values, and what inspires you? Being in-tune with these will make breaking old habits and starting new ones easier than you think.
We do have free will. And, although we don’t actually exercise it throughout much of our day, the ability to make decisions about how we want our lives to go is a power we all possess. Identify your highest values, and set your habits accordingly, and then watch your inspired life unfold. This is the true marvel of the human mind.