A few weeks ago I got to be a chaperone for my son’s 4th grade trip to the Grand Canyon. I’ll say this, controlling a group of 10 year-old boys as they hike along the side of a few 1000 ft. cliffs added it’s fair share of grey hairs to my head. But we all survived and had a great time.
On the long bus ride home I had time to reflect on what we had seen during the day and I began see a correlation between the Grand Canyon and our personal habits. I know that sounds strange but that’s just the way my brain works. At least it makes for interesting blogging.
Anyway, at the bottom of the Grand Canyon flows the mighty Colorado River. It has cut it’s way down through the earth over thousands of years. But at some point, a long time ago, it was just a large stream. Maybe just a few feet deep in the middle, running it’s way over the rocky terrain. At that time, you probably could have changed it’s course by putting a foot down or by placing a few rocks in it’s path.
Fast forward thousands of years and that stream has become an enormous river. Not only that, it has cut a path into the solid rock that is over a mile deep. At this point, you could spend a lifetime trying to change the course of the river without any success. The path has become so engrained, and the canyon so deep that it’s course cannot be changed.
The Canyons in Your Brain
Within our brain, each of us has billions of cells, called neurons, that pass information to one another. Any time we perform an action, such as brushing our teeth, a certain set of neurons communicate with each other in a repeating pattern. They tell us to put paste on the brush, to raise our arm, to start with the back teeth, to brush in a circular motion, etc. Since we are hopefully brushing our teeth every day, a pathway or super highway of information forms between these cells. The more we do the action, the more engrained that pathway becomes. Eventually, something that was once new becomes something we can do without even thinking about it. Remember the first time you drove a car? Backing out of the driveway was difficult enough. But now you do it without even thinking. Once you put the car in reverse, the information highway takes over automatically and you back up without a second thought.
Everything we do comes down to streams or rivers of nerve impulses running through our brain. The things we have done for a long time, like walking, are deep channels, like the Grand Canyon. The newer things, like learning a new instrument, are just tiny little streams.
So the longer we have performed a habit, good or bad, the harder it will be for it to change. This is really the main reason why people have a hard time sticking to a diet or quitting smoking. You can put your foot down into the river all you want but if that river is deep, you will only disrupt the water a little but eventually it will push right through. The deeper the habit, the greater the dam you will need to build to redirect or stop the flow.
Habits also work in our favor and similar rivers of positive actions can also be created. They say it takes about 21 days for an action to become a habit. What they are really saying is that it takes 21 days for the pathways in our brain to be created so that we can perform the new task without so much of a struggle.
If you need help learning how to develop positive habits for success, you can check out my workbook “The 3-Week Miracle: 21 Days to Greater Happiness, Confidence and Success”
Strategies for Controlling Your Habits
1. Control the Spring. Many rivers start from a spring of water coming out of the earth. If you control when and where a river begins, you have a better chance of controlling which direction it flows. If you want to stop eating fast food, don’t drive by your favorite take-out place when you’re hungry. If you end up spending too much time on Facebook when you should be working, delete the Facebook link from your browser so it is just a little harder to get there. Find the triggers or circumstances that lead to the bad habit, and avoid them.
2. Change the Routine. If there are some bad habits you just can’t kick, look at the routine you fall into during the day. If the bad habit always happens at a certain time of day, a certain place, or with certain people, you may want to change the frequency with which you put yourself in those circumstances. I recently started a diet. I know if I schedule a meeting with certain friends, they will only want to do it over lunch. I know that if I am at lunch at some of the delicious restaurants around my office, I will most likely give in and order one of the most fattening things on the menu. So I have to change the time or location of our meetings in order to keep the “unhealthy eating river” from flowing.
3. Replace the Activity. Many people I have worked with have found that a great way to kick an old habit is to replace it with a new one. A lot of people begin working out more often. Some begin a new hobby like scrapbooking or learning a new instrument. Whenever they feel the urge to perform the negative habit, they use it as a cue to go and practice the new habit.
4. Carve the Canyon. When you have determined a success habit that you would like to add to your life, the key is repetition, repetition, repetition. The more you perform it, the quicker it will carve it’s path. It may take a few weeks but soon it will get easier and easier to the point that it will happen without you even thinking about it.
We all have thousands of habits. Some good and some that we’d like to change. Our character is entirely determined by our personal set of habits. The struggle for personal betterment is the struggle to overcome our bad habits and develop more good ones. Everything is a habit. (By now you have probably read our free e-Book Happiness Is a Habit). Successful people have developed a series of successful habits. Healthy people have healthy habits.
As we start a new habit, we must think of it like a stream. It’s course can be changed easily if we don’t act diligently to strengthen it’s path. But if we stick to it, soon that stream will carve it’s path deep into our character. It will begin to flow without our help, as if on auto-pilot, and we will reap the rewards.
I wish us all success as we put forth the required effort to change the course of our negative rivers and also the effort required to deepen our positive streams.