The present moment holds the secret key to how to change habits.
I talked myself out of going to yoga. This was certainly not the first time I had not followed through on a plan. On this particular day, however, it occurred to me that one of the reasons we may not follow through on all the plans, goals, and ideals we hold for ourselves is that the self that makes the plan is not the self that is present at the time that the action is supposed to occur.
In a sense, you can never choose to do something in the future. You can only make that choice in the actual moment that you are going to do the thing in question. So all the times that we decide to do something later and manage to follow through, it is because we were in a similar mental state at the time of the original decision and the time that the action was carried out. In both moments in time, we had similar values, priorities, motives, emotional state, etc.
However, our state of mind is not always the same. If it were, we would stick to diets and exercise programs, instantaneously quit smoking, drinking, or over-eating, keep up with old friends and to-do lists, and generally achieve every goal we set for ourselves. So what can we do to become a more consistent “self”?
If we hold an ideal for ourselves yet fail to take the actions necessary to achieve that ideal, it is because we have not made that specific behavior a habit. The behavior is not a habit because the state of mind required for the behavior is not a habit. If our ability to follow through on an action depends on the state of mind we are in, then it follows that we need to make a habit out of being our highest selves in order to achieve ideals we set for ourselves.
Allow me to make a simplistic and dualistic example here using the complex concept of the “self”. Let’s say the self can vary in quality, measured on a continuum where on one ends we have the “higher self”, the best most remarkable person we are capable of being, while far on the other end lurks “lower self” a rather lazy specimen that gives in to every craving and has little regard for consequences.
The habits we develop are then a result of allegiance. In each moment, you can make the choices that higher self would make, or you can give in to the demands of the lower self.
The key here is that you must be present and consciously aware when a choice is being offered to you. Instead of having that second helping of pie, you have the opportunity to pause and notice that you are not just choosing if you want more pie – you are choosing which habits you nurture and where your allegiance is. You can be aware that you want the pie, but still choose not to have it because passing it up is in line with the goals of your higher self. Then next time you have the same choice it will actually be easier to choose the healthier option. Do this again and again, and you will develop the habit of choosing health. Yet each time, the choice can only be made in that tiny present moment.
It is only in these present moments that you can change your habits. Setting big broad goals for ourselves like “I will eat better and exercise” does not work if we aren’t aware of the constant choices we will have to make in order to achieve that goal.
The human brain is actually perfectly suited to this type of habit training. Our brain functions through vast networks of neurons. As we use certain connections over and over again, these connections strengthen and the behavior becomes natural and automatic, just like when we learn to drive a car. Likewise, when we stop using certain neural networks, the brain slowly trims off those connections. We can basically re-wire ourselves to be who we want to be through our habits.
Once you realize you want to change something about yourself (the way your mind works, your emotional patterns, your habits, and so forth) you are ready to take the first steps. We’ve all set goals only to find that we fall off the wagon. A goal we set one day doesn’t seem as great or possible a few days later. Maybe we are tired, or our energy is just shifted on some level. No matter what the cause is, we seem to encounter resistance, either from within ourselves or from the outside world.
The key is to see this resistance as the opportunity you have been waiting for. This is your chance to take the other path in the fork on the road. Welcome these moments of struggle, because every time you can find the strength to choose the higher option you planned for yourself, the more you are building new connections in your mind. The more difficult it is for you to take an action that overrides any resistance, the more powerful the effect will be of sticking to your plan.
By choosing to follow through with the positive behavior despite the resistance you felt, you reinforce the connections in your brain that will make it easier to choose the same behavior in the future. These are the moments to train your brain to adhere to your higher self’s wisdom. The more often you can overcome the resistance, the quicker your old habits and patterns die off. This is the path to change.
Like a vendor that comes around that has gotten lots of business from you in the past, say “No thank you. I’m not buying any today.” – Gangaji