Leadership

How Habits Can Get in the Way of Your Goals

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The human primitive brain, otherwise known as the limbic system, has developed over millions of years. Our ancestors had three straight forward goals that they needed to keep in mind if they were going to survive. These goals were:

  1. Find food
  2. Find a mate
  3. Stay safe from predators

Humans had only their superior intelligence to rely upon. Unlike other animals we did not have great strength or speed, sharp teeth or the like. The primitive brain developed in such a way to help us achieve these three goals.

Habits, those automated actions we repeat at regular intervals, help us achieve goals. Want to lose weight? Make a habit of eating breakfast instead of skipping it. Want to write a novel? Make it a habit to wake up a half hour early and write.

In one study, University of Southern California psychology and business professor Wendy Wood and her colleagues asked college students to record what they were doing at one-hour intervals for a day or two: studying, exercising, or socializing, for example. They also asked students how they felt about that behavior on a scale that ranged from very negative to very positive.

Wood found that when performing habitual behaviors, students reported feeling less intense emotions—and, in particular, less pride. This was true even when the behaviors had once been enjoyable, like watching TV or hanging out with friends. It was also true for behaviors that were important to achieving long-term goals, Wood says. Working and studying, two activities that contribute to a future career, were not especially pleasant or unpleasant for students when performed habitually.

How to establish habits to help you meet your goals?

One way that people overcome this challenge is by figuring out how to add interest, fun, or passion back into those habits that move them toward their goal. You add passion back into a marriage by doing things you find fun together: going on date nights, for example. You can make habits compelling again in the same way.

When we are curious we stop fearing our habits and reacting automatically to our habitual patterns. We activate our modern brain and are able to reflect more effectively on what we are doing in a scientific and isolated way. So next time you experience an unwanted habit or find yourself focused on short-term goals try to engage your long-term modern brain and become curious about what you are doing.