Habit formation is widely touted as a pillar of self-improvement. Many best-selling self-help books have touched on this subject, if not focusing on it entirely. The appeal is understandable: you’ll make progress if you can automate good behavior and throw a wrench into the machinery of bad habits.
But for many people, self-driven habit change comprises only part of the equation. It works well enough in the medium term, but new habits also tend to be metastable: a small shock or push threatens to break them down. Thus, many of us get stuck despite attempts to tackle the habit-based angle of personal development.
The deeper problem is that we carry weight around our necks in the form of emotional baggage. Those underlying issues need to be addressed before we can move forward.
Modes of thinking
Daniel Kahneman breaks down how our minds work into two modes in the book, thinking, Fast and Slow. Psychologists call them System 1 and 2 thinking.
System 1 leans heavily towards automaticity. It allows us to make snap judgments and heuristic decisions with minimal effort or voluntary involvement. It’s a powerful mechanism that’s been evolved to enable our survival, but it can also be supplemented with learning.
System 2, on the other hand, requires us to concentrate and process complex decisions. It engages our attention and effort and is easily disrupted. So, most of the time, we let System 1 handle most of our actions and put System 2 on cruise control until something unusual or hard comes up.
These modes of thinking tie into the challenges we face when attempting to effect lasting change in our lives.
Obstacles to change
A study on barriers to lifestyle change found that participants identified two main obstructions: old negative habits and emotional baggage from prior negative experiences.
When we try to build better habits and break down undesirable ones, we attempt to improve the brain’s ability to go on autopilot. We’re trying to add learned, carefully selected behaviors to our System 1 so that we can avoid invoking System 2 every time we try to do the right thing.
Emotional baggage prevents a lot of people from achieving that goal. Unpleasant associations, often stemming from early childhood, can trigger the wrong responses through System 1 heuristics. And when we rouse System 2 into action, it can be swayed by those same feelings of psychological distress.
How do people effectively resolve those deep-rooted personal issues? While there’s no one-size-fits-all solution, a standard method involves talking and building self-awareness.
It seems trite, but talk does build towards constructive solutions.
Social norms heavily influence default behaviors. Consider something as simple as baldness, which can easily affect one’s self-esteem. Yet, baldness is more commonly encountered in men due to genetics and testosterone.
This might seem to make baldness a more significant problem among men, but because it’s normalized, men are more willing to talk about it and find solutions. Or they may find it easier to accept it and age gracefully.
The experience is different for the ladies. Effective hair loss treatments for women are available, but lack of discourse makes it more likely for individuals to suffer in silence or take the wrong course of action.
Emotional baggage works in the same way. Our norms discourage us from airing our laundry in public. We’re told to put a brave face on, buckle down, and grit out difficulties.
Perseverance is admirable, but if you don’t talk about the issues that are skewing your decision-making systems, you’ll be running in circles, if not heading down the wrong path.
Become a self-manager
Self-awareness is one of the vital components of personal improvement. There are different behavioral choices we make, leading to different outcomes. The ‘right’ behavior often contradicts our established habits or preferences, which is why actual lifestyle change is so hard to achieve.
Thus, the next step is to develop your skill of self-management. Having fleshed out and acknowledged the emotional burdens you’re carrying, you need to intentionally make the choices that are best aligned with your goals. This involves System 2 thinking, which helps you recognize the situations where change is most needed and apply the corresponding effort.
Habits remain an essential part of this endeavor. Ultimately, you’ll still want to automate your behavior so that doing the right thing and making the correct decisions can be handled by System 1 as much as possible.
By confronting your emotional baggage, you set the foundation for better habits to be laid down and lasting changes to take effect in your journey towards self-improvement.