Thursday, August 01, 2013

Making Habits Stickier

Build Habits That Stick by Anchoring Them to Your Old Habits

I'm sure you're doubting that you have habits that are so worthy that you want them stronger than they already are.  You do.  Everyone does.  We all have good habits that help us get through our days with flair and enthusiasm along with the bad ones we'd so dearly love to ditch.  The key is to make the good habits stickier than (or at least as sticky as) the bad ones.

Regular readers of this blog have probably already finished the assignment from several weeks ago that involved buying, borrowing, or otherwise getting access to a book entitled Made To Stick, by Chip and Dan Heath.  The Heaths have analyzed what makes some ideas stay around while others languish and disappear.  It's worth checking out if only to prove to yourself that still have space in your brain for something new and different and without a direct connection to horses and/or Facebook.  The Heaths' premise is directly related to that of today's article.  If you can find some way to hook a new idea onto the coattails of an old one (even if the old one was bad from the get-go), it will endure with less effort than a free-floating, disconnected thought requires.  Consider how hard it is to learn a foreign language that includes a non-Western alphabet.  I rest my case.  I spent a great deal of time attempting unsuccessfully to teach myself Mandarin.  I am convinced there is nothing residing in my brain that wants to hook up with those beautiful little pictographs.

Anchoring new habits to old ones uses the same mental processes as anchoring new thoughts to old ones.  A few weeks back I gave you the name of the part of your brain that makes its living looking for novelty and sameness.  It's that brain piece that you are going to activate.

Let's assume that you have already identified a habit you would dearly love to make your own and which is defying your attempts to stick it firmly into your constellation of behaviors.  Perhaps it's something so different from what you normally do that you find yourself relapsing to the prior bad habit.  Maybe it's just close enough to your existing pattern that you can't quite seem to separate it and give it life.  Or it could be that you have an overweening bad habit that is blocking your attempts.

Leo would very much like me to replace my habit of
dressing him funny with something more dignified, like
setting up a cookie buffet in the barn aisle.

I, for instance, have developed over years of careful fostering the habit of nit-picking.  This is not a good habit most of the time.  It serves a purpose in that it keeps me on top of a lot of things simultaneously (or so I'd like to believe), but in truth it belies a level of distractability that probably isn't healthy.  Yesterday I had just finished tacking up the Zipster for a ride when he pooped.  Yep.  He did it right there in the cross-ties.  Happens every time, almost as if he plans it that way.  We were all ready to go, and since he was being very cooperative almost to the point of seeming anxious to get to work, I should have just left the pile and come back to it later.  But I didn't.  I did what I always do; I tied him again and went for the muck fork and bucket.  And the broom.  And the dust pan.  And a cookie reward for his patiently lapsing into a near coma while I fussed around.

 I would like to replace that silliness with the habit of following through on my plan without interruption.  I need to find a good habit to which the new one can be linked strongly enough to override the current arrangement.  I'm very good about approaching the grooming and tacking-up piece very methodically so that nothing is forgotten or left unchecked.  It should be possible to connect the new habit of simply moving forward with my planned activity to that system.  Making it part of the plan is undoubtedly the best option.

It's easy, at this point, to see how this also applies to horse training.  Find a good habit similar enough to the new process you're trying to implant and link them together.  If Happy Feet is excellent about standing for grooming, tacking, clipping and so on, connecting standing at the mounting block should be simple enough.  It can be done by adding a small behavior to the end of the first habitual behavior (say, shift left, shift right, step back, stand) which can also be added to the new behavior to make them seem connected.  If consistency is part of the equation, it shouldn't be long before fidgeting, spinning, side-stepping and other antics are supplanted by just standing.  Joy!

So read the article (and the book, if you skipped that assignment), and see what you can fix with just a few changes to your perspective on the whole learning thing.



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