July 17th, 2008

How to Break Bad Habits: Get out of Autopilot Mode

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Autopilot Engaged
What is autopilot mode? One way to describe it would be your morning routine- You get up, brush your teeth, shower, and get dressed, all without thinking about it. This is good, because you wouldn’t want to have to consciously think through repetitive tasks. But the problem is when bad habits and behaviors become automatic. For example, if you made a habit of waking up each day in a bad mood and thinking negative thoughts, this could have a negative impact on the rest of your day.

How Autopilot Mode is initiated

A growing body of research suggests that as little as 5 percent of our behaviors are made consciously. This means that as much as 95 percent of what we do occurs in autopilot mode- meaning that most skills and behaviors you learn eventually becomes automatic habits. For example, when learning to ride a bike, you tried pushing the pedals, but you couldn’t stay balanced, so you fell down. If you decided not to give up and repeated practice, you eventually improved your balance. One day, bike riding became an automatic habit for you- you didn’t even have to think about it any more.

This is beneficial for learning new skills and positive habits, but what about negative mindsets and bad habits? What if you repeated being impatient with friends and family members, until it became automatic? To break this bad habit, you would need to learn how to get out of autopilot mode:

How to Break Bad Habits by getting out of Autopilot Mode

With practice, whenever you revert back to your old self, you can detect this and interrupt the program.

-Joe Dispenza,

1) Create an Anti-Bad-Habit Habit

Every time you feel yourself falling into a habitual negative mindset or bad habit:

1) Focus on a word or phrase that has a positive meaning to you. Words like “one,” “love”, “peace”, or “evolve” work well.

2) If you find your mind has wandered, or you notice any intrusive thoughts entering your mind, simply disregard them and return your focus to your word or phrase.

After repetition, you will create an anti-negative-habit habit. Just don’t angrily yell your phrase like Frank does in Seinfeld episode Serenity Now, otherwise you might create a habit just as bad as your original one!

Example of using this method correctly: Tim has a bad habit of being impatient when interacting with peers at work, family members, and the cashier after waiting in line at the store- he creates a positive habit of saying to himself “kindness matters.” This makes him consciously aware of how he wants to behave in the situation, and is then able to break his bad habit.

2) Mentally rehearse your day without the bad habit

See yourself in your imagination taking positive, intelligent action toward solving a problem or reaching a goal. See yourself reacting to threats, not by running away or evading them, but by meeting them, dealing with them, and grappling with them in an aggressive and intelligent manner.

-Maxwell Maltz,

For 20-30 minutes each morning, go somewhere quiet, close your eyes, and in your mind, go through your day. Think of all the times throughout your day that you typically act out the bad habit or behavior. Now instead of acting that same behavior, choose an alternate, more positive behavior, and mentally rehearse that behavior.

After doing this mental rehearsal for several days, you will notice that you start acting on that mental image, and molding your reality to match it. This is because your brain cannot actually tell the difference between mental rehearsal and reality. Professional athletes use this same trick to mentally practice and improve their game.

As an alternative, you can use lucid dreaming for this mental rehearsal. To learn more about lucid dreaming, sign up for your Free Lucid Dreaming Starter Handbook.

3) Closely examine your friendships

Are you friends reinforcing your bad habit, or are they supportive of you breaking it? You need to closely examine your friendships and determine if they are enabling you to continue this negative behavior, or helping you break it. If they continue to enable/reinforce you to continue your bad habit, it may be time to re-think your friendships. You should consider how truly dedicated you are about breaking your bad habit, and what sacrifices you may have to make along the way.

4) Focus energy on a positive habit that will replace the bad habit, versus the bad habit you are trying to resist

Read my post on creating consistent daily habits. Use the tips there to apply toward the positive habit you are introducing into your life. Specifically:

  • You must practice the new positive habit, breaking your bad habit, each day consistently for the first 21 days
  • You must be accountable to yourself
  • You must accept yourself

5) Initiate your change in small increments

If nothing succeeds like success, it is equally true that nothing fails like excess. Because change requires moving beyond our comfort zone, it is best initiated in small and manageable increments.

-Jim Loehr and Tony Schwartz, The Power of Full Engagement

If you are trying to break a highly-addictive bad habit such as smoking, quitting cold turkey is often setting yourself up for failure- incremental change is the way to succeed. Make a plan to smoke less cigarettes during your first week, with the longer-term goal of quitting.

Creative Commons License photo credit: Mike Miley

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