The Illusions That Habits Create In Our Minds

The Illusions That Habits Create In Our Minds

Which side of you face (or which leg) do you shave first? Seem trivial? Well, not as much as you might think.  Go ahead, try it tomorrow morning and ask yourself how you feel. New research on habits teach that most likely, changing our daily ritual for something as seemingly trivial as how we shave will cause us at least a degree of discomfort. 

It turns out that sixty percent of what we do daily is by virtue of rote habit. How we wake up, cleanse ourselves, get to work, talk on the phone, use the computer, react to noise, work out; all of it we do as habitual pattern. 

In some regards, the fact that we habituate so many aspects of our lives is one of our privileged human qualities. Just imagine the time and energy we would have to exert if we lived every part of our day with absolute intention.  Nothing would get done and it would take us forever to get anyplace.

Apparently the front part of our brains is responsible for intention and making plans. The back part is for sustaining our habits, so we can live with the ability to multitask. In this manner, we accomplish so much of what we do without thinking. For shaving, washing our hair and brushing our teeth, this is an expedient gift given to human beings. However, we find ourselves in spiritual trouble when we allow the parts of our lives to which we really need to pay attention get tangled up in the part of the brain which is responsible for rote habit.

With washing our hair we don’t have to worry so much, but when we allow food, alcohol, communication, guilt, anger, resentment, and jealousy to be relegated to habit, we find ourselves struggling. 

I write above that sixty percent of our brain helps navigates our ordinary tasks by way of habit.  The problem occurs when we allow our more important activities, vital to our spiritual and emotional wellbeing, be taken care of by that same sixty percent.

It happens more easily than we might think.  We eat, drink, get angry, jealous, resentful without thinking, for too many days in a row and slowly, but surely, it becomes what we do. In effect, we move the action from the intentional part of our brain to the rote part. We give over our power to habitual regularity and it feels impossible to rein it in.

Science teaches us that our brains are like a dirt road. The more we drive down a certain path, the more our car will automatically fit into that same groove in the road day after day. Even when we attempt to drive a bit to the left or right of the indented groove, the car just feels more comfortable on its original track… and so the cycle continues.  And, the more we cycle in the same manner, the more comfortable we feel, even when the activity itself is bad for us.

Our brains actually start to send us signals that we can’t change because the brain doesn’t want to have to work that hard. Our brains, in this sense, are working against us, telling us that our actions are who we are and we can’t do anything, but act in the same manner over and over again.  That’s why I ask you above to test this theory: simply by changing the way you do something as simple as shaving.

If changing our shaving habit is difficult, just imagine how complex is it to change the way we behave.

But, here is the good news: our minds are only playing games with us. Science tells us that we can change almost anything about ourselves. The more entrenched we are in any specific habit, the harder it is to change and the more we will try to convince ourselves that we can’t alter our course. But that is just our natural instincts telling us that we don’t like being uncomfortable.  Of course, we don’t. But once we create new tracks on our proverbial dirt roads, we can feel as comfortable living in a healthy manner as we did in our in unhealthy ways… and, of course, we will also, in turn, be happier and healthier people.

I write this to you as a fellow sufferer of some bad habits. But, I am determined in this beautiful fall season of change to create new tracks because in doing so, we can all embrace this beautiful, complex gift that we call life.


Matt Gewirtz

Matthew D. Gewirtz is the Senior Rabbi at Congregation B'nai Jeshurun in Short Hills, New Jersey. He is the author of The Gift of Grief: Finding Peace, Transformation and Renewed Life after Great Sorrow? (Random House). A strong advocate of social justice, Matt Gewirtz is a founding executive committee member of the Newark Coalition for Hope and Peace, an interfaith organization of Jews, Christians and Muslims that is committed to ending gang violence in Newark. Matt Gewirtz strives to find joy and meaning in his daily life and is committed to helping do the same for others. His greatest joy comes from his wife, Lauren and their three beautiful children.

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