Three steps to overcome your habitual patterns

By Todd Mitchem

(excerpt from Todd’s book, YOU DISRUPTED)

Tom screamed out to his fellow employee, “Fine! You figure it out.” And it was in that moment of my observation of this leader that I knew he had a huge trigger, a Habitual Why or deep dysfunctional reason for his overreactions to certain feedback from his team. It would not be until we sat alone together over lunch that Tom revealed to me his deep Habitual reason for his behavior. While he was a very successful leader, this one barrier was holding him back from true fulfillment; it was not only showing up at work, his personal life was suffering as well.

Can you recall the last time you, like Tom, lost your temper, yelled at someone in traffic for cutting you off, or felt that you simply wanted to scream at someone? Well, you have everything you need to change these deep habitual reasons for your destructive and negative behaviors; the ones which hold you back from your own potential for success, for reaching your goals, and for having the life you always wanted to have. These habitual reasons are based on things in your mind that you can change and control—so don’t miss out on a chance to change them. Like Tom, you can turn these Habitual Whys into Intentional Whys, but first you need to discover what caused them and how the habits were created.

Charles Duhigg, in his book The Power of Habit, explores the science behind how habits are formed in the mind. Charles writes, “It turns out that every habit starts with a psychological pattern called a "habit loop," which is a three-part process. First, there's a cue, or trigger, that tells your brain to go into automatic mode and let a behavior unfold. Then there's the routine, or the action, which is the behavior itself. The third step, he says, is the reward: something that your brain likes that helps it remember the "habit loop" in the future, like the dopamine effect of screaming.”

In Tom’s case, the habit was formed at a very early age. When he was a child, he had a learning disability and his family, even his own father, reminded him of it each day. Sometimes people who were the closest to him would make fun of him and call him stupid because of his impairment. This emotional destruction embedded two habits into Tom’s mind. The first one was a deep desire to achieve and overcome his disability; the second habit was to develop a defensive strategy for attacking anyone around him who triggered his emotion of “I am stupid.” This was a very old and deep habitual reaction that he developed as a child.

I spent time with Tom going over ways he could change the Habitual Why for his dysfunctional behavior into a deeper and more powerful Intentional Why. You, just like Tom, may have many goals in your life and you may desire more out of your current situation. If you are ready to break through those obstacles, you will need these three steps to achieve success.

1) Discover what started the Habitual Why – The Trigger: As I asked Tom to do, you will need to look at your past and find those moments, usually as a child, when your trigger was installed. Was a parent verbally rude to you? Did you get bullied in school? Did your sibling call you stupid and other names? Did you nearly die in a plane crash? Regardless of the moment the Habit Loop was formed, it can be broken, but first you must identify its origin.

2) Is this true?: The second step in breaking the habit is to ask, “Is this true?” In other words, if you feel a deep sense of “I always fail,” you will need to ask yourself at the exact moment that thought occurs in your mind, “Is that true?” Almost always, the answer will be NO, because you have not failed at everything. You did not fail at getting out of bed. You did not fail at answering email or drinking your coffee. So, you, in fact, do not fail at “everything.” You will have to do this with whatever trigger you are trying to overcome. Yes, this is work that you will have to do on yourself. When you feel the emotions caused by a trigger coming over you and launching you into a habit, stop. Think about it and ask yourself “Is that true?” Here’s how Tom caught and diffused his trigger at a meeting: Tom offered a solution to a problem that was being discussed, but his co-worker said, “I think we have to direct that problem in a different direction.” To you, this may not seem like a negative response, but to Tom this answer set off an alarm that the co-worker was insulting his intelligence. So, knowing that this was his trigger, Tom took a breath and bravely asked, “Did you say that you thought I was stupid or that my idea was stupid?” The co-worker then said, “Not at all, I was saying we just need to tweak the idea.” Tom suddenly realized that his trigger of “I am stupid” was not based in reality.  This applies to your own life: by discovering the reality that your trigger is not true at all, you further break the loop of an already formed habit and start to head toward the third and final step of breaking that routine.

3) Build the Intentional Why: The third step in breaking the habit is to build a new core reason for why you want to break the habit; the reason must be more powerful to you than keeping the old habit. For Tom, it involved getting clear about why he wants to be successful in his business and personal life. He found that it was far more important to have a loving, happy marriage and get promoted to Senior Vice President at his company than it was to stay in the bad habit of dysfunction. The same holds true for you. There are things in your life which are far more important than screaming at people or causing destruction, mostly self-inflicted, in your life. You will need to find an Intentional Why that is powerful enough to overcome the Habitual Why, which will still attempt to inflict damage in your life. If you want to be a better spouse, parent, or simply achieve better results at work, you will need to ask yourself “What is my Habitual Why, when or why did it originate,” and then determine if it’s important enough to you to turn a habitual pattern into an intentional action. You must find an Intentional Why that is more powerful to you than staying in your old habitual routine. Isn’t it time you start to improve your habits?

Remember, if you want to reach a new place in life, achieving more than you are now in ANY area, you will need to create new behaviors, now. Where you are now is a result of the past, the many years that you have tried to convince yourself to do something about a goal or change a behavior. The same is true for the future that you are creating; you need to start now. Every time you break a negative habitual loop to create a new Intentional Why in your life, you are driving toward a new future: a future of success, money, health, and, of course, self-esteem. Rest assured, you may fall back on your Habitual Why as you are learning to break the habit; it’s all part of changing a behavior. However, don’t make an excuse to keep that habit and compound it with other excuses. Instead, own it and learn from it. When you are applying this learning in your life: own it and make the change toward more intentional ways of behaving.  Can you imagine how good it will feel to leave the baggage filled with those triggers behind as you journey into your new future? You will arrive at your new successful future and achieve your goals much faster.

To watch the entire story about Tom, click the video below.

Todd Mitchem