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"What's a typical day like for you?"

Habits shape us for better or for worse.

"What's a typical day like for you?" is often one of the first questions I ask a new client. This simple question is so revealing. Even my clients who consider themselves to be spontaneous or "not a schedule person" divulge nuanced habits and routines that shape their days and lives. We've all heard the expression that humans are "creatures of habit" and I'd argue that's for good reason.

The American Occupational Therapy Association defines habits as "specific behaviors that are often performed automatically or without much thought, [which] may be healthy or unhealthy, efficient or inefficient, and supportive or harmful" (2020). The very automaticity of these behaviors is what make them so powerful, yet so challenging to change. When a behavior becomes automatic, it can bypass the grueling executive functioning stage and take place with very little cognitive effort. When the behavior is favorable, this shortcut saves us time and energy.

"Habits are specific behaviors that are often performed automatically or without much thought, [which] may be healthy or unhealthy, efficient or inefficient, and supportive or harmful" (AOTA, 2020).

When we wish to change a habit or develop a new one, we have to assume a level of "conscious incompetence." In other words, we're bad at it and we know that. With repetition within the right conditions, this effortful chore slowly becomes and "unconscious competence"-- we're good at it and we don't even think about it. This evolution is the foundation of every habit we have. By investing effort and time in the beginning, we lessen the load in the longer term. A great superpower of the human brain!

But, with great power comes great responsibility. When a behavior is destructive it can just as easily become automatized. In fact, many destructive behaviors trigger rush of pleasurable neurotransmitters that may reinforce that habit more quickly. So, how do we use this superpower for good rather than evil?

  1. Bring unhealthy habits to your awareness

    1. Making your habits conscious recruits your executive function team, which allows you greater cognitive control of your behavior.

  2. Setup obstacles

    1. Make it super inconvenient and annoying to engage in destructive habit. I was working with a client who was trying to curb impulsive online spending so he would freeze his credit cards in big blocks of ice. If he wanted to make a purchase he had to go into the freezer, pull out these ridiculous blocks, and wait for them to melt. Usually by the time the cards were free he no longer felt he needed the item.

  3. Identify what the habit was achieving

    1. What was the habit doing for you? Was it helping you feel relaxed? Temporarily boosting your self-confidence? Giving you a rush of dopamine?

  4. Search for a healthier replacement

    1. How can you meet that need in a more favorable way?

  5. Make it painfully easy to engage in the replacement

    1. Do the opposite of number 2. Be realistic with your habit change. Start small. Keep the book on your nightstand. Put cut up fruit and veggies on the most easily accessible shelf in your fridge. You get the idea.

  6. Setup extrinsic motivators

    1. Celebrate little wins. Tell your loved ones about your new habit. Find a buddy with whom to adopt the new habit.

So, what's a typical day like for you? What habits are shaping you?

-Rachel Robertson, OTR/L

Certified Brain Injury Specialist

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