4 - Creating the Habits We Desire

Being present-minded is achieved in much the same way as any other habitual practice: it requires effort to apply and practice. It is all the more difficult for those who have fallen into the habit of being absent-minded, particularly if they are unaware of it. Disconnecting our thoughts from our actions does not make us efficient but "takes away all our real power."

Training oneself is much like training another person. You must first observe them to recognize what they are doing wrong. Then, suggest a more productive course of action. Then, remain attentive to ensure that the suggestion is followed and provide continued guidance and support until the suggestion becomes the normal way the student does things. Of importance, an instructor must be patient. He does not get emotional when his student doesn't understand or moves off the right path, but gently guides him back to where he ought to be. He accepts less-than-perfect performance because it is progress. He goes back to the example of tossing balls into a can - each throw gets you closer to success.

How we think is a pattern of behavior, and as such the disconnection of thought and action is something we have fallen into or learned. That is to say, it's a habit. Habits are behaviors that have become routine because they were at some point practiced, became familiar, and then because the default choice we make. With some efforts, these defaults can be reset.

The formation of habits has been very closely studied by behavioral scientists and sports psychologists. Sports, in particular, demonstrates the way in which habits are changed - the way a person instinctively tries to throw a ball is modified and rewired through instruction and practice. In boxing and the martial arts, it's seen that a motion and a response is learned in a manner than makes it precise and lightning-fast.

Getting to that point requires effort and a great deal of careful repetition, practicing motions hundreds of times until the patterns become ingrained in the mind. Replacing mental habits works in the same way - with exercise and repetition, consciously modeling the desired patterns of thought in the same way an athlete practices patterns of physical movement.

He goes back to golf: each time a golfer approaches a shot, of any kind, he sets himself physically to swing the club at the ball. But he is at the same time talking to himself, setting himself mentally to do what he knows needs to be done.

A particular problem in changing habits is overcoming the old ones, and the author reckons this has to do with triggers. Some stimuli cause us to act in response, and by becoming aware of the way in which this works should enable us to recognize the triggers that lead us to act or think in non-productive ways, to stop ourselves from doing so, or to rewire the trigger to activate a better and more productive response.

A less oblique example is recognizing that when a coworker makes an irritating remark, you tend to react in a manner that does not serve you well. Once you realize you are doing this, you can plan a better response and attempt to remember it when you experience the trigger. The trigger may not be his remark, but the "pop" of emotion you feel. Instead of letting that result in a negative response, associate it to a behavior (such as remaining silent for a few seconds while you consider a proper reply).

(EN: No mention here as to how one might practice this - seems to be something that is done in real-time, or something one fails to do. Perhaps it's a not a very good example because it requires another person to invoke the trigger? If your goal is to be present-minded, that's entirely internal.)

He shifts to another habit - such as watching too much television - in which you could focus on associating the act of picking up the remote control and learn to associate it with a different choice than turning on the television right away. (EN: Physical habits like this are easier to address by making some change to the object. Putting the remote in a different place, keeping it in a sleeve, or gluing a grain of rice to the power button will also cause there to be something a little different that gives a person pause and reminds them to stop and think.)