, ,

Yesterday this post was about the big-life questions, and a short-term variation on what we should be doing now was, “Is our life just being attracted to the most magnetic question of the present moment?” Perhaps that is what life is all about, just doing what feels right at the moment, and what feels right at the moment is dependent on what happens to attract our attention at the moment. Much of the time our attention is attracted to something positive, and other times it is attracted to something painful or potentially painful.

The analogy of the magnet is appropriate because magnets attract at a small distance and when touching it clings tightly. The magnetic idea is a good representation of the more accepted psychological term confirmation bias, which is the idea that we are attracted to and cling to things and ideas that agree with what we already like and believe. If you have had some experience with a smooth flat magnet pressed against a smooth flat iron surface you are aware of how surprisingly strong they can be. To remove such a magnet from its surface can best be done by sliding it across the surface and off the edge. Pulling straight up is impossible, sometimes.

With an idea locked onto one’s habitual processes it may also be impossible to simply try to eliminate a habit directly, that is, to simply say no to a habit and try not to do it. Last month I did a simple experiment where I tried setting my eating utensil down between every bite. Even after weeks of attempting to squelch the normal habit of holding the utensil between bites I would frequently fail. If so seemingly simple a thing can’t be modified, there must be powerful things driving the habit to exhibit itself. The idea here is that a long-term habit is like a magnet clinging directly to an iron surface. I have tried experiments where I try to watch for the stimulus that comes right before the action, and at that moment choose to do the alternate action. That sounds good, but it does require being conscious of the expected stimulus, and then conscious of the intended new action, and then doing this new action to that stimulus many times before it becomes automatic.

Is it possible that there might be a way of sliding the habit off to the side, instead of trying to remove it by pulling directly? What would sliding to the side consist of when trying to change a habit? One possibility is to only do certain things when in the presence of certain people, like when I am with old people I behave differently than when with young adults or children. Or another example could be, when eating using utensils as in the experiment above, only eat when the utensils are placed on the opposite side of the plate from their usual position, and then using the opposite hands for the usual operations. That would remind you to do the new action, in this case putting the utensil down between each bite. This experiment isn’t intended to create a good habit, but only to illustrate how difficult it is to change or extinguish a habit. I can write about these things and they will mean nothing, but do the experiment for a month and you will probably discover things about yourself.

We are driven by our habits of proving we are right in what we are doing.