Habitual behavior vs Learned behavior

stylish man in eyeglasses smoking in dark room

Let’s look at typical traits of habits:

  1. Habits are deeply ingrained.
  2. They compel us to respond in a specific way.
  3. They become the default response.
  4. They may develop from a certain set of circumstances as a coping mechanism.

Now let’s look at typical traits of learned behavior:

  1. Learned behaviors can also be deeply ingrained.
  2. They are not compulsive responses.
  3. They may or may not become the default response, depending on the situation.
  4. They are consciously added to the mind.

Uh Oh. They are very much alike! Addiction looks very much like a habit on steroids (which, as I understand it, can be addictive! And round and round we go…)

Here’s a big difference:
Habits will persist even if they’re not beneficial to the person!

He always drops his towels on the floor. He smokes. He drinks. He procrastinates. He never steps on cracks and always locks and unlocks his door 3 times before he leaves his house. Habits imbed themselves in the Lizard Brain, the most primitive survival part of the mind.

So, for some reason, a defined behavior evolves from a set of circumstances that makes the mind feel safe or comfortable.

Leaving his towels on the floor has no big consequence because someone else picks them up and washes them. Does this change when he moves out of his parents’ house? Does he wash his own towels when they get ankle-high in the bathroom? How does he cope with this bad habit?

Smoking regulates his breathing and therefore relaxes him and the nicotine gives him a chemical response that is pleasurable.

The alcohol has a physiological effect on his mind such as reducing inhibitions, in other words, introducing a measure of control over his thoughts in the manner that he gets to determine how much freedom of expression he wants. Some believe that alcohol will allow them to forget their troubles. It doesn’t but as I said before, the habit persists even if is not beneficial. And even though there are painful consequences and gastronomical distresses, he continues.

Procrastination persists because the person may see the whole mountain and imagine he has to finish it in a single go. He dreads the experience so he doesn’t start. Based on his results, new projects are unpleasant and arduous and his bed is much more comfy.

Habits tend to define the comfort zone of a person and, in many cases, cause the comfort zone to shrink.

This is where I diverge from accepted thoughts. Habits develop organically. I do not believe you can design a habit.

This is a form of behavioral modification. “I will go running every morning and make that a habit.” Then it rains. The circumstances for the behavior change making it easier for the person to revert to his previous behavior. That’s why addictive behavior is so persistent. An alcoholic practices not drinking. The condition continues. An alcoholic can be sober for 20 years, and revert to his previous behavior in a second. A sedentary person can run 5ks every month and when the temperature drops below 40 degrees will revert to binge-watching The Walking Dead.

What is the upshot of this? The behavior doesn’t change until the definition of the person changes. Learned behavior may displace the habit, but the habit cannot be eradicated by simply changing behavior. The person has to change from the inside out.

  • The person has to become aware of the depth and breadth of the habitual behavior.
    How does it feel when the person does the behavior?
    How does it feel when the person does not do the behavior?
    What triggers the behavior?
    Can the triggers be removed?
    Does the behavior continue even without any triggers?

You cannot control what you’re unaware of, and until then, it controls you.

  • Now that you are aware of how deeply ingrained this habit is, you must analyze it.
    How has it served you?
    How has it harmed you?
    Is there any evidence to suggest that it would be beneficial to continue this behavior?
    Is there any evidence to suggest that it would be detrimental to discontinue this behavior?
  • Are there alternatives to this behavior that are not harmful and give you the same feeling?
    If the environment is a trigger, how can you avoid this environment?
    What persistent thoughts or beliefs keep you returning to this habit?
    Is there any evidence to suggest that these persistent thoughts or beliefs are indeed true?

Now you must envision your life as you design it!

  • What kind of person lives without the habit?
    How do you see yourself 6 months from now without that habit?
    What changes have you made?
    How is your life better?
  • Inhabit that vision of yourself.
    Incorporate this future-you into your everyday life.
    Write down how it feels and how it affects how you think.
    What are some of the unintended consequences of your life without this habit?

You may have to acknowledge the fact that this habit will always be lurking in the shadows, but now that you are aware of it, it cannot sneak up on you.

Published by Rebecca Fegan

To be a better anything, I have to be a better person. My results come from the quality of my thinking and it is something I always work on.

One thought on “Habitual behavior vs Learned behavior

  1. Just noting that there is a difference between habitual behaviors (leaving towels on the floor) and compulsive behaviors (locking the door three times every time you close the door).

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