Living a healthy life begins with forming healthy habits. Optimum health and weight loss are not simply about nutrition and exercise. I believe that failure to keep to a diet is not a lack of willpower or motivation. If you ignore the mind-body connection, you cannot achieve long-term success, even with the most advanced nutritional and fitness principles. It’s only a matter of time before you revert to your original habits—even with the best intentions and resolutions.
CREATURES OF HABIT
It so hard to change because we are creatures of habit. Try switching your seat at the dining room table and you almost feel lost. Try wearing your watch on the other hand or switching your pillows to the opposite side of the bed. If you ever visit a foreign country where they drive on the opposite side of the road, try driving on their side (not on a freeway, please).
Habits are essential. Notice children when they first learn to talk, read and walk. Can you imagine what would happen if you had to give the same attention to all your actions as you did when you first learned to do them? (To call it “chaos” would be an understatement!) So habits become automatic and a fixed part of your personality. You cannot simply change your behaviors or habits overnight. Research has shown that most people can only tolerate a small amount of routine disruption before experiencing discomfort. Self-control and willpower wane, and it’s not long before you’re back to where you started — your old comfortable habits.
In his philosophical work, Maimonides stresses the power of mind habits: Within human nature is a love and inclination toward one’s habits. A person loves his habitual opinions, and is protective of opinions with which he was raised. This often prevents him from recognizing the truth.
Let’s look at how habits play with your mind.
HABIT VS. MOTIVATION
Maimonides shares this insight: Positive behavior characteristics are not acquired by doing great (positive) acts but rather through the repetition of many even smaller, positive acts. For example, giving a thousand gold coins to one charity will not accustom a person to the trait of generosity, whereas giving one gold coin to a thousand different charities will do so. By repeating an act many times, an established behavior or emotional pattern is formed. In contrast, one great act represents an arousal to good, after which that motivation may disappear.
Here is a fundamental principle in human nature. Even a simple habit can have more of an impact on your personal development than a major motivational arousal. For example, you may experience an intense motivation to lose weight because of a health scare, or you may have a wedding soon and need to fit into a dress or suit. But that inspiration often fades as your grandiose dieting plans lose steam. Setting simple, good eating habits in motion will have a more significant impact on your quest to lose weight.
Why is habit so powerful, and what is really the difference between the first, second, and third time that you do something? After all, it’s exactly the same act repeated over and over again!
I think most of us are aware that habits start off as simple acts, but what turns these simple repetitive actions into such a formidable emotional and subconscious force? The answer is that real change takes place within, not without. I call this Subconscious Habit Formation.
SUBCONSCIOUS HABIT FORMATION
In Accounting of the Soul (Cheshbon haNefesh), M. M. Levin describes the process of habit formation: “Every single feeling, no matter how small it is and even if it is forgotten immediately by the conscious mind, always leaves some sort of impression on the memory. If you then experience this feeling a second time, it combines with the original impression, thereby strengthening itself. Every time this feeling is experienced again, all the accumulated traces of the previous impressions combine with it.”
Now it is clear how the power of habit strengthens even the weakest feelings and how it creates learned desires that intensify over time. Eventually, even the most insignificant string of experiences can accumulate to become strong enough to overwhelm even a major motivation.
This is the power of habit! In other words, an “outer action” may be exactly the same every time you repeat it, but the “psychological impressions” of every minor experience, feeling, and image associated with that act, connect with its previous psychological impressions. The impressions or traces left on your subconscious mind accumulate to form a formidable force.
When you understand this mechanism, every experience, feeling, and image takes on a new meaning. In fact, this inner process affects every aspect of your personality and behavior. This is why it is so hard to change old habits and how the only way to change the tide is to create new habits, allowing the subconscious mind to accumulate new impressions until they overwhelm previous impressions. As you make changes to your life, respect the mind and be patient with yourself as the subconscious mind does its magic without you even noticing it consciously.
The words of this author reflect his/her own opinions and do not necessarily represent the official position of the Orthodox Union.