How do you build habits? Is it possible to change the way your brain is wired, is it decided by genetics, or is it malleable? Can behavior drive thoughts, or is it always the other way around?
After my writing workshop, our cohort was inducted into the Clear Writing community, and we each gave a brief introduction of ourselves. A few touched upon their untapped writing potential (and we take their word that its exists, we’re nice that way) – and their being okay with it staying untapped as other priorities took precedence.
Some also wrote about how they led rather mediocre lives (their words, not mine). Of course at no point does anyone define what a spectacular or even a non-mediocre life might look like.
It has been a running theme in my conversations with my mother, on generally unproductive days, that my father’s gene pool has taken over and that my laziness can’t be helped, my brain’s just wired that way. Now we bypass the discussion about genes and slap wiring onto a lot of things, including messiness.
At one point, it bothered me to see my bed empty. I think it might have hit my mother that believing it’s Nature is easier, so she gave up after two decades of asking me to make my bed. When I moved into this apartment the first thing I did was throw some books onto the naked mattress to give it some semblance of occupancy and home.
Then, three months ago I listened to the Make your bed speech and started making my bed the next morning. And now I cannot stand it if it isn’t neat. Last week I listened to this podcast about rewiring the brain, and I think I figured out why or rather how the change in habits happened.
Intention to change is only half the story.
In the episode, Dr. Andrew Huberman talks about neuroplasticity – the ability of brain to change and adapt – and in my tug of war between If you can then why shouldn’t you and But I’m happy this way (I know a few others who struggle with this dilemma), I’m sure you see why I listened to the whole 2 hour podcast. There’s two steps to neuroplasticity – deep focus and deep rest (and sleep, WHY DIDN’T THEY TELL US THE REAL REASONS WHY SLEEP IS IMPORTANT) – which I’ll try to tackle another time.
The one thing he explains about changing habits is how writing or talking or thinking about it is not as effective as just doing it – that behavior can and should be allowed to drive thoughts, it doesn’t have to be the other way around. This is antithetical how I thought I lived my conscious life. I’ve had trouble going with the flow and even in doing things I dislike or didn’t actively choose for myself. But on inspection I realize I have done it too.
I started making my bed the next day after watching that speech, and I sort of took upon it as a goal, because some of what the Navy Admiral said made sense to me. It’s one of the few times I fast-tracked to behavior first instead of brooding over the purpose of the action or getting stuck in thought. And when I wake up and make my bed every morning, I feel good from the minor accomplishment. In Huberman terms, it gives me a dopamine hit because it’s a goal achieved, and that primes me for the rest of the day – almost like working out before you dance.
And if it’s not making the bed, it’s something else that you attach a mental if unconscious goal to – it might be lighting a lamp for somebody, putting on tea for another.
When he said When you do one thing it becomes easier to do another – it really is because of this dopamine hit that Huberman describes. Because once you get your first hit, you then want to get the next one, which makes you proceed to another task because that’s what dopamine does – it makes you crave for more. A lot like social media validation makes you want to share more posts.
I’m glad I took to it, and I’ve kept doing it since it feels good. Because there are days when it’s a physical labor to get out of bed, but folding my blanket does make me feel more ready to start the day. I can’t tell if it’s more physical or mental, it’s probably both. Obviously the bed also looks nice when it’s tidied up, and I say that without shitting on my previous self that thought a messy bed looks just as fine 😛
So rewiring really is a choice, from the little I’ve understood. I’m sure there might be science behind how choices work as well, but let me wrap my mind around this dopamine thing first.
Thinking about turning into a morning person would never work for me, I’d have to start with behavior/action there as well to rewire. Okay, this has gone too far, that’s enough Huberman talk for the day.