I have a student who works on the 8th floor of a large office building.
This past summer they were renovating the bathroom on the 8th floor. For several weeks she had to go to the 10th floor to use the restroom.
She decided to take the stairs.
The first week she told me how worn out she was. She was not used to doing stairs. But it did get easier each week. And she liked the exercise. She was getting stronger.
But then the 8th floor restroom was completed. And she lamented to me that she had stopped her stair climbing.
Of course, I couldn’t resist stating the obvious. Just because the 8th floor bathroom was open again she didn’t have to stop going up to the 10th floor bathroom.
“I know, I know” she responded.
But when she had the urge now—before she knew it—she was in the 8th floor bathroom.
Besides this anecdote being a bit humorous—at 48 I still find most anything about the bathroom funny—it is an excellent illustration of how habits work.
Old habits die hard, as the saying goes.
But this isn’t exactly accurate.
Old habits don’t die. They may fade into the background. But they don’t die.
A habit is a certain behavior in response to something.
In my student’s case, her original behavior was to walk to the bathroom on her floor when she had the urge to pee.
When the bathroom on her floor was under construction she was forced to create a different response to the same urge to pee—to go to the 10th floor bathroom—and she decided to take the stairs.
Once the bathroom on her floor was completed she immediately reverted to the old behavior of going to that bathroom. Her old habit was still there.
A habit is like a path worn down from the many times you have walked down it.
When you create a new habit in response to the same something—you are walking down—and wearing down—a new path.
In my student’s case, she was literally walking down (or more accurately, up) a new path to the 10th floor bathroom.
The path just wasn’t worn down very much yet. And the old path was still there.
If she really wanted to continue to walk down the new path she didn’t need more willpower. What she needed was to find a new way to remind herself that she could choose to go to the 10th floor—because the previous reminder—the fact that the 8th floor bathroom was closed—was no longer there.
Understanding how habits work allows me to be a bit more forgiving of myself than I otherwise would be.
I have many places in my life where I have created new paths for myself. And the paths are really worn down, so I have no trouble choosing them.
Most of the time.
But then, even after years of going down the new path, I find myself reverting down the old path one day. Often it is because I am particularly stressed.
And when you are experiencing an unusually large amount of stress it is not unusual to fall back into old behaviors.
Even decades old behaviors.
Instead of chastising myself when I fall back into an old behavior, I realize now that the path had been lurking the background. All that happened was I chose to take it. This time. And I can consciously put some reminders in my way to steer me back onto choosing the new path once again.
So, what is a new path you want to create for yourself? And what things can you put in your way to remind yourself you have a choice of that new path?