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The power of habit (good and bad)

An important discovery of the modern science of behavioral change is the extent to which we are slaves to our habits. From the moment we rise in the morning until we return to bed at night, the automatic pilot of habit largely governs our day. When we try to change, our existing habits restrain us. I guarantee that you will encounter this obstacle on your primal joy journey. My discovery of that block was a critical turning point on my own path and the development of Joyshift, a method for lifestyle change.

Our brain evolved the ability to form habits because many of them help us. Such as the habits that allow us to walk, pronounce words, or even drive a car with little or no deliberation. Our conscious mind has limited energy, so our brain evolved to learn how to create habits that can unconsciously perform many of the routine behaviors of the day, enabling us to mindfully focus on more challenging activities. Such habits are essential for human survival.

Habits are imprinted in our brains by repetition. The micro behaviors of our day that recur over and over become the most powerful habits, like the accent in our speech, or micro movements like lifting a cup to our mouth without spilling a drop, or carrying ourselves in a certain posture. Our ancestors on the savannah had lots of such repeating behaviors, just as we do today, so we both acquire countless micro habits.

But modern lives are much more routinized than our ancestors, as I discuss here. We repeatedly perform not just micro behaviors, but more complex ones, like driving the car to and from work via the same route day after day, or grabbing the same brand of beer from the refrigerator and watching the same television channel immediately after returning from the daily commute. Our ancestors had far fewer of these daily repeating macro routines because their life involved regular changes in where they slept, when they awoke, where they moved about, what they ate and so on.

Modern macro routines build macro habits, which is fine when the habits assist our wellbeing. But we can also acquire habitual activities that either fail to fulfill us or even harm us. That is a problem because a necessary feature of all habits is that once they take root in our minds, they are not easily overruled. Only when the effort to overcome any habit is substantial, will we default to it, and that obedience is essential if our conscious minds are not to be overtaxed. That is fine if our habits are useful, but is a serious problem when the habit is dysfunctional. We still default to it, and often even when we know of its ill effects.

As I hope to show such unhappy habits are very common in modern culture. Many of the macro routines of our day, such as passively consuming entertainment, sitting for long hours, staying indoors, and sleeping too little all involve little primal gratification and are often physically harmful. Yet we struggle to change these behaviors because they have become deeply entrenched habits.

That reality is somewhat depressing for a primalist like myself, who wants people to live more in tune with their deepest needs and enjoy the many benefits of a primal lifestyle. But there are a couple glimmers of hope.

The first is the public’s growing awareness of our evolved primal preferences and how our lives fail to fulfill many such needs. (I’ll discuss that trend in another post.) Such knowledge is the first step to a happier lifestyle. The second is the growth of “habit-change” technology emerging from scientific research and applied by a new small but growing number of habit-change technologists of whom I am one. We use those techniques to improve our own lives and help others practice them too.

tAt the heart of all successful lifestyle change is the development of new habits which will guide you to happier behaviors. Because habits are only imprinted through repetition, because repeated new behaviors often requires overpowering old habitual ones, and because our willpower alone is simply not up to that task, we need help in the form of a structured system, a practice. Athletes, musicians, yogis, and meditators know that that a deliberate daily routine is essential to create new abilities that can improve our lives. I have developed such a system specifically designed to encourage the primal experiences which are our deepest joy. I call it Joyshift.

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