Shaping instincts

It takes only a third of effort to do something instinctively than to have to think about doing something thoughtfully. That’s often why we stick to our instinctive traits and pick actions that require little or no thinking at all. And because our brains can’t function without this principle of automaticity, much of our actions are indeed instinctive and habitual.

The best part of our instinctive actions is that they’ll happen no matter what, as long as certain conditions are met. If someone throws a ball at us, we either duck it or catch it instinctively. If we have to turn left while driving, we do it instinctively without having to think about turning the steering wheel left.

The worst part of our instinctive actions is that they’re hard to fight. Some of us instinctively reach out for a cigarette after a big meal. Some of us instinctively walk up to stand in the popcorn-queue before entering the cinema hall.

While some of us have tried to shape our instinctive actions, most often they end up as failed missions. The trouble is; the task of shaping instinctive actions is a tedious one that requires plenty of planning and practice – up to 365 days in many cases. And off course, they’re hard to break off too. So, how can we think about shaping our instinctive actions in a less tedious and more effective way?

Our probing could start deep in the brain. If we can figure out a way solve the brain’s puzzle that condition actions, we may get some answers. In The Power of Habit, Charles Duhigg explains the process in a three-step loop: cue, trigger and reward. It starts with the cue, which tells the brain to go into an automatic mode, followed by the routine, which is the physical, mental or emotional component, and finally the reward, which decides if the loop is actually worth remembering for the future. Things could look a whole lot different if we simply replace the reward without disrupting the routine. Let’s consider the 11.00 am cue that shouts coffee time. A walk to the nearby cafe could be the routine. The reward is caffeine – something we want to avoid but can’t seem to. By replacing the reward – from caffeine to fresh air – without disrupting the routine, we may be able to shape our instinctive actions desirably.

We can also consider psychologist Peter Gollwitzer’s theory on 'Implementation Intentions', which suggests an ‘if-then’ plan to condition actions. Let’s say we want to achieve a few goals: I’ll eat healthy, I won’t smoke, I’ll hit the gym. Next, we need to find simple cues or contexts that match those goals: boredom, hour, time. By using the ‘if-then’ principle to link goals to their cues or contexts – If I’m bored then I’ll eat healthy, If it’s a weekday then I won’t smoke, if it’s 6 pm then I’ll hit the gym – we may be able to shape our instinctive actions desirably.

Another way to think about it is by chaining desirable actions to instinctive actions that already exist. If we can try wearing our running shoes just after removing our work shoes, we may be prompted to go for a quick jog. If we keep a glass of water right next to our alarm clock, drinking it may become the second thing we do after waking up.

By trying just one of these simple ways, we may be able to shape our instinctive actions in a desirable way. And soon, they’ll turn into positive habits that could benefit us.

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