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My Experiment with Habits

I would like to learn to play the piano.  It has been a dream of mine since I was 18. (I am now 55).  I love singing and this dream came to me while watching Fame.  Irene Cara sang “Out here on my  own” while playing the piano.  It moved me, I mean really moved me.  You might be thinking, go take lessons!  I have, dozens of times.  Practice?  Yep, bullied myself into practicing. Buy this new app, that method, this teacher…

I have done so many different things over the years it would make your mind swim.  What happens? I get so frustrated, feeling that I had been sabotaged, de-railed or just distracted and I ended up quitting or just saying “one day”.  So I give up thinking that I just wasn’t made to be disciplined and play the piano.  I am sure I am not alone in giving up on these kind of dreams, please tell me I am not.

I don’t like to see myself as a quitter, and I am constantly looking for new ways to improve.  I had learned that the human brain is developed in your childhood years and remains static then begins declining – this was the theory for many years.  Thankfully, in the past ten years, neuroscientists have discovered that this is just not true.  We can change at any age – that the brain has neuroplasticity.  Our brains can change and continue developing even in our adult years, and things were not fixed when I was 18.  My piano playing dream just comes down to creating new neuropathways and habit formation.   

Habits are important. Up to 90 percent of our everyday behaviour is based on habit. Nearly all of what we do each day, every day, is simply habit. Jack D. Hodge, Author of The Power of Habit

Suddenly, I thought I found The New Hope. I read every book on the subject and I was to become a jedi of habit making! I became an incredibly disciplined person using all sorts of techniques and strategies. I found new vigour in forcing myself to get up at 5h30 every day, eating only protein and vegetables, scheduling in my classes and practice hours, moving forward on all those dreams and if I faltered, it was because of my commitment and no excuses!!! I pushed myself to the limit of fatigue and overwhelm to achieve, achieve, achieve!! And I played the piano every damn day. Did I love it – no. Did I suffer – yes. Did my family suffer? Yes. Was I enjoying my newfound discipline and and ultimately my life? Not really. And did I learn to play piano? Sadly, no.

To be fair, I did have some success.  My daily walks are firmly installed in my daily habits and now I have a dog (Ninja, I will come back to him later…), I listen to audio books while driving and reach my goal of one book per week, and have found a new way of eating that is easy and keeps my weight from creeping up.  The big difference in these habits that have “stuck” is that I found them to be enjoyable.  They made me feel “shine” and good emotions surround them.  But for the other habits I wanted to create, well, they faded away.

So I kept looking – what is holding me back?  Where can I improve? How can I break through that glass ceiling?  

My Dog Ninja

Let’s talk about dogs. Remember Ninja?  Well, he taught me the most valuable lesson in habit creation.  If I want him to sit, it must be enjoyable for him. So I give him a treat or a good scratch behind the ears.  It works for all commands with Ninja: lie down, shake hands, come to me, go to bed, stop on our walks, be patient, etc., etc.  You don’t train a dog to sit with harsh voice commands or punishments it just doesn’t work. 

Teaching him the good behaviour, always with “good boy!!” and a small treat or toy to make him happy works every time.  It makes him “shine”.  What he is doing is simply a habit: a prompt followed by a behaviour.  What he taught me is that the emotion that surrounds the behaviour creates the habit – or destroys it.

Now, we humans are a bit different from dogs, but much of the mechanisms of creating habits are the same.  I’ll bet that it doesn’t take long to create a habit of eating ice cream (or another treat that you enjoy) every night if the emotions and the conditions are right (in fact I KNOW it is not long having created one of those habits myself!!).

 Same with checking social media, a nightly glass of wine, hitting the snooze button, distracting ourselves from what we know we should be doing. 

So what works? Attaching a positive emotion to the habit you wish to create.

I do think discipline has its place in our lives.  But for creating habits, there must be an enjoyable emotion attached to it. Making the behaviour an absolute pleasure will make the habit stick.  And the best part?  It makes your life enjoyable  – and life is short so why not enjoy it?  Creating a good habit or breaking a bad one doesn’t become an impossible chore or something you must have “energy” for.

There are alot of things we leave undone in life, alot of dreams that never become reality. But if there is something you really want, I cannot promise you that you will get it,  I cannot promise you that you won’t fail.  But you miss 100% of the shots that you don’t take.  So if you want something, go get it, with the right strategy and the right emotions, and never look back.

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