I don’t make good decisions. This might seem contrary to how things appear to the outside world. I have a job. I exercise five or more times a week. I rarely, if ever, drink alcohol. I eat relatively healthy and don’t indulge (too often). I have side projects and friends. I’m sure there are other additions I could add to this list that would further classify me as a well-functioning young adult.
But I don’t make good decisions.
I know I don’t make good decisions. I’ve been tested on many occasions to make the right call, and on many occasions I’ve failed.
So how do I maintain order in my life? How I do avoid pitfalls? The only way I know how—by not trusting the decisions I make. By trusting my habits. You win with habit.
We’re Creatures of Habit
Humans are creatures that recognize patterns. We become accustom to patterns. We find comfort in patterns. This is what helps us make sense of the world and keep rhythm throughout our everyday life. It’s a useful way for the brain to process information, but it can also be our downfall. Anyone who has been caught in an unhealthy routine can attest the power and pull within that rhythm.
Things become clockwork. We reach for our phone first thing in the morning or incessantly check social media throughout the day because, well, that’s what we always do. These are habits. These patterns become routinized within our days.
In a classroom lecture that’s posted on Youtube, clinical psychologist and professor of psychology Jordan Peterson explains how to avoid this process simply:
“Don’t practice what you don’t want to become. They are neurological circuits. Once you get them in there, they aren’t going anywhere.” – Peterson says.
These circuits aren’t going anywhere, or at least going anywhere without quite some effort. Breaking a bad habit is remarkably difficult, while establishing a new habit is often easy, especially when the new habit isn’t one worth having.
So if we don’t want to become someone (or a certain version of ourselves), do as Jordan Peterson reminds. Don’t practice what that person or pattern would do. And if we do want to become someone, practice the pattern the desired someone would perform.
You want to be a writer? Practice and put in the work that writers put forth. You want to improve yourself? Do the things that those who are constantly improving are doing. This might mean finding inspiration outside of your peers and looking to the outside world: historical figures, leaders in society, and others.
Be Careful, Don’t Confuse Action with Right Action
In his lecture, Peterson goes deeper. He says that anything worth doing requires energy, but many different parts of our brain will throw up objections. This is common. How many times have we each wanted to do something, but we justify our inaction with many reasons, and oftentimes rational reasons?
Peterson explains that humans are very sneaky. When we are trying to do something hard, instead of doing that hard something, we find a new something that is also difficult, and we do this new something as a justification for not completing the initial hard task. Hence why you know you should study for a test, but instead you choose to go on a run or clean your apartment. You’re trading one difficult task for another as a form of procrastination. Instead of doing what needs to be done, you do something else that’s justifiably useful. This is a problem.
If we give in to this temptation, the brain receives a dopamine kick. The brain feels rewarded. Once the brain feels this reward, it wants to be rewarded again and again. This system and desire grows stronger, so we find ourself in cycles of procrastination, avoiding what we should be doing with useful replacements, and oftentimes we continue indulging in bad habits. Because after all, our brain itself is rewarding us in this process.
You Won’t Beat Temptation, Habits Beat Temptation
I’m not a clinical psychologist or an expert on the human brain. I don’t have the understanding to explain how the circuits in our brains operate. But I can tell you from personal experience that the best decisions in my life are a product of habit and routine.
When it comes down to making crucial choices, whether they be financial, dietary, work-related, spiritual decisions, and those of my thought patterns, the only time I win is if I have a habit in place.
I get off of work and I go to the gym because it’s a habit.
I read every night before bed because it’s a habit.
I don’t drink alcohol because it’s a habit.
I don’t have the temptation to shop online and purchase unnecessary things because it’s a habit.
I learn about Stoic philosophy—a tool that shapes and sharpens my perspective—because it’s a habit.
And I reinforce these habits. Sometimes you need to go out of your routine for brief moments to enjoy yourself and change things up, but if you don’t have the right habits in place, one brief change can lead to new and unwanted habits.
Of course in life there will be moments where our choices will need to rely on greater decision making processes than habits alone, but a habit of faith or morality will be a useful tool in those situations as well. Generally speaking, when it comes down to moving forward in any aspect of your life, the better habits you have in place, the more you’ll succeed.