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Shouldn’t We Just Do What Comes Naturally?

Habits

Last week I was helping teach a newer student at Taekwondo class, and was showing her a stance she hadn’t done before, in which the body faces in one direction and the feet point in two other directions. “If it feels weird,” I found myself saying, “then you’re doing it right.”

There’s a reason for this: the muscles that help a person stand like that aren’t ones that get much use, so it takes some time and some practice before the new position becomes comfortable. But this stance is very useful in Taekwondo, and what feels weird at first gradually becomes comfortable and habitual.

I don’t know about you, but I’ve often heard advice like “just listen to your body,” with the assumption that if we just do what comes “naturally,” we’ll get the best possible result. And there are advantages to that kind of approach sometimes. First mindfulness and self-knowledge are key components of self-motivation. And second, if nothing gets in the way, often our bodies send us useful signals.

But there’s also a serious problem with just doing what comes naturally: what feels “natural” to us is a combination of instinct plus habit, and habit can transform all kinds of behaviors. Our eating cycles, our romantic preferences, the way we do our work and interact with other people, and pretty much every other complex behavior we have is built on natural inclinations, but only under layers and layers of past experiences and accustomed behaviors.

This is due to our “neural plasticity,” which means that the brain is constantly rewiring itself so that repeated behaviors and experiences feel more and more natural and come more and more easily. This means that if I eat doughnuts every morning, eating doughnuts is likely to start feeling very comfortable, normal, and necessary for me–even if it’s completely out of synch with what my body actually needs. And if I get used to taking a run every day after work, then that will get increasingly easier and more comfortable. The same is true for returning phone calls, doing homework, getting into arguments, watching TV, meditating, or any other good, bad, or netural habit. How long will that take for a habit to form? According to this study, it varies a lot, but something that’s done¬†daily will be likely to turn into a habit some time between 1 and¬†7 months after we start. (If it’s not done daily, it will take much, much longer.)

So if we want to change a behavior, to redefine what comes naturally, there are two key steps we can take.

1. Work out the broken ideas we might have that are getting in our way, a process cognitive psychologists call “cognitive restructuring,” and

2. Deliberately set up and practice behaviors that feel weird at first.

Photo by crowolf

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