The Forces of Habits

Been busy editing and working on finishing my new book, but also working on some other new pieces, here’s one for you.

The Forces of Habits.

“I can’t make tough decisions”

A young man I work with who has Autism says this phrase frequently, this could be about something as simple as the choice between tea or coffee or whether he should move out of home. One is a tough decision, at least a big decision, the other you’ll agree, is not. Sometimes he says it as a way of avoiding having to answer a question at all, but more often for him it’s an immediate reaction to avoid any demand when he is feeling anxious.

He is a complex person and I won’t go into his story here, but his constant use of that particular phrase got me thinking about a few things, primarily:

What is a tough decision? And how this differs depending on who you are and the context in which it’s used

And also

What we do to avoid demands we don’t like and that this is largely due to being asked to leave our comfort zone.

Let’s start off with a tough decision I recently made, quitting smoking.

I have been a smoker for 17 years. My first cigarette was around the age of 9 or so, my sister and cousins and I stole some smokes and alcohol off our parents at a big family party. We used to have these on our uncles farm, where we could play and have fun. I didn’t really understand what smoking was until then and I suspect that the first few puffs didn’t involve any real smoking. We got caught, that was it for a while, and the anger from our parents wasn’t too bad due to my sister getting really drunk and taking the attention off the rest of us, they thought it would serve some sort of example.

Fast forward a couple of years and my next smoking experience was with one of the guys who worked on our dad’s farm, by this point our parents had split up so mum wasn’t around to keep control, we were living with her and visited dad every second weekend or so, I found the farm very boring. We went out for pizza with this guy and his twin brother, one of them had won the “Mr Puniverse New Zealand” competition. They let us smoke some cigarettes and mum found out, got pissed off and wouldn’t let us see dad for a while, I didn’t mind so much.

By this point I was into rock music, so smoking had taken on a rebellious coolness to me, and although everyone knew it was bad for you it wasn’t quite like it is now, you could still smoke in train stations, pubs, cars and restaurants. This was the very late 80’s or early 90’s

I don’t recall smoking again until a bit later in my high school years, maybe around 15 or 16, we had been getting into smoking weed and the occasional cigarette, but it wasn’t something I aspired to have, I didn’t think about it.

A few years later and having moved out of home as many young people do I got pretty seriously into smoking weed, and many of my friends were already pretty serious smokers and over time, one smoke here, one there and eventually I started to buy pouches of tobacco myself.

This would have been around the age of 21, definitely old enough to know what I’m doing, but still too young to be forward thinking, or even concerned about my own future.

My story of becoming a smoker is fairly unremarkable, I suspect many started in pretty similar circumstances.

Which brings us to now, 17 years of smoking and plenty of people have tried to convince me to stop, I always said I enjoyed it too much and wasn’t bothered. It was true to an extent, and most people I know who quit had a love/hate relationship with smoking, I just loved it. Of course, behind all that I knew it was bad and I couldn’t carry on forever.

Just over a year ago I decided to try and quit, I had been and still am on a journey of self-improvement (sounds cheesy but I am serious). I took up kickboxing for learning and fitness, got a teaching qualification, started some new bands, changed my job, and wrote a book and more all on this path to somewhere. I don’t know what the endgame is but I knew that smoking couldn’t be part of it.

I began as many do by weighing up the pros and cons.

Pros: I like smoking. It’s a good excuse to go outside and think

Cons: It’s expensive, makes me smelly, affects my breathing, takes up time, constantly get asked for cigarettes by people, I get impatient without them, makes my girlfriend cough when I kiss her, makes me cough, have to go outside a lot during winter, plan things around smoking and of course… It’s slowly killing me.

The last one is the game changer and really the one that counts. That said, none of that helped and I continued to smoke for another year. I start to doubt myself and think that maybe I can’t quit, maybe it’ll be too difficult, and maybe I’m beyond addicted, people actually laughed when I suggested I was going to quit, smoking and I seem to go hand in hand when people think about me.

I come to the end of 2016 and decide it’s time to try again, I started to think about how I was going to do. I had bought a vaporiser to help but hadn’t really got the hang of using it and started to do something that I’d been telling people to do for years. One of the best ways to solve a problem is to visualise the outcome, I started to imagine myself as a non-smoker, which I realised I had never done. All my thoughts of the future was still me as a smoker, and now I could see something different. I had also looked into the work of Allan Carr about choosing a date to stop and sticking to it. I didn’t do that, I just decided that the end of my current pouch of tobacco would be it.

As I approached the end of the pouch, I started to wonder if I could do it but had decided to try and that was it, I quit.

It was willpower and visualisation. I still want cigarettes right now, I’m sure that will pass in time but I think in the end it was really about wanting to.

I wanted to quit and I did.

In the end, was it even a tough decision? It felt like it, but it was just a decision, you could argue it is life or death, for me, but surely that means the decision isn’t tough at all? What it was, was in fact me accepting it was time to leave my comfort zone, smoking was familiar and comforting. I could have one when I was stressed and have one to have a break, little did I realise that this was a self-fulfilling prophecy where not having a cigarette when stressed caused more stress thus requiring a cigarette even more.

The toughest decision I have made in my life, was ending my marriage, or more importantly a 9 year relationship, that felt very difficult at the time, its ancient history now. But again I remember what was scary was about the monumental change I was making. The relationship was over, it was more about initiating that change and I was scared of it. I’ve often discussed fear of change and how it does dictate the choices we make or our refusal to even make a choice.

In both of these scenarios I was deciding between good and bad and whether or not I should stay in my comfort zone with less than ideal situations (bad relationships and poor health) or to leave those with the unknown on either side.

My choice is clear and I don’t regret either but I didn’t realise how hard it can be to move away from the familiar, particularly as I thought of myself as someone willing to try things, someone with an adventurous mind.

What I did take away from those was the idea that you should step out of your comfort zone often in smaller ways, make yourself able to deal with it.

When working with people with Autism, or obsessive behaviours you would slowly introduce a new idea or experience to get them used to the idea of change, or in some cases you make that change wholesale to avoid the build-up of anxiety, in most cases people have coped well either way just like I have and you probably have when making a change.

When considering the mind-set you need to make a positive change it’s not about will power to better yourself, to quit, to go to the gym or eat better. It’s about willpower to leave your comfort zone, it sounds silly, like it shouldn’t be hard, but it is.

Go see some music you wouldn’t normally, eat in a restaurant that serves cuisine you don’t often eat, watch a film in a genre you don’t like. Just try things, primarily you’ll be surprised at what you’ll enjoy if you’re honest with yourself but you will also equip yourself for other changes. Nothing stays the same, change is as inevitable as death and trying to maintain something, to freeze it in time or preserve it in amber is not possible, that is stagnation, not living. These changes may be subtle or significant but its aging, its evolution, its decay. We wouldn’t have gotten to this point in time without change, embrace it. It’s very easy to get habitual, to follow the same path and to do the same things, there’s also nothing wrong with comfort but getting too comfortable makes you more sensitive to change when it happens.

It’s just about coping skills. The young man I work with isn’t troubled by decision making, but by being asked to be uncomfortable, being asked to change is uncomfortable for him. For him, largely due to his autism and struggling with imagination and therefore foresight to manage change, a simple change can appear to be monumental. Many of us have a similar although less severe reaction to changes, we don’t like to be uncomfortable, that’s normal but we need to remember that change doesn’t necessarily mean this, change may result in being more comfortable.

I often think of nostalgia in the same terms. Nothing wrong with remembering the good times, but when you get stuck in the “good old days” mind-set, you cannot progress and nothing will ever be good enough. The changes in technology over the last 50 years have arguable improved our lives, the internet is both a wonderful tool for learning and entertainment but also a new means of terrorism and bullying, every development comes with pros and cons which we need to weigh up. However, not many new developments have disappeared because of people fearing change, they stick around and we usually have to adapt, it’s called evolution. It may be that the 20th and 21st centuries have moved so fast that technology, art, food, agriculture and more is evolving faster than we are but that’s a different issue.

The point is, change is inevitable, living in a bubble doesn’t stop things happening, we all age, and we all die. Our habits take over our lives to give us familiarity and comfort and most often make life easier. Very few people function well when their lives are completely and utterly random and unplanned so we naturally develop habits but are shocked when unexpected changes come our way, when faced with a decision to stay the in the calm or ride the wave to a new shore. We need to be ready, utilise our problem solving skills and trust our problem solving skills, most often we’ll swim if we fall off the board, it might be swimming against the tide for a while but the effort will pay off. If we just ignore change like it’s not inevitable we just make our lives more difficult. Progress can be a monster, it can be wrong but it’s hard to stop.

Our humble origins were making the most of what was on offer to us rather than forcing things to bend to our will. Over time humans have begun to force things to change for ourselves, forced the world to work in our favour which makes us often think we can simply fight for our sameness, but we are also frail compared to the monster of progress, we cannot stop evolution.

There does seem to be a very modern thought process where people are completely unwilling to go outside their comfort zone. You may want to stare at the stars on a clear night in peace, but you aren’t willing to seep in a tent overnight to do so. You might like the idea of trying a new food but can’t quite bring it to your mouth. There is thousands of experiences waiting for us out there, it’s not about jumping out of a plane or climbing an active volcano, it’s just about openness to the new, which is all change really is.

If you think back in your life, there will be many times you have experienced a change of some sort and you were happier for it, don’t forget those times, there will be more.





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