I didn’t really want to write a blog entry this week. It’s been a long week, I’m tired, and I’m not in the mood to think about diabetes right now. Nevertheless, I’m sitting down in front of my computer giving it my best shot. That’s how it is, living with diabetes — there are days when I don’t want to monitor, but I do it anyway. There are days when I just wish I could pretend it wasn’t there and act recklessly, but I don’t.
In spite of that perseverance (something I think all Diabetians share by default), I have tremendous difficulty creating new habits in other areas of my life. There are foods I know I should avoid — not because they raise my blood glucose, but because they’re just not good for me. There are things I know I SHOULD DO — exercise regularly, for one. And yet I keep falling into the same “less-than-healthy” habits, eating the food I should put down, and sitting on my couch when I should be moving.
So what’s the difference? Why is it that I’m writing this entry but haven’t exercised in too many days to count? Aside from the economic motivation of wanting to get paid for this week’s blog piece, I think it comes down to “automatic” versus “manual” behavior. What is that, you ask? I’ll tell you.
“Automatic,” or “default” habits are those patterns of behavior that occur when we AREN’T thinking about our patterns of behavior. It’s our baseline behavior. “Manual” habits are those habits we have to think about — those behaviors that require our full attention and effort to make happen. As the titles imply, it’s much easier to slip into “default” mode than it is to maintain “manual” mode.
From manual to automatic?
We’ve all heard that line that says it takes “21 days” for a new behavior to become a habit. Well, maybe. I think that a far too simplistic take on the whole process. I’m not talking as an expert here, just from my own experiences. But I don’t see some “magic switch” that kicks in after 21 days. Maybe you could say that the new behavior takes on a minimal level of “familiarity” after 21 days, but to say that it’s a habit implies that it’s part of our “default” pattern of behavior.
I would venture to say that the “21 days to become a habit” logic is really missing the point. It seems to be implying that after some set time limit, behavior becomes automatic and it’s no longer something we must put our intention into. It pushes us toward “default” mode, with the promise that with just a little push, our desired behavior will be part of that “default” approach to life.
In truth, I think we should be focused on developing what I call “intentional” behavior. “Intentional” behavior is my term for living somewhere in the middle of “manual” and “automatic.” Putting everything on “manual” control is simply too much — we need to let ourselves relax SOMETIMES. And our default patterns are part of that process — we need to be able to let go every now and then and simply “zone out” a little. But we don’t want to let that default behavior take over, either. And so I think the goal is not to always live in manual mode. Nor is it to simply slide behaviors over to the default mode and forget about it. The goal is to develop a constant awareness of WHICH STATE WE’RE OPERATING FROM.
If we know our own state of being, we can be smart about things. Now, I say this all as someone who is admittedly WAAAAY too comfortable slipping into default and staying there far longer than I should. But that doesn’t mean I’m wrong here. It just means I’m not that great at taking my own advice. Maybe I’ll read through some of my old blog entries this weekend and see if I can’t learn a thing or two for myself.
Want to learn more about helping habits stick? Read “Adopting Healthier Habits” by dietitian and certified diabetes educator Rita Carey Rubin and psychotherapist Bull Rubin.