Reality Check: Pattern Making

We’re all familiar with habits. We do the same thing over and over; a choice becomes so ingrained that it seems automatic.  For example, I wake up; I drink coffee. No thought involved!

Rick has a habit of buying exercise equipment and then not using it. Over the years, he has purchased gear which ends up gathering dust or getting sold at huge losses. Nothing ever turns out to exactly meet his expectations.

His hope continues, however! The next piece of equipment could be the one that will satisfy Rick’s internal pictures of himself, with a buff body and disciplined character.

Now, Rick has spotted a new piece of gear that’ll do everything he needs and more. He doesn’t have room for it and it’s pretty pricey, but it’s so awesome and it’s on sale!

Before Rick pulls out his wallet as he has so many times before, it would be helpful to consider the role of patterns in behaviour.

When we’ve done something once, it’s easier to do it again. One way to look at this phenomenon is to visualize an internal “library” that stores our behaviours. Every time we behave, that behaviour is put on a shelf ready to be used again with minimal effort.

For example, you sit down after dinner and have a glass of wine. It’s a pleasant experience. It doesn’t take many such pleasant experiences to build a pattern!

However, when the positive effect of a behaviour (i.e. the athletic body) doesn’t immediately result from the behaviour itself (i.e. the exercise), it can take persistent work to build a habit in this library.

As Rick has demonstrated, choosing to exercise a few times doesn’t immediately turn into a pattern. A similar example applies to anyone who has quit smoking more than once; you are likely quite aware of the difficulty of building a new pattern.

In Rick’s library of behaviours, he’s built a pattern of buying a new piece of exercise gear, finding excuses not to use it, blaming the gear, and then buying a new piece of gear. This pattern of choices has resulted in disappointment and a significant financial outlay.

Before he slaps down his credit card yet again, what behavior can Rick try that could be more effective?

How about this? Instead of following his pattern of buying new gear, Rick could concentrate on deliberately changing his pattern. For example, he could develop a habit of exercise that involves no gear at all; such as walking every morning for half an hour.

Rick could argue that walking is not an effective way to exercise. That may be true. However, even a less-than-ideal walk is more effective than no exercise at all.

The real benefit, though, is that each action is an input to our behavioural libraries. Little by little, by building up a pattern of following through on his walk, Rick could change his pattern from quitting when discouraged to carrying on through obstacles. Then, it might finally make sense to reward himself with a new treadmill!

Do you think that concentrating on building patterns of behaviour is an effective approach to changing behaviour?

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