Mindful Habits and Mental Muscles - Kathryn Bruni-Young
  • February 11, 2017
  • Kathryn

The dictionary describes a habit as “an acquired behaviour pattern regularly followed until it has become almost involuntary.”


A week ago I returned home, after spending three weeks staying with my partner’s family. A month ago our house flooded, from the top floor down and was deemed “unliveable”. As we moved in to our short-term living space there were a couple little things we had to know. The fridge was a little temperamental, it never properly closed. On the first day with our new roommates we were instructed to give the fridge door a gentle kick when we closed it. Three weeks later our house was livable again, we moved back in and noticed a funny new quirk. Every time I went to close the fridge, I kicked it. Even though we were back in our own home, with a perfectly functioning refrigerator door, we had very effectively built the habit of giving it a little kick.


Because I’m a movement teacher, and obviously very committed to my practice, people often comment on my “discipline”. People I meet on the street talk to me about how they want to start stretching or exercising, but they just can’t get into the groove. After my experience with building such a strong habit in such a short amount of time, I decided to do some research on how habits are actually produced.


According to a Duke University paper Habits: A Repeat Performance approximately 45% of behaviours tend to be repeated in the same location every day. People fall into habits in certain contexts, but when contexts or environments change, habits can as well. Changing behaviour without changing anything else is difficult.


In her Ted Talk at Brown University, Willoughby Britton mentions a study published in Science measuring people’s attention throughout the day. The study found that approximately 50% of our days are spent NOT paying attention to what we are actually doing. She also explains experience dependant neuroplasticity, which basically means how our brains build habits depending on what we do, think and experience. When we think about habits, we usually imagine all the positive changes we want to make in our lives, exercise, healthy eating, less wine, whatever they might be. But habits are also happening in our minds on a moment-to-moment basis. We have become really efficient at thinking certain things about ourselves, the world and the people around us. If we define habits as repetitive behaviours that become automatic, imagine how mental habits can shape our everyday experiences, and how autopilot thinking may be limiting us.


Habits can’t be the same for everyone, what helps me become more functional and compassionate might not work for you. A study done in the field of neuroscience on gambling proves that experiences shape the ways in which our brains function, and habits can elicit varying sensations and mental states in different people. When examining pathological gamblers versus healthy recreational gamblers, they noticed how the same experience could trigger nearly opposite neurological patterns in the brain. One person’s seemingly uneventful habit could be another person’s addiction kryptonite.


In her article on habits, Sharon Eakes recommends embodying a new habit versus ruminating on what went wrong with old one. She writes, “brain research shows focussing on something strengthens it – so better to put your energy into the new behaviour.”


Everyone seems to have their own idea of how long it takes to build a strong habit. In the case of the refrigerator door it only took a week before the behaviour was automatic. The key to building a neural pathway is repetition, practicing something over and over. Our bodies and minds are constantly remembering how we move, think, feel and experience. Here are a few tips to adding some mindful habits into daily life.


  1. Sit on the floor. I’ve said it before, this is such a simple change to make, and an easy way to get some movement into the daily flow. Every time you go to sit on your couch, instead sit on the floor. If for some reason you can’t make it down to the floor, try crossing your legs on the couch. This can quickly become a habit, I notice myself doing this even when I’m not in my own home.
  2. Make yourself a movement rule. An example of this is installing a pull up bar in your kitchen door-frame. Each time you walk through, get into the habit of hanging on the bar for 30 seconds. Don’t want to seem like an exercise freak when your friends come over? Rather than putting up a bar, use your counter top. Each time you walk into your kitchen, place your hands on the counter top, walk your feet back a few steps and let the chest sink down, feeling a great stretch in the shoulders, upper back and waist. 10 seconds ten times a day makes a huge difference!
  3. Flex new mental muscles. Without needing to make sense of what our brains do, its interesting to notice how many times in a day we might think the same thought. From negative self talk, to a story about a friend, what mental habits can we start to notice. Each time we think a thought, we strengthen that neural pathway. In the same way bicep curls will strengthen our biceps, telling a story in our minds only strengthens the story.
  4. Change one part of your day. Creating change prompts the body into creating a new habit. A simple change could be walking to work, or if you already walk, take a different route. Change up your coffee place or even change your breakfast. Commit to a simple change that you can accomplish with confidence, rather than tossing yourself into a pool of guilt and shame.




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