“Is there nothing that stops you?”
This friendly question came from a fellow classmate as we both arrived to the dojo for class. His question roused me from my trance–mindlessly stuffing my coat, scarf, and shoes into a wooden cubby. I asked him to repeat the question.
“Is there nothing that stops you from coming to class? You’re always here,” he elaborated while unlacing his shoes.
It wasn’t a criticism. I realized it was praise. A compliment. Admiration from someone whose schedule demanded more than mine in terms of work and family commitments. To be sure, I missed classes to take a vacation, go camping, or visit family in another state; but on the whole, my attendance generally hovered around 95%.
I smiled. “Well, I am always happy when I am here.”
“Me too,” he grinned, then hurried off to wrap up in gi and hakama.
But the question stayed with me for days. I easily recalled stretches of time in my aikido career when blowing off class became a hobby in and of itself. I’d fill my tote bag with all the gear. I’d tie up my hair. And all the while, I’d pile up the reasons not to go.
I was tired.
It had been a long day.
It had been a crappy day.
It had been a sunny day.
At last, I would empty the tote bag and plop on the couch. The next time class rolled around, I repeated the process. Entire months passed and my absences stacked up.
Could I blame the situation on a bad dojo with crummy participants or a lousy instructor? Heck no! I adored my fellow students. I adored my sensei’s lessons and his keen ability to peel back the infinite layers surrounding every step of every technique. I laughed joyously in class. So why was I dodging the practice and all its splendid treasures?
I didn’t know it at the time, but have since found out that my absences boiled down to habit. In the human brain, habits form faster than Napa Valley fires. Charles Duhigg provides a lucid explanation in his book, The Power of Habit:
“Habits, scientists say, emerge because the brain is constantly looking for ways to save effort. Left to its own devices, the brain will try to make almost any routine into a habit…” (17-18).
Chunking is another term for the process of globbing repeated actions together into an automatic, even automated performance. Driving a car and brushing teeth are two routines chunked into habits. Consider how strenuous life would be if you had to relearn these and other common tasks every time!
Essentially, when the right triggers arise, the brain thinks: oh, this is that thing you do all the time. You know how to do that. I’m out! Laterzzz! And then it kicks on the autopilot. Duhigg explains, “When a habit emerges, the brain stops fully participating in decision making. It stops working so hard, or diverts focus to other tasks” (20).
Unfortunately, the brain doesn’t necessarily distinguish between good habits and bad habits. It simply connects patterns with programming and leaves you performing. Going through the motions. Like a windup toy. A robot.
Years ago, I established the habit of prepping to ditch aikido. I taught myself the technique of not going. I taught myself how to quit.
So how do you break a bad habit once it has formed? First, you have to bring awareness to the habit and know it’s a habit. See it unfold. Then, you are in a position to work with the brain’s neuroplastic abilities — that is, its ability to constantly rewire. In her book, Small Move, Big Change, Caroline Arnold outlines a basic methodology for getting the brain to adopt changes. They key, according to Arnold, is to start small.
For example, if you have a habit of overeating or mindless snacking, don’t alter your entire diet or ransack all the junk from your kitchen cabinets. That introduces too much change and the brain will rebel, big time! Instead, identify one problem food or eating behavior and work with it. Next, set a time for that new action to occur (every Wednesday at 9 o’clock, for example.) Allow that time to trigger the behavior so that, eventually, you do it without thinking.
And what do we call a thing we do without thinking? That’s right: a habit! Only now, it’s a good habit.
Duhigg cites behavioral researchers who refer to these small changes as small wins, or keystone habits. Just as a wolf is a keystone species positively impacting the health and wellness of all other species in its habitat, so too does a keystone habit promote a mental and bodily biome of other positive habits. One small win sets in motion forces that favor and allow for another small win, which in turn triggers another.
“Small wins,” Duhigg says, “fuel transformative changes by leveraging tiny advantages into patterns that convince people that bigger achievements are within reach” (112).
How do I sustain such a regular attendance at aikido now? It’s a habit. I have the routine down pat. I quit quitting when I stopped thinking about quitting. On nights I have aikido, I don’t think about it at all. Suddenly, I am there, cramming my coat, scarf, and shoes in a cubby. It’s probably the most important technique I’ve ever mastered.