Any one act, either good or evil, does not form the character; but thoughts and feelings indulged prepare the way for acts and deeds of the same kind. It is by a repetition of acts that habits are established and character confirmed.
There is a neurological law the is called the Law of Facilitation. What it basically says is that the more times a neuron pathway is used, the easier and faster it will conduct an impulse along that same path. That's how we learn to ride a bicycle, or swim, or any other physical activity. It also explains why we tend to have certain habits that are particular to us individually. because we all do different things and develop different habits.
Hard to get up in the morning? Hate to exercise? Can’t shed pounds? Most of us long to be different, to live healthier, more disciplined lives. Yet, our most determined efforts to change too often come to nothing.
Why is it so hard to change? Habits are what tie us down, and our lifestyles are often little more than the sum total of our habits. True, they can oil the machinery of our lives, helping us glide through days, saving time and energy. (After all, who would want to have to stop and think how to tie a pair of shoelaces?)
But habits can make our lives more difficult as well. If you doubt that, try changing sides of the bed with your spouse tonight?
How are habits formed?
As you’re probably aware, your brains sends messages to rest of your body through nerve cells. Each nerve cell has a central processing headquarters and a long sending fiber (or axon) over which it relays messages. Nerve cells also have lots of tiny receiving fibers (or dendrites) for incoming messages.
Frequently used axons form tiny bumps; scientists call these bumps, from the French word for boutons. And the more boutons. And the more boutons a nerve cell has, the more easily and quickly it’s able to transmit messages.
This helps us understand how habits are formed in the nervous system. Any thought or action repeated over and over builds little boutons on the ends of the affected axons, making it easier to repeat the same thought or action. Its almost as though the repetition wears a groove in the brain, much as repeatedly walking over the same place on a lawn will wear a path in the dirt.
But, once these pathways are formed, can they be changed? Boutons, unfortunately, do not go away when they are no longer used. And because the old path-ways are still, there, the chance of falling back into a bad habit is always present, as when an alcoholic “falls off the wagon.”
But People can change, can’t they?
Yes, but only by building new habits that are stronger than the old. The new choice must be made repeatedly, over and over.
That sounds tough!
It can be at first. But in time more boutons will appear on the new pathway than on the old one, and the “path” will wear deeper. As it becomes easier to take the new route, the new habit is being established.
How Long does this take?
Most people find it takes about three weeks (21 days, twenty one days) to form one new habit. A few years ago, for instance, a woman name Anya Bateman decided to start flossing her teeth. What had been a tiresome chore, she learned, evolved into a bedtime ritual in less than a month. Encouraged, she applied her three week plan to breaking her habit of eating too many sweets. Next she broke her habit of criticizing her husband, then formed a new habit of praising her kids. The results were so astounding that they were published in Reader’s Digest.
Likewise, just as some people become accomplished musicians by so many hours of daily practice, we can become a better person by consistently making good moral choices. And even if we lose a battle now and then, we won’t lose the war, not as long as we get right back onto that new “path” we’re trying to form.
So if you’ve always wanted to get some more exercise, try starting tomorrow. Get up a half hour earlier and hit the pavement with a brisk walk or jog. Sure, it may be tough at first, but in three weeks you’ll have shed a few extra pounds, and you’ll be on your way to a healthier lifestyles.
Adapted from Helath Power: Healthy by Choice Not Chance,
by Aileen Ludington, M.D., Hans Diehl, Dr. H.Sc., M.P.H.