Habit Formation and the Do and Don’t Muscles

We’ve all heard of the character trait called Self-Control. Self-Control has two sides. The most familiar side of Self-Control is (Like our dog friend in the picture) keeping yourself from doing things you would normally do. The other side of this trait is less often thought of as self-control, but it is. It’s making yourself do things you wouldn’t normally do. I think of it as two muscles. I like to call them the “Do Muscle” and the “Don’t Muscle.” Like any other muscle, these can be exercised.

When you’re learning a new sport, you often stretch and flex muscles you haven’t normally used. Many times in ways seemingly unrelated to your sport. For example, lifting weights has nothing to do with the game of football other strengthening muscles you need to play the game. In the same way, you can strengthen your “Do Muscle” and your “Don’t Muscle” in ways seemingly unrelated to the specific habit you’re trying to change. Do you remember “Wax on, Wax off” from the original movie “The Karate Kid?” It’s very much like that.

This quote has been attributed to different people. I don’t think anyone really knows where it came from but it is powerful nonetheless.

Watch your thoughts, for they become . . . habits.
Watch your habits, for they become character.
Watch your character, for it becomes your destiny.”

Exercises For Your Habit Muscles

If you’re thinking about developing, or even changing some habits (and shouldn’t we all?!), Here are two “Wax-on-wax-off” exercises that will help with many habits:

Memorize: This exercise will strengthen your “Do Muscle” and help with many habits because it focuses on their source: thoughts. Find a particularly meaningful passage of literature; it could be Sacred Text, Poetry, a Motivational Writing, anything positive. Simply work at memorizing it word-for-word. Ideally, choose something several paragraphs in length and break it down into smaller sections so that you work on it in bits until you have the whole thing memorized. This will help restructure and re-focus your thinking. It may sound unusual but try it and see.

Wait: What?! Yes . . . Wait. This exercise will strengthen your “Don’t Muscle” and help with many habits because it focuses on a huge source of stress: hurry. When you are in traffic or at the store, get into the longest line on purpose and wait. As human beings we have a unique ability to think about our thinking. Educators call it meta-cognition. While you’re waiting in line or in traffic observe your physical and emotional responses. Observe your thoughts. What are they? Why are they what they are? As you evaluate your responses you will develop the ability to hush the hurry that may be the source of habits you want to change.

You could even work both muscles at the same time by reciting the passage you’re memorizing while you wait (I recommend doing this silently rather than out loud unless you’re alone in your car!). As you practice this over time you’ll notice changes in your responses and maybe even in the way you schedule your day.

Again, these are “Wax on, Wax Off” exercises. These are weight-lifting for your Habit Muscles. They don’t directly develop a specific skill you want to make automatic. But they do develop the self-control that will. Try it and see. I’d love to hear about your results.

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