Talking to Tables

Do you ever find yourself talking to inanimate objects? I was grocery shopping today and apologized to the shelf I bumped into. Just an automatic response to a stimulus, but not appropriate.

Kudos to my parents for ingraining basic manners into my behavior: if you bump into someone, say you’re sorry. But the shelf wasn’t a someONE. It was a someTHING. My brain took the paradigm of “apologize when you bump into someone” and generalized it to “apologize when you bump.” It’s interesting how habits form and evolve like that. There’s so much people do on autopilot.

My husband and I moved into our current home just over 17-and-a-half years ago. I drive to my house on autopilot. Of course I respond to brake lights in front of me and obstacles in the road, but I’m not actively thinking about where to turn. These days that’s a bit of a problem, because they’re doing major construction on my street’s access road to our west, and the access road to our east is one-way. This means that getting home actually takes some planning.

The first few weeks of the construction I went the wrong way and had to turn around in a parking lot about 95% of the time. Over the next several weeks my record has greatly improved – I now go the correct way about 98% of the time (just in time for them to re-open the west-side road at the end of this week).

We do so many complex things that a huge proportion of what we do has to be automatic. Can you imagine having to think about taking each step as you walk from one room to another? Or about having to think about each separate word when you read? Or about every detail involved in making a peanut butter sandwich?

But this wonderful ability to make things habitual or automatic can work against us in some circumstances. Do you automatically grab a snack when you watch a movie? You’re probably not even hungry when you sit down on the couch to start watching a film after dinner, but you had a box of buttered popcorn or Junior Mints enough times when watching a flick that grabbing food when you watch a movie is now automatic. Breaking this automaticity requires consciously thinking about whether or not you are actually hungry when you find yourself opening the fridge or the pantry or a bag of chips.

Luckily, we can also make the tendency to form habits work to our advantage. After a week or so of taking a brisk walk each evening or after a few times of responding to stress with deep-breathing techniques, we are well on our way to automatic behaviors that will help us live healthier and more peaceful lives.

Most of us are likely to have a large bowl of candy near our front door now for the trick-or-treaters. There will likely be a bunch left over. Showing restraint with the leftovers by spreading them out so that you only have a few pieces each evening can actually establish a new daily candy-eating habit. You’re better off splurging on whatever you’d like from the bowl on Halloween and then getting rid of the rest of the candy the next morning so that you’re not eating it on multiple days and setting a new pattern. (Of course you should not do this if you have diabetes or any other medical condition requiring careful control of carbohydrate intake.)

Enjoy your Milky Way bars. I’ll be enjoying my Reese’s Peanut Butter Cups. They’ll be out of my house by Friday and I won’t get into a sugar pattern that drags into the November/December holiday season. But I will say I’m sorry if I bump into you. Or if I bump into your table.

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