I am not sure about you but I have often found myself repeating the same mistakes again and again. None more so than when I used to study. The cycle went something a little like this.

Begin course and receive information on what the assessment will be about. *Internal voice* “Ok, all I need to do is a little reading everyday for the next 8 weeks. By the time I need to write the assessment paper, I will have such a great understanding of the topic I can’t help but write a great essay.”  Easy.

Well, 2 weeks go by. “Oh yeah I was meant to read little and often to keep up to date with my work. Erm. I will start next week. Now where is that beer?”

You may be surprised to find out this continued until the week before assignment.

“Dammit, what am I doing again? I had better look up…erm…something.”

The next few days were filled with a bit of frantic searching for journals and books, then picking them up from the Library. Which is always a good day. It gives you a real sense of achievement. “Phew! What a day. I picked up 8 books. That really is a good day of work. Now, where is that beer*?”

It comes to 2 days before the deadline. This is full of frantic writing, usually before I have read anything sufficient to understand anything. Until a few hours before the deadline, I finish. Well, when I say I finish I mean I have the word amount.

Then comes the idea of reading it over. Oh the dreaded reading over. You wouldn’t believe the level of anxiety that used to come over me at that point. So much so, that every time without fail, even though I knew it was a bad idea, I would never read it back.

I followed this cycle of working, repeatedly, during my undergraduate degree. It’s a wonder I passed. What I can’t help asking myself is why did I keep repeating the same mistakes again and again? I knew intellectually that there were infinitely more effective and productive ways of working. Yet I ignored those ways of working.

Why do we do it to ourselves?

This got me thinking about what it is within us that means that we repeat bad choices over and over. I could give countless examples to go alongside the one above. You know in your heart and mind that what you are doing is not helping, but you keep doing it anyway. Well it turns out it all comes down to emotions and behavioural habits.

We are emotional beings, not rational! Who knew?

As we grow up we learn to do things in a certain way. The way we learn to do such things is not always what allows us to achieve the most objectively beneficial outcome. It is more often than not, what allows us to protect our emotional selves best.

On a subconscious level, we have emotional needs that we are not always aware of. They can range from craving attention, wanting to be loved or a fear of failing. These emotional desires can manifest themselves in any number of behaviours.

For example, much like I used to do, you may put off work you know you need to do. You realise, intellectually, that if you focus and put more time into it, you will get a greater output. So, why don’t you just do that? It’s easy, right? But somehow you cannot get down to it. This could be procrastination born out of an emotional fear of failing or potentially even the opposite, an emotional fear of succeeding.

Pathways created through childhood

As we learn new behaviours our brains create neural pathways. This pathway creates a connection in your brain that allows you to remember how to complete that action. As we repeat the behaviour it becomes more strong and efficient. Whether a decision or action is “good” or “bad” has no effect on the creation of a pathway. This is how habits are formed. The stronger and more reinforced the pathway becomes, the stronger the habit.

The interesting thing is that as we are growing up many of our decisions are purely based on emotions. This is because until we reach around 25 years old our prefrontal cortex is not yet fully developed. It is only within this area of the brain we make objective, rational or executive decisions. This means that a lot of our behavioural and habit building is done through a lense of emotions. A quick side note on this, the decision-making process is strongly linked to our emotions throughout our lives, it is just more pronounced when you are young. So your strongest, long-term habits can often be underpinned by an emotional aspect of your childhood.

This reality means that you can often repeat unhelpful behaviours, perform relatively out of character actions and react sensitively to certain emotional stimuli. Behaviours or reactions we have learned through childhood are incredibly powerful and more often than not remain subconscious. However, it doesn’t have to stay this way.

What you can do to change

One thing psychology and psychoanalysis have taught us is that by understanding your past, you can understand your behaviours. This is the first step in making changes to adapt your habits to be more helpful.

The first key step is to reduce stress or anxiety. When one is in a state of anxiety or stress, habits can run riot. You have a vastly reduced cognitive function which allows your subconscious to be more in control. This allows your old habits to reign supreme. By taking steps to reduce your anxiety, you open up space for you to make more conscious decisions. Over time this can give you the time to explore your behaviour and take helpful steps to amend your habits.