The origins of bad habits

“I have always acted this way. I don’t know why and it doesn’t do me any good. It’s just a habit.”

The origin of this flawed behaviour lays somewhere in our past. Once it was a sensible reaction to the circumstances, but now its origins have become lost in the mists of time and memory. All that remains is this habitual way of thinking and reacting.

This reminds me of a story I once heard. There was once a grandmother who every year invited her family to join her for Christmas, where she roasted a large turkey. It was not too dry, nor too greasy, it was cooked to perfection. The meat cut like butter and the flavours just exploded in the mouth. The one thing that they all noticed was that before the grandmother put the turkey in the oven she always cut the side of the legs off.

There were many years of debate within the family as why she did this, but all her children and grandchildren followed her example and cut off the side of their turkey’s legs as well. Some said it allowed the heat to flow freely through the bird; others claimed it allowed the juices to run out or for the spices to permeate the flesh. Year after year the family disputed the reasons behind the practice, sometimes the arguments grew heated, but everyone knew the practice was correct, but no one knew the real reason why.

The grandmother remained silent during these debates until one year, after a particularly energetic dispute the family turned to her and asked what was the secret behind cutting the sides off the turkey. “Well” she said, “if I did not cut the sides off the turkey it would be too big for my small oven.”

It is good to reflect on our behaviour, to ask ourselves why we do what we do? Do our habits and ways of thinking serve us well or are they just fossils of a previous time? A way of dealing with the world at one time in your life might not be relevant now. Cutting the sides off the turkey made sense for grandmother’s small oven, but not the children’s or the grandchildren’s larger ovens, yet everyone loyally continued the practice until it became an embedded tradition. Each family member finding justification, no one questioning the source of the behaviour and asking, “Does this make sense?” This lack of critical questioning can lie behind national traditions, company culture or personal habitual behaviour.

Just step back and reflect for a while how you habitually react to the world around you, at home or at work. Do these behaviours serve you well and if not, why not? When and where did they start and are those origins still valid for today? Do you want to cut the sides off the turkey forever when the bird can easily fit into your oven?

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