The Secret is in Your Brain
Forming good habits and ditching bad ones is all about understanding your brain.
Your brain is hardwired for survival.
In survival mode, the brain focuses on 1) Conserving as much energy as possible and 2) Scanning the world for any possible threat to that survival.
Very noble of it, I know, BUT it can mean hard times for you and your habits! Here’s how:
1. Conserving Energy
Your brain wants to conserve energy at all costs because this will keep you alive longer. This is bad news in the habit-forming-and-ditching department because the brain will stick with its tried and true, well-worn neuropathways (it will do this subconsciously). So, if you want to avoid that pathway (quit a bad habit) and make a new pathway (create a new habit) your brain is going to fight it. For more on habit loops check out this post.
To create and break habits, you need willpower, and the truth is, willpower is finite because the brain is trying to conserve energy. This results in decision fatigue; the idea that once you are mentally depleted, you are less likely to consider a trade-off or compromise and you might just pick the easiest, best, or cheapest option, for example.
The more decisions you have to make in a day, specifically the ones that require self-control, the more decision fatigue you will experience, and by the end of the day your willpower will be next to gone! Understanding this and planning accordingly can alleviate decision fatigue and help you to stay the course and change your habits. Like working out first thing in the morning so you can’t talk yourself out of it later. For more on willpower and motivation check out this post.
2. Avoiding Threats
The other important note before we dive into habit change is understanding motivation. Motivation is a myth. Motivation means doing something new, and to your brain, new = threat!
Your brain perceives any potential for mental or physical harm as a threat, which means that your brain will respond to any new, different, or uncomfortable situation as such. When your brain perceives a threat, it moves into fear mode, setting off alarm bells that will prevent you from moving towards the threat.
Unfortunately, this means that when you want to try something new, different, or unknown (like a new habit), your brain will start freaking out and try to stop you at all costs. For an in-depth explanation check out this post.
How to Form a Good Habit
I know, I know, I just said your brain is going to stop you, BUT now that you know that, you can do the work, (and yes, it is work) of re-wiring your brain! Here’s how:
These five steps come from the book Atomic Habits
1. Make it Obvious
- Figure out current habits by using a habit tracker. (click here for more on how to track habits)
- Use implementation: I will __workout__ (habit) at _6 am___ (time) in __my living room__(location)
- Habit stacking: After a current habit you will add a new habit. Fort example, saying your affirmations in your head while you brush your teeth.
- Make it visible – This step is important in retraining your brain by attaching a new habit to one that already exist. Like taking your vitamins after you pour your morning coffee. Then be sure you keep the vitamins on the counter next to the coffee pot so it is obvious.
2. Make it Attractive
- Pair an action you want with the new habit. Listening to your favorite podcast while you workout for example.
- Be surrounded by others doing your new desired habit. Find an accountability group or join a gym, or go to a juice bar. Whatever helps you get around people doing the new habit you are trying to create.
- Create a motivation or starting ritual – This is all about the reward system in your brain and making it feel comfortable and known for your brain. Pair the new habit with something you are already doing. Listen to your audio book while you spend 15 min everyday straightening up. Drink your morning coffee while you journal for five minutes every morning, etc.
Creating a starting ritual can also help if it is a habit that doesn’t lend itself well habit stacking. A starting ritual can involve something enjoyable before you start the new habit, such as taking three deep breaths and then visualizing your healthy body before putting on your running shoes.
3. Make it Easy
- Decrease the number of steps or the effort between you and the habit.
- Make your environment easier to do the habit.
- Master the small choices.
- Down scale your habit to two minutes.
- Automate when possible.
This is about willpower and decision fatigue. By decreasing the friction or steps between you and a new habit, you can make the implementation easier and more likely. Want to go for a run every morning? Set out your stuff the night before. Want to eat healthier? Plan the meals for the week.
Make an If, then statement: If I don’t make it to the gym in the morning, then I will take a walk during my lunch break.
When you have already decided ahead of time what you will do and how you will do it, the decision fatigue and the drama of sticking to a new habit will not be as prevalent.
Set out the stuff on the counter, or your bed, or wherever you need to so you can see it and make it easy to do. Trick your brain into thinking the new habit is easy by making it two minutes or less. For example: make putting-on-your-running shoes the habit; always be the person who puts on their running shoes after they get dressed in the morning and the rest will follow.
4. Make it Satisfying
- Give yourself an immediate reward when you complete the habit
- Use a habit tracker and don’t break the chain
- Never miss twice
This is about the reward system in your brain. If you get a positive ‘hit’ in your brain from doing the new habit, it will be more likely to stick. Find a habit or action you already enjoy doing or have no trouble implementing then make that the reward for doing the other habit. With the coffee example: I can’t have a sip of my morning coffee until I have meditated for 5 min. Don’t break the chain, if you miss more than twice in a row it will be harder to get back on track.
Often tracking your habits can be rewarding. Many of us enjoy crossing things off to-do lists right? Or try one of these fun habit tracking charts
How to Break a Habit
This is the inverse of how to create a new good habit:
1. Make it Invisible
- Remove cues and reduce exposure
2. Make it Unattractive
- Re frame your mind to highlight the benefits of kicking the habit
3. Make it Difficult
- Increase the effort or steps between you and your bad habit
- Have a commitment device or accountability partner
4. Make it Unsatisfying
- Use an accountability partner
- Create a habit contract
Re-wiring your brain takes work. It is an uphill battle because you have a lifetime of neuropathways and two million plus years of evolution working against you. Remember that your brain is wired for survival and will try to conserve energy and avoid anything new.
Recognize that the issue stems from your brain and the habitual responses to the world. Know this and don’t beat yourself up over struggling to create or ditch a habit.
Be aware of your thoughts and actions so you can strengthen your willpower and create lasting changes!
You can do it, I believe in you!