The new year is traditionally a time to make changes that will benefit our health. If you have already broken your new year’s resolution, don’t be too hard on yourself. Changing our habits is frustratingly hard.
Neuroscience will tell you that there is a very good reason for this. Our brains are not engineered to change habits through a simple conscious decision. However, once you understand how habit creation works neurologically, it will become easier to trick your brain into adopting habits that last and permanently get rid of unwanted ones.
They might say “you can’t teach an old dog new tricks” but a person’s age is no barrier to better behaviour. Neuroscience has made great advances over the last few decades in understanding how habits are formed. If you are interested in a good summary filled with many fascinating case studies, try Charles Duhigg’s The Power of Habit — a stimulating read, which despite its depth remains fascinating and fun.
So, why is it that you cannot simply dictate a new habit to your own brain, or abandon an old one? The answer is simple: habits are run from the parts of the brain that we do not have conscious control over. They are created and maintained in the basal ganglia, an area quite deep inside your brain. It has been there since the early stages of evolution and is common to many animals, not only mammals.
On the plus side, this explains why habits are “file and forget” — once you have managed to establish a new habit, it will “run” all by itself, until you destroy essential elements of its structure or replace it with a new habit.
What are the core components of habits? Every habit consists of three parts: a cue, a behaviour, and a reward. The cue can be entering your bathroom, the habit brushing your teeth, the reward the satisfying feeling of cleanliness in your mouth.
By the way, this particular reward is created partly by ingredients in your toothpaste that are unnecessary for the cleaning process. The toothpaste industry understood the need for this reward many decades ago. Refer to Mr Duhigg’s book for the details of this fascinating product marketing story.
If you want to create a new habit, you need to make clever decisions about the cue and the reward. Most likely, you already know the behaviour you want to adopt, for example, eating differently or starting to exercise regularly.
What you need to invest thought in is the right cue, such as putting your trainers on the floor in the hallway in the evening, so you automatically put them on and go out for a run the next morning. You also need to ensure there is a regular reward to be had, even though this can sometimes be effortless: I find the endorphins after a run are a sufficient reward. If you invest enough conscious effort in reviewing the efficiency of cue and reward in the first few weeks, you can be confident that you will create a habit that lasts.
Until the habit is fully ingrained — there are varying opinions about how long this takes, but some academics that claim it takes a full three months — you will benefit from keeping tabs on your progress.
Habit-tracking apps can help you monitor your success or lack thereof. If you set regular review periods, it is very easy to check the data in your habit tracker and decide whether your cues and rewards may need some tweaking.
There are plenty of habit trackers on the market, both for Android and Apple devices. My personal favourite is Strides for the iPhone and iPad. You can use this to remind yourself to floss your teeth, drink more water, or even do the stretches that your massage therapist has advised will improve your posture. I like this app so much I managed to organise my time to write a short book about it.
Even with an app to remind you, changing your habits still takes effort and discipline.
The good news is that once you change one thing, the next becomes easier, and so on. The brain creates a kind of “meta habit” of being successful in creating new habits or abandoning bad ones. Just like big organisations, a small change can open up the desire to commit to ever bigger changes. It is up to you to keep conscious control over the directions these changes take.
Once you understand the mechanics of habit formation and use them to your advantage, you can truly take control of them. So my final question to you is — what do you want to change?
Wolfgang Mittelmaier is the owner of the Mittelmaier Clinic, where he has used Strides for years to help clients develop constructive habits and get rid of bad ones.
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