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Break habits, form new ones: the neuroscientific approach

Written 14 January, 2019, 5 minutes to read

It’s well established – we humans are miserable creatures of habit, relying on learned past behaviors to make our decisions. But have you ever considered just how creepy that is?

We actually program our own shortcuts to reduce our need to think. It means a ton of our daily lives are lived automatically and unconsciously on autopilot. And once we’ve set these patterns, it’s notoriously hard to get out of them.

So how can we escape our own hardwired patterns? How can we break habits and set new, healthier ones? We’ve pulled from the latest research in psychology and neuroscience to help you crack the code and regain conscious control over your actions.

What are habits?

Habits are “an adaptive feature of how the brain works”. They are an evolutionary mechanism which allows you to carry out routine activities on autopilot without the need to invest much brain-space. And your daily life is full of them.

Every day, we repeat patterns of learned behavior to make our lives easier. They act as shortcuts which let us focus energy on more important things; but that doesn’t necessarily mean all our habits are good. We are just as capable of encoding bad behaviors as positive ones, so it’s important to constantly ask whether our habits empower or limit us.

How to break habits

Since habits take conscious action and practice to form, they require the same amount of conscious effort to be broken – or replaced with better ones. To help you out, here are a few evidence-based techniques you can use to break bad habits and form new ones.

1. Address your stresses

Unwittingly, your brain actually rewards you every time you perform a habit. And it’s all thanks to that sneaky “feel-good chemical” dopamine, which transfer signals between your neurons. It explains the satisfaction you feel after completing pleasurable activities. But unfortunately, it’s responsible for forming your habits in the process – strengthening reward for certain actions without your knowledge.

So, you need to start by focusing on what is causing you to seek that reward in the first place. Existing research suggests we can tackle these problems from within by changing our sleep pattern, exercise and stress levels. Meditation and yoga are a great place to start – they help decrease stress, and increase willpower and overall brain health.

2. Know the habit cycle

You can’t change your habits without knowing how they work in the first place. The process of building a habit has three components: a cue, a routine and a reward.

Cues are often described as the context in which you engage in the behavior – they act as a trigger. So, when you’re sad you might eat sugary foods and when you have a break you might smoke a cigarette. Cues can be emotional, situational or environmental, and by identifying and recognizing them, they are easier to avoid.

The best way to break the habit cycle is to put yourself in completely new situations and contexts. It gives you a chance to form new, better habits quicker – and it’s no coincidence that changes in your lifestyle can bring an enormous shift in your habits.

3. Replace old habits with new ones

Stopping a habit is difficult. Instead, try to replace it with a new one. Research shows that the more we try to suppress a thought, the more likely we are to crave its content; one study found that individuals who tried not to think about chocolate, consumed more of it compared to individuals who didn’t suppress their thoughts.

And replacing bad habits works in the exact same way. It’s called a behavioral rebound effect; the chocolate study demonstrates that we are action-oriented creatures, and that replacing an action with a new activity makes us much more likely to successfully uproot and replace a bad habit.

How do you go about it, exactly? With repetition and solid willpower. Forming a new habit requires us to create new neurological connections in the brain, and the more we repeat the behavior, the more that neural pathway is used. Our brains will start using that connection automatically once it’s well established – meaning that once we’ve done the hard part of forming the behavior, it shouldn’t require any further effort to keep repeating it.

But beware! Forcing yourself to change a habit is not a good strategy. Creating negative experiences when forming a new habit produces negative neural pathways that are seen as threats by your brain.

4. Change your mindset

Your mindset – or intrinsic motivation – plays a significant role in habit formation. Sometimes, old habits produce a bigger reward for your brain than newer healthier ones; sadly, a salad often won’t produce the same chemical effect for your brain as a fatty meal.

So, your motivation counts for a lot here. By focusing on our personal motivations for changing a habit, we stand a better chance of actually succeeding. Motivation and goals can give us the winning dose of inspiration to choose the salad over the burger.

And this presence of mind really matters. Our former habits will remain as reference points for future behavior changes, and it’s all too easy to slip back into them. Your conscious choice to change your habits will help you to create a positive unconscious behaviour that happens automatically – but it will also protect you from reverting to your unwanted default response.

Ready to set a new habit?

Before taking the leap, remember that forming a new healthy habit takes time and effort. One study found that on average it takes 66 days to change a habit! The results varied from 18 to 254 days, so it is totally individual.

That might seem pretty deflating, but remember that once you achieve your new habit, change becomes easier – allowing you to transform into the person you know you can become.

Need an extra boost to change your behaviors? Learn more about the dangerous power of habit.

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