By Dr. Evian Gordon, MD, PhD on Thu, Aug 23, 2018
Did you know that your brain contains a built-in system intended to make your life easier?
You are a composite of your habits. Habits enable you to seamlessly map out the paths to achieving our most critical goals. When you build a habit, you automate a behavior freeing up mental resources for other tasks.
As a child, when your stomach growled, this may have triggered you to open the fridge and discover the chocolate cake, which delightfully satisfied your hunger. You then mentally mapped this set of directions as a response to hunger, leading to the formation of an instant gratification reward habit.
Trigger, action, reward, repeat.
Now, as an adult, this chocolate cake habit may offer a virtuous short-term outcome, but lead to regrettable long-term consequences.
Fortunately, you can restructure neural pathways to modify or break ingrained habits and generate new more effective ones.
Why is habit change so difficult?
Because change is a non-conscious THREAT! A threat to our comfortable repetition of safe outcomes. So a new habit must have readily experienced benefit. Each habit loop produces a dopaminergic reward. Our brains crave winning and dopamine rewards are the brain’s trophies.
As I’ve outlined in The Brain Revolution (2016), “small daily step wins” can generate any new habit and expand the hidden power of your brain.
Another inhibitor (in addition to threat of change) of habit change, is related to perception. In 2015, a study showed that physically fit individuals perceived distance across a fixed space differently than less physically fit individuals. The results of this study imply that attaining a new goal can look dramatically different from one person to the next; meaning that to some people, habit change appears less feasible than to others, influencing outcomes.
So how can you set yourself up for success in building a new habit or modifying an old one?
Step 1: Practice
Decades of research show that repetition codifies a behavior within memory, ultimately enabling context clues (ex. traffic light turned red) to prompt an action (step on the brakes).
We become masters of activities or patterns that we perform consistently, not the things that we do every now and then. Small daily step dopamine wins with practice significantly increases the probability of a successful outcome.
Step 2: Visualize
Neuroscience research has shown that visualizing a habit in detail activates the same neural networks as in actual practice. Moreover, visualizing the steps that you must take to achieve what you want in your mind, you set yourself up for success and when the time to actually implement comes, you are able to do it better!
Step 3: Modify your environment
If your goal is to get out of the door to the gym for an hour before work twice a week, ensure that your gym bag is packed and ready to go the night before, preventing you from wasting time in the morning, and missing part of your work out. Re-engineering your environment changes the structure of your decision making process and renders you more likely to achieve your goals.
Step 4: Curiosity
Ask yourself about why you are still engaging in the behavior that you wish to modify. A study of cigarette smokers showed that when approaching their nicotine addiction with curiosity rather than belligerent reprimands, the full awareness of their experience (smoking tastes awful, and smells foul, addiction can kill you) prompted them to quit. Same for intense chronic stress.
Step 5: Track Your Performance
Last but not least is to Track Your 1-7-20-30-1000 Milestones in generating a new habit.
Each ONE is a significant success!
- 1st time: Your first training is a game changer.
- 7 times: First seven you learn the most about reducing stress.
- 20 times: By the twentieth training there is statistically significant habit engagement (Gordon et al. 2013)
- 30 days: Habit is consolidated (training ten minutes a day).
- 1,000 times: Habit becomes an automatic part of your daily life (Gordon “1,000 Times Rule”). This is obviously an approximation. But test yourself about how many times when you practice and visualize a new habit, does it take before it becomes an automatic daily habit. It is often approximately a thousand times. And you can get there in a few weeks.
Lifestyle transformations of new effective habits promote long-term health and wellbeing. While they can feel daunting, the benefits are worth the temporary aggravations. You are mightier than the chocolate cake, more chilled than chronic stress and more positive than negative. Your brain and body will someday thank you for those victories.