What is a habit? A habit is an automatic behavior that occurs without much conscious thought. Habits start with a psychological pattern called a habit loop:
1. A cue or trigger that tells you when a behavior is to occur. It could be a noise or a feeling or could occur when we arrive at our office.
2. Routine – the behavior itself. The behavior could be emotional, physical or mental.
3. Reward – something our brain likes and helps us figure out if this habit loop is worth keeping. A reward could be anything that gives us a surge of “feel good”.
Habits are beneficial because they are automatic and free our brain up to think about other things. The brain strives for more efficiency and quickly transforms as many tasks and behaviors as possible into habits. We can do these without thinking, thus freeing up more brain power to tackle new challenges and activities.
Neuroscientist have assigned our habit-making behaviors to the part of our brain called the basal ganglia, which also plays a key role in the development of emotions, memories, and pattern recognition. The basal ganglia takes a behavior and makes it an automatic response. Unfortunately, neuroscientist have also concluded that once a habit is engrained into our basal ganglia, it never leaves. Even if we “break” a bad habit, it’s always looking for that cue to start our habit loop. That would be great if the basal ganglia would distinguish the good habits from the bad – but it’s an equal opportunity habit former!
In another part of our brain, the prefrontal cortex, decisions are being made. When a behavior becomes automatic, thanks to the basal ganglia, the prefrontal cortex can go into a sleep mode, of sorts. Which the brain likes, as we read earlier.
Bad habits often begin as pleasurable activities. When we eat a candy bar – that’s full of yummy stuff like sugar – our brain releases dopamine, the chemical that activates the brain’s reward center and makes us feel good. Once you eat that candy bar the brain stores the feeling as a memory and encourages us to engage in that activity again. The more candy bars you eat, the more salient the memory becomes. You become “addicted” to candy bars. So, even if you tell yourself you shouldn’t eat that candy bar because it’s not healthy, your brain is thinking otherwise. There is a cognitive dissonance within us – there’s a conflict between what our brain feels (the pleasure of eating that candy bar) and what we are actually doing (not eating a candy bars).
Bad habits are easy to start but they’re much more difficult to stop. Since you now know how habits get started you can employ some techniques to help you stop the bad ones.
1. Make a list of the bad habits you want to change. Do you need to stop wasting time in front of the TV or computer, after dinner? Do you need to stop that afternoon trip to the vending machine? Do you spend too much time and energy complaining about things that don’t really matter?
2. After you make your list then create a page for each item in your journal. You journal can be fancy or just a plain notebook. I recommend actually writing it on paper at first. If you want to create a Word document later that is fine. The art of writing with pen and paper gives you the physical control over your writing and you can carry a journal with you everywhere. By the time you get to a computer you may have already re-told the story over and over in your head until it morphs into something far from what really occurred.
3. Every time you engage in the behavior write down the answers to these questions in your journal:
• What is the date and time?
• Where were you?
• What was the trigger?
• What emotions to that trigger elicit?
• What was your response to that trigger?
• How did you feel afterwards? (The reward)
Make this process effective as objective as possible. Just the facts ma’am! Yes that is difficult, especially if the emotional response is so powerful. Embellishing doesn’t give you an accurate portrayal of what actually happened.
An important point to keep in mind is we don’t really end bad habits, we just replace them with a better one. As you work through this process think of a good habit you can replace with one you need to end. For example, do you end up watching too much television after dinner? Instead of plopping on the couch go for a walk. After a while, dinner is your trigger, walking is the response and feeling great is your reward!
The key is to keep at the new habit until it becomes as automatic as the old one. The conventional wisdom is that new habits take 21 days to form, but there is no good scientific research to back that up. New research shows it takes an average of 66 days to form a new habit and some may take as long as a year.
As with any new endeavor, be kind and love yourself through the process. If you fall, get up, brush yourself off and start again.