The Neuroscience of Change: How to Train Your Brain to Create Better Habits

“The chains of habit are too weak to be felt until they are too strong to be broken.” — Samuel Johnson

Nazman Mizan/Getty Images
Nazman Mizan/Getty Images

“The chains of habit are too weak to be felt until they are too strong to be broken.”   -Samuel Johnson

A lot of our daily actions are automatic. Your brain is like autopilot.

That’s how it conserves energy.

For better or for worse, our habits shape us.

Breaking a bad habit ultimately is about rewiring your brain.

Habits are found in an area of your brain called the basal ganglia.

The more often you perform an action or behave a certain way, the more it gets physically wired into your brain.

This amazing adaptive quality of your brain is known as neuroplasticity.

Your brain forms neuronal connections based on what you do repeatedly in your life — both good and bad.

Every time you act in the same way, a specific neuronal pattern is stimulated and becomes strengthened in your brain.

David Eagleman writes in Incognito: “Brains are in the business of gathering information and steering behavior appropriately. It doesn’t matter whether consciousness is involved in the decision making. And most of the time, it’s not.”

Habits are the brain’s internal drivers.

If you want to change how you work or a bad habit, you should have a clear exit strategy to break out of the chain.

Debbie Hampton explains:

“When you first try to adopt a new behavior, you have to enlist your prefrontal cortex, the thinking brain, and insert conscious effort, intention, and thought into the process. When you’ve performed the new routine enough times for connections to be made and strengthened in your brain, the behavior will require less effort as it becomes the default pattern.”

To change an old habit, you have find out how to replace the routine but still look forward to the same reward.

When your brain expects a reward even after changing a bad habit, you are more likely to pursue the new routine and stick to it.

Enthusiasm is common. Commitment is rare!

In research in the Journal of Clinical Psychology, approximately 54% of people who resolved to change their ways failed to make the transformation last beyond six months, and the average person made the same life resolution 10 times over without success.

Knowing what to do is not an issue, COMMITTING to it is the problem! Many of us lack the proper structures to support the behavioral changes our life goals require.

Commitment, consistency and patience. Those are the hardest skills I have had to learn to use to be better and improve daily.

In his brief 1890 work, Habit, William James, a writer, philosopher and physician considered to be one of the fathers of modern psychology laid out observations on forming new and lasting behaviors:

“Put yourself assiduously in conditions that encourage the new way,” he wrote. “Make engagements incompatible with the old; take a public pledge, if the case allows; in short, envelop your resolution with every aid you know. This will give your new beginning such a momentum that the temptation to break down will not occur as soon as it otherwise might; and every day during which a breakdown is postponed adds to the chances of its not occurring at all.”

Making meaningful and long-lasting changes in life depends on your ability to form and execute new goal-achieving activities consistently enough that they become habitual.

Start a new habit by riding the “motivation wave”

“The long span of the bridge of your life is supported by countless cables called habits, attitudes, and desires. What you do in life depends upon what you are and what you want. What you get from life depends upon how much you want it, how much you are willing to work and plan and cooperate and use your resources. The long span of the bridge of your life is supported by countless cables that you are spinning now, and that is why today is such an important day. Make the cables strong!” — L.G. Elliott

According to BJ Fogg, a psychologist and director of the Persuasive Technology Lab at Stanford, sticking with good habits is not about trying to increase your motivation so much as taking advantage of motivation when you do have it. Jim Rohn once said “Motivation is what gets you started. Habit is what keeps you going.”

In a 2013 interview with Ramit Sethi, author of I Will Teach You to Be Rich, Fogg explained how to ride what he calls the “motivation wave,” or the fluctuations in our motivation levels.

“Motivation only has one role in our lives and that’s to help us to do hard things,” Fogg said.

“Motivational waves” are those moments where we feel really inspired to take action on a list of to-dos. However, when the Motivation Wave subsides, you will not respond to triggers for difficult tasks.

So when your motivation is high, take immediate action on all those hard things you find difficult to start and maintain. The motivation wave might help you create long-term good behaviors.

BJ Fogg explained in the interview that he wanted to drink more tea. So when his motivation was at its peak, he bought a bunch of tea, an electric kettle to boil water, and set everything up in easy-to-reach places on his kitchen counter. He built a system so that it was a no-brainer to make tea whenever he was in the kitchen.

It’s all about predicting the obstacles you’ll face in changing your behavior and making it easier to overcome them.

The next time you’re feeling “motivated” — either right now or later this week to write a book, start a business, go to the gym, learn a language, or a skill — use the motivation wave to your advantage.

Get better one percent at a time

“Compounding is the greatest mathematical discovery of all time.” - Albert Einstein

As the saying goes, “getting started is the hardest part”. Don’t wear yourself out before you even get off the ground. Learning to practice consistently doesn’t have to be half as hard as we make it on ourselves.

So, in order for a good habit to become sustainable and enjoyable, that part — the getting started — must not be sudden. It should be made increasingly automatic. When consistency is the problem, it is far better to commit to practicing for just five minutes or less a day and succeed at it, and then slowly add to the habit.

Success begets success!

Dr. BJ Fogg, at Stanford stresses the importance of starting small in his practical theory course “Tiny Habits.”

To make a habit like practice stick, he says, you must make it small enough for it to be unfailingly consistent from the very beginning. Floss just one tooth, he suggests, do just two pushups, walk for three minutes, drink just one glass of water each day, write a single paragraph, or perhaps, practice just one measure of music for five or ten minutes.

The goal at this point is not volume. The goal is to make the habit automatic. So start by setting yourself up to succeed by giving yourself goals that are easy to meet.

Write a little bit every day and at the end of the year you’ll end up with a book or two. Put some money aside regularly and after 12 months you’ll have enough to pursue something you deeply care about.

A magic bullet cannot save you! You’ve got to embrace the process and enjoy it. You can’t escape the hard work it takes to get better.

Every incredibly successful person you know today has been through the boring, mundane, time-tested process that eventually brings success. So, stop looking for “quick hacks” that bring faster results.

Instead of reading every self-improvement post for the one golden tip that will give you superhuman efficiency, focus on doing the actual work that needs to be done.

You can inspire yourself to take action. The hard, long process is the only way though. You can’t achieve tremendous life success with a quick fix. Nobody gets it that easy.

Becoming 1% better every day is a simple, practical way to achieve big goals.1% seems like a small amount. Yes, it is. It’s tiny. It’s easy. It’s doable. And it’s applicable in most things you want to do or accomplish.

It feels less intimidating and is more manageable. It might feel less exciting than chasing a huge win, but its results will be stronger and more sustainable.

Find an accountability partner

“When performance is measured, performance improves. When performance is measured and reported, the rate of improvement accelerates.”  -Thomas S. Monson

A recent study looked at health behaviors among couples in the UK found that one partner’s habits have a big influence on the other’s. Consider making a pact with your partner or find an accountability partner.

The American Society of Training and Development (ASTD) did a study on accountability and found that you have a 65% of completing a goal if you commit to someone. And if you have a specific accountability appointment with a person you’ve committed to, you will increase your chance of success by up to 95%.

Goals take time, hard work, perseverance and commitment to achieve.

And results often do not come as quickly as you hope. You can easily lose the motivation in the process and give up.

But everything changes when you leverage an accountability system.

To “be accountable,” all you need is a clear goal and a willingness to let others help you achieve it.

According to research, the two factors that effectively help people achieve the behavior change they desire are incentives and accountability.

“Changing deeply entrenched habits invariably requires help, information, and real support from others,” say the authors of Change Anything: The New Science of Personal Success.

Achieving anything in life takes practice.

Writing every day, working out, eating healthy, etc. are practices that get better with time. Whether you want to change your habits, health, body, relationship or your finances, identifying the right commitment system can make it easy for you to reach your goals.

When you are accountable to someone or a group of people for doing what you said you would do, you can easily get stuff done because you engage the power of social expectations.

Build an accountability plan into your next big goal, and see the difference it makes! If you want to improve your chances of success, use the power of accountability.

Breaking a bad habit or developing a good one might be hard work, but it’s not impossible!

Want to build better, productive and meaningful life habits?

Dig deeper

I am creating a simple, actionable course to help you master the Kaizen principles for making good habits last for good. All the micro life and work habits you need to live a better, smarter, and more fulfilling life. Sign up to be notified when it launches.

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