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The Hidden Truth Behind Habit Formation

How the science is changing the way we think about personal habits and success

Each semester when I teach my 400 psychology undergraduate students, I wonder what single piece of advice I should give them as young learners and aspiring professionals.

Maybe I would tell them they need to memorize the brain’s major structures and networks. Or to understand the plethora of cognitive biases and heuristics we humans have. Or to take notes in pen rather than on their laptop in order to maximize retention for studying.

Nah. These are too simple. I would need something that they could take with them for the rest of their lives.

So then, what advice should I give?

I would tell them this: Have good habits.

The science of habit formation: the good and the bad

Yes indeed, habits are a critical part of our human well-being, happiness, and success. But they’re also our biggest downfall. For every good habit there’s a bad one that goes along with it: I may have a mindful meditation practice each morning and Netflix binge-watching, chip-eating sit-down session each evening.

So the slightly revised, simple piece of advice that I would give to my students, and to you dear reader, would be this: Have only good habits.

Easy enough, right?

Not so much. The thing is, most people don’t understand these behaviors. The power of habits seems to elude us. Despite our best intentions and constant planning, we just can’t seem to get it straight. Fortunately though, the new psychology and science of habit formation has lots to say on the matter. And what they’re saying is wonderfully surprising.

Researchers are finding that opposite to what the vast majority of us believe, effective habit formation has nothing to do with personal goals.

Yes, you read that right. Studies have shown that getting people to deliberate and think carefully about their goals actually prevents them from creating a habit down the road. Think about it. It’s the reason why every single one of your bad habits goes against your deeply cherished goals and personal intentions.

It’s about habits in the brain

Now, what I’m saying here is completely paradoxical: The more you plan carefully of how you’d like your habits to align with what you want for yourself, the less likely those habits are to actually help you be successful and happy.

Why is this? The reason why goals and habits don’t get along is because of how these two things are represented in the brain.

When a person engages in a habituated behavior, they show increased activation in the deep, subcortical areas of the brain (the old animal brain) that are involved in instinctual action and reward processing. They also show decreased activation in the prefrontal cortical areas of the brain (the new human brain), which as it turns out, is the main area responsible for all things goal related.

In other words, during effective habit formation, the brain requires more of its processing power to come from the old brain. Which means that when we think about our conscious goals, all of the brain’s computing power goes to the new human brain, leaving less juice for the old brain to do its thing with habit formation.

So if it’s not about goals or careful deliberation, what is it then? What would I tell my students in order to get them to develop the good habits and kick the bad ones? Here are three simple techniques that everyone – me, my students, you, and the rest of the 7.5 billion people in the world – can do in order to reap the benefit of habit formation. It’s advice like this that is critical for personal growth and peak mental performance. Everyone deserves that. 

3 simple techniques for habit formation

  1. Forming new habits: What will not work for you is sitting down with a pen and paper and writing out a top-10 goals list. Remember, your habits do not like goals. Instead do the following:

    • Think about the reward you’ll get from forming that new habit. What will it help you get? Is this reward something that you need in your life right now, or is it simply fulfilling an empty desire?

    • Think about the environmental cues associated with the habit. What are the string of contextual cues that will “release” the habit in your mind (first) and then in your behavior (second). For example, let’s say you want to read more news media in the morning. You know that the contextual cues of i) wearing a robe + ii) pouring a cup of coffee = turning on your phone. Leverage this sequence and program the news outlet to be the first thing that appears on your phone.

  1. Maintaining good habits: Once you know the habit is adaptive and healthy for you, you’ll want to keep the environment and all its cues/triggers as consistent and stable as possible. If the environment changes, so does the order of the cues and sequences. And in the event that something has to change, be sure to choose your environment wisely. For instance, studies show people who are fitter tend to buy homes in more walkable neighborhoods, and they also tend to buy dogs to encourage daily walking habits.

  1. Breaking bad habits: Habits are sticky because of deep-rooted “memory traces” in the brain, which means they are not amenable to rapid change or reinterpretation no matter how committed to your goal you might be. Don’t just think that you can tell yourself not to do something. Instead be vigilant of the contextual cues that lead up to the occurrence of a particular bad habit. By monitoring your environment in this way, you’re actually not weakening the “memory traces” (they remain just as strong, in fact). Instead you’re actually summoning your brain’s control mechanisms, cutting off the bad-habit cue at the middle.

So remember, when you think about your habits, both the good and the bad, remember that they have nothing to do with your goals. With this, you can easily begin to learn how some of these science-backed tactics can help improve your life, one little habit at a time.

If you’re interested in learning about more action-packed tactics that foster self-growth and peak mental performance, come visit me here

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