Harness the power of neuroscience to create healthy habits and break unhealthy ones

Harness the power of neuroscience to create healthy habits and break unhealthy ones

The uncontrollable urge to scratch an itch. The thought of food in reaction to hunger pangs. The unconscious humming when your favorite song starts to play on the radio.

These are all tiny little habits that almost every one of us has developed over the course of our lives, without ever having to try that hard.

Habits are automatic responses to internal or external cues that keep us alive, comfortable, or happy, and with as little input as we can manage.

From the above examples, we can see that there’s a common thread that links all habits.

A cue (itch, hunger, song) an automatic response (scratch, eat, sing along) and finally, the reward that we get from performing the action, which is the most important element of habit formation.

In a study conducted by MIT scientists, it was concluded that in building habits, “primates have an inborn tendency to maximize reward and minimize cost.”

Knowing this, how can we make sure that our natural tendency to form habits works for and not against us?

The answer is to plan ahead, following the natural habit formation loop of the 3R’s as outlined below.

1. Reminder

Reminders are the internal or external stimuli that drive us to engage in our habits.

Like reaching for your phone at the sound of a notification ping or craving comfort food whenever you feel sad.

To create a new, healthy habit, anchor it to something that you already do on a regular and consistent basis for instance after breakfast, when you get home from work, or right before you go to sleep.

A research study by The British Journal of General Practice found that “once initiation of the action is ‘transferred’ to external cues, dependence on conscious attention or motivational processes is reduced. Therefore habits are likely to persist even after conscious motivation or interest dissipates.”

To break a bad habit, pay attention to the cues you already have in place, and redirect them into a new, healthy habit.

For instance deciding that you will eat an apple every time you crave a cookie is much more effective that just trying to fight the urge to eat the cookie, because it will give you something else to focus your attention on, and ultimately replace the old habit altogether.

2. Repetition

Repetition is what creates the habit. Performing the same action over and over again in the same context will create new neural pathways in your brain that gradually get strengthened over time.

This means that the more often you do something, the easier it becomes and the more natural it feels to you.

This is what eliminates the mental resistance we all naturally have towards change and gradually makes the desired activity second nature and habitual to us.

It is important to note that “simpler actions become habitual more quickly.”

To successfully create a new habit, find the smallest possible element of execution that you can comfortably commit to, for example reading just ONE page per day, and gradually build up from there.

This is advantageous because making the required action so small makes it easy for you to do even when you don’t feel motivated, and in the long run, the continued success at completing something so simple will gradually translate into incremental engagement on your part.

3. Reward

It is a well known fact that human behavior is largely influenced by the rewards we expect to gain.

The thought of a hot cup of coffee that helps you leave your bed every morning, the “runner’s high” that helps you train for marathons, or the additional overtime pay that helps you get through the extra hours at work.

Knowing this, you can set yourself up for success by coming up with creative ways to reward yourself for sticking to your desirable habits. Whether it’s a new dress in a smaller size to help you get through your workouts, a “cheat meal” to help you stick to your diet, or an occasional splurge to celebrate sticking to your budget and meeting your saving goals.

The reward is what motivates us to engage in any activity until it becomes habitual, at which point you will be wired to do it simply for the sake of it.


British Journal of General Practice https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3505409/

MIT News http://news.mit.edu/2012/understanding-how-brains-control-our-habits-1029

Harvard Business Review https://hbr.org/2012/06/habits-why-we-do-what-we-do

Psychology Today https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/blog/the-athletes-way/201609/one-two-punch-cue-and-reward-makes-exercise-habit

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