Are you struggling to break a bad habit or inculcating a good one into your life? Maybe you’ve tried quitting smoking to no avail. Perhaps the countless efforts to build the exercise habit haven’t yielded desired results.
Take heart: acquiring a habit takes work. But the effort is often successful.
Habits in the brain
Picture this: you get out of your bed in the morning and effortlessly walk into the bathroom and start to brush your teeth. Brushing your teeth doesn’t take any mulling over. It is as if you are on autopilot. It’s a habit. “Habits are patterns of behavior that have become ‘automated’ after having been repeated over and over again,” says Simon A Rego, Associate Professor of Clinical Psychiatry and Behavioral Sciences at Albert Einstein College of Medicine, New York City. Think: driving a car or buttoning up a shirt.
Neural pathways that govern habits are located in basal ganglia. It is a collection of nuclei located in the forebrain, below the cortex (the thinking brain). “Neuroscientists believe that when we are first creating a new habit, we are really thinking of each step in the process, and the mental activity in the our cerebral cortex is high,” says Rego. “But after many repetitions, as the habit becomes more automated, the activity in the cortex diminishes, and shifts to the basal ganglia.”
But, why do we need habits in the first place? “The theory behind this is that it allows our brain to work more efficiently by having a more primitive part of the brain (basal ganglia) run tasks that no longer require as much attention, allowing the higher order part of the brain (cerebral cortex) to use the freed up ‘mental space’ to process new or more important information,” says Rego.
Recently though, research at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology has showed that a part of the thinking brain—called infralimbic cortex—plays some role in controlling habits, too. The involvement of this region means we can kick bad habits.
How habits form
It is essential to understand the role of cues and rewards in habit formation. “First, we experience a reminder or cue that tells our brain to go into habit mode and which habit to choose,” says life coach Colleen Georges. “Next, we engage in a particular physical, mental, or emotional routine. Finally, we receive some kind of reward to engaging in this habitual behavior.”
Take the example of smoking. A party, where lots of people are smoking, provides a cue to you that this is an environment where you can smoke. So you begin smoking. The nicotine calms you. This is a reward for your brain. Socializing with other smoker friends brings bonus pleasure. Gradually, your brain will start regarding other social situations as cues for smoking, too. A negative habit of smoking has been formed.
But who wants to be stuck with their bad habits all their lives? Desperate to lose some weight or quit drinking? Here are a few practical suggestions to help you kick-start some healthy habits:
- Start small: First day for your new habit? Take it easy. “Forming habits is all about starting habits,” says clinical psychologist Ben Michaelis. “The best way to start is to start small.” For example, if you want to rise early, then try setting the alarm 10 minutes earlier than your usual waking time for the first few days. It’s easier for you to get up at 8.20am than 5.30am if your regular waking hour is 8.30am.
- Track your progress: Self-monitoring is the key to successful habits. “The more you track your behavior, the more you become aware of your behavior and the better chance you’ll have at changing it,” says psychotherapist Eliza Kingsford. Keeping track of your behavior doesn’t have to be tedious. Get a notecard, and simply make a note of whether or not you achieved your goal for the day.
- The 66-day rule: One of the myths in psychology is that it takes 21 days to make or replace a habit. Want to acquire a habit? Just do it repetitively for 21 days. However, a 2009 study in European Journal of Social Psychology showed that it actually took 66 days on average for people to acquire a new habit. Of course, 66 is not a magical number. If you’re trying to acquire a complex habit—like reading fiction for an hour everyday—it may take even longer. The crux here is: your habit won’t be formed in a few days or even weeks.
- Plan a little: You are more likely to take your habit-making goals seriously if you plan them out in some detail. “You may want to start by being specific about when and where you want to start the new behavior,” says Rego. He also recommends tying your new goal to an activity that is already a part of your lifestyle. So, perhaps you’ve been meaning to do a bit of tidying everyday. Schedule it around your meal time. Make sure to declutter a little after dinner. Dinnertime will slowly become your cue to tidy.
- Give rewards: When you’re in the process of forming habits, pamper yourself with little prizes every time you do something right. “We respond to rewards,” says Rego. “They can be verbal (telling yourself you did a good job), emotional (pay attention to how good you feel when you do it), and/or behavioral (treat yourself to something you enjoy).” Fulfilled your promise to practice the guitar this week regularly? Gift yourself a subscription of Rolling Stone magazine.
- Keep at it: Perhaps, you are planning a quick getaway to Alaska? Afraid that it will jeopardize your efforts to form an exercise habit? Not really. A 2011 study in Psychology, Health & Medicine showed that small breaks, such as sick leaves and vacations, don’t really disrupt the habit-making process. Once you return to the environment that provides your ‘cue’ (gym at office, for example), the habit will be reinstated.
Armed with this advice, you can turn bad habits into good ones and improve your life.