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How to build better habits with the power of neuroscience

Good for your: mental/intellectual wellbeing
Keywords: neuroplasticity, habit loop, decision making, healthy rewards, mental strength

When we look at our daily actions, I am sure you would agree it’s relatively easy to identify the ones not representing our best version. While we all strive to improve, what often stops us from making the change we seek is a lack of understanding of how our brain operates.

I recently came across the book “Build a better brain” by Peter Hollins which illustrates how we can better coach our brain thanks to the latest discoveries in neuroscience, the science that studies how the brain functions. Coaching and neuroscience in one book? Sounds like a match made in heaven!

While the book covers all aspects of the human brain, I was particularly fascinated with the part on habit formation and the necessary conditions to drive positive change and how to feel good about yourself.

One of the most interesting facts I learned is that our brain doesn’t distinguish between good or bad behaviours, it only reinforces what we feed it. Moreover, it turns out we naturally seek to build habits as a way to save energy, which can actually be a good thing: imagine if every time you got into the car you had to learn to drive again!

The good news is we can learn how our habits are formed and take conscious actions in changing them. While it’s not a walk in the park, with the right attitude, knowledge, and a bit of time, we can really boost our personal growth and development.

According to behavioural expert BJ Fogg, habits are formed around three elements: cue, routine, and reward, or the so-called “habit loop”.

CUE
Cue refers to a particular trigger we may experience, and it can be internal such as an emotional state or external like a notification on our phone. Essentially, the initial motivator driving our behaviour.

ROUTINE
As the name suggests, it refers to the behaviour we want to change, whether it’s going more to the gym or find more time to practice self-care & generally taking care of yourself. This is where the habit is built, and it’s important to acknowledge that it doesn’t normally exist in a vacuum.

When it’s a bad habit, it’s triggered by a cue (ex. I feel overwhelmed and so to manage stress I eat junk food) whereas when we are looking to build a good habit, we must proactively associate it with a cue (ex. when I wake up in the morning, I will meditate for 5 minutes).

REWARD
As our nature is to avoid pain and seek pleasure, this represents the most powerful part, as it’s what will help the brain remember to perform the routine. Rewards can be both tangible (earning money), or intangible (getting praised by our friends); what matters most is how valuable it feels to us.

As the reward is what motivates us to act, choosing one aligned to our wellbeing and personal growth is key: when we fail to do so, we risk falling for the instant gratification trap and hinder our resilience. This is one of the most important mental health tips you can try to make yours if you are looking how to improve mental health:)

To build or break any habit, we must be aware of all three elements and focus on playing around with the routine and reward over a committed time. By following this process, we are helping our brain strengthen its neural connections, significantly increasing our chances of achieving our desired change.

PUTTING THE HABITLOOP INTO PRACTICE

Let me give you a practical example of how we use the habit loop to create a better habit. Say your desired routine is to read more often. How often? Let’s say 3 times a week.

Now that you are clear on the new routine, it’s time to understand the nature of the reward.

1)To make the most of this step, you must understand WHY you are doing it. The more meaningful reasons you can come up with, the more your brain will put a value to this activity and connect it with a pleasurable experience (reward).


2)To ensure you stick to the routine, setting your environment for success is key. In this case, this could mean minimizing your browser tabs, putting your phone on airplane mode, or even going to a quiet room. The next step is to isolate the cue. What is the trigger driving you to consider this new habit?

3)Other than your desire to be well-informed, you could be driven by a fear of missing out or by the aspiration of wanting to start a blog. There is no right or wrong answer, what’s important is being honest with yourself.

4)And finally, play around with the type of reward. My suggestion here is to focus on something intrinsically rewarding such as growing your knowledge because when we rely solely on extrinsic rewards that bring us immediate gratification (exvalidation, unhealthy food), we might succeed in forming the habit but not ingrowing as people.

Another powerful approach to help us build good habits is the so-called “if-then technique”.

As the name suggests, it’s a very simple way of anchoring our desired behaviour to a specific moment or event. For example, I could say “if it’s 7 pm on a Monday, Wednesday, and Thursday, then I will read”. Because I am planning in advance and not giving my brain a choice, I am creating a stronger connection between the situation(if)and the action I want to take (then) increasing my chances of   commitment.

How much more? In one study, 91% of people who used an if-then plan stuck to an exercise program, versus 39% of non-planners!

There are lots of talks about the time it takes to build new habits — one study shows the average is 66 days. This of course depends on your condition and the type of habit you are trying to create, but this particular study revealed the quickest was developed in 18 days while the slowest in 254 days.

As with all things in life, changes for the better don’t happen overnight. Also, important is to be aware of common pitfalls slowing our success rate.

According to habit expert BJ Fogg, there are 10 mistakes we all tend to make when dealing with habit formation.

1. Relying on willpower for long-term change.

Our willpower is finite, and part of the game is to learn to work with it, not against it.

2. Attempting big leaps instead of baby steps.

While it’s great to be ambitious, setting overarching goals can create greater levels of stress, hinder our self-belief and lead to procrastination.

3. Ignoring how environment shapes behaviour.

Often in life, there are stronger forces at play, but if we do our best to create the “right environment”(see above), we significantly increase our chances of success.

4. Trying to stop old behaviours instead of creating new ones.

Just going cold on a bad habit might not be the most effective way to move forward. We should focus instead on replacing the old routine with a new one that gives our brain asimilar kind of reward to make the transition easier.

5. Blaming failures on a lack of motivation.

As our willpower is finite, and the environment is subject to change, planning, or adopting the if-then technique can be a fantastic way to automate our decisions and beat procrastination.

6. Underestimating the power of triggers.

Knowing WHY we do things is fundamental, as no behaviour happens without a trigger. If we are aware of them, we can use them to our advantage to drive our desired outcome.

7. Believing that information leads to action.

While reading about the science of the brain is undoubtedly useful, what drives true change is the actions we take, as it’s what allows our brain to cement the new habit.

8. Focusing on abstract goals more than concrete behaviours.

The best approach is ensuring your goals are SMART. Specific, measurable, achievable, realistic, time-bound. For example, in 3 months, I want to be able to run 10k in under one hour.

9. Seeking to change a behaviour forever, not for a short time.

What ultimately leads to gradual change is the repetitiveness and appreciation for the “ritual”. If you follow and focus on enjoying the process, the result will take care of itself.

10. Assuming that behaviour change is difficult.

Not all changes are equally easy, but being aware of the forces at play and how our brain works can take us a long way.

My bonus tip: Focus on the things that make you happy, and be kind and compassionate to yourself. Rome was not built in a day!

Filippo di Lenardo

Co-founder 3SSENTIA

Looking to build healthier habits in your day to boost energy, avoid burnout and better manage stress?

See how 3SSENTIA is helping professionals thrive in their day.

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