Blog Short #125: How Your Brain Can Help You Change Bad Habits
Most people think breaking a bad habit is hard, and it is, but where you get lost is in thinking that it depends entirely on willpower. Willpower is involved, but that’s only a part of it. Knowing how your brain works and how to make use of that is a critical part you may not know about.
Today I’ll take you through how this works and show you how to use your brain to help you transition from a bad habit to a good one.
The Brain’s Part in Habit Formation
Part 1: Automation
You likely know that the more you do something, your brain automates it for you so you can do it without thinking or applying direct concentration. It allows you to economize your mental energy so you can use it to focus on what needs your attention.
Driving is a perfect example. I’m sure you’ve had the experience of driving from one place to another and, upon getting there, realizing you weren’t noticeably aware of the journey. Your mind was on other things.
This happens because your brain has established neuron paths and connections that help you drive using your subconscious mind while your conscious thoughts can entertain something else. And the more you do something, the easier it is and the less attention it requires.
Part 2: Associations
That’s the first part. The second part is that you also build a network of associations. By stringing certain activities together, your neurons fire together and create a web of associations to make it all work more efficiently.
When you get into the car to drive, you put on your seatbelt, set your purse or briefcase in the passenger seat, turn on the radio, start the car, put it in gear, and go. Each activity is part of a string of related actions wired together, so you don’t have to think about them as you do them.
That’s how habits are formed and automated.
And, the more you repeat a series of actions or thoughts, the stronger the network and the more set the associations.
Part 3: Attachments
Now for the third part which has to do with attachments.
Driving is a routine habit, but there are other habits that involve strong emotional attachments. These habits are the ones that are more difficult to break.
Smoking, overeating, social media consumption, and picking the wrong partners are all habits that have strong emotional components. They come from your history, experiences, and memories stored in your brain but are not necessarily available to your conscious mind.
Again in these cases, your brain helps you maintain these habits by creating neuron paths and webs of connections that tie different experiences, emotions, and actions together.
Smoking is an excellent example of this. First, there’s a physiological component which is nicotine addiction. Then come the multitude of associations you create, like smoking after dinner, smoking with coffee in the morning, smoking to take a break, smoking when you’re upset, and so on. These associations are all represented in your brain and solidified the more you repeat them.
Let’s go deeper.
When you have experiences with strong emotional components, your subconscious brain logs these in as “important.” It grows deeper neurons paths with associations that set up triggers.
All of that happens without your conscious awareness.
Your conscious mind operates about 5%, and the other 90% represents subconscious and unconscious activity.
Your subconscious and unconscious are always working to make connections to help you survive and predict future events. This is even more so when emotions and attachments are involved.
Your mind and brain form a continuous feedback loop.
It’s an efficient system, but problems arise when you want to change automated systems. Your brain throws up roadblocks because it’s already set up working neuron paths, associations, and attachments.
It’s no wonder moving in a new direction is so hard.
How to Get Your Brain to Help You
When you want to eliminate a bad habit, especially one with a strong emotional hold on you, you can get your brain to help by facilitating some rewiring. Here’s a three-step process to use.
Step 1: Decide on an alternative habit.
If you want to lose weight, you could create a new eating plan, start an exercise program, and read up on nutrition; however, that entails creating several new habits that require a lot of willpower. It’s a setup to fail. Your brain’s going to balk.
Choose one thing that’s doable, feels easiest, and appeals the most. Maybe you walk 20 minutes daily, five days a week, to start. Or you reduce calories by 10%. Make it small and simple.
Step 2: Automate it.
Set up the schedule and do it. If you have a difficult time sticking with that, make it easier. Walk 10 minutes, or lift weights three times per week and do one set of three exercises. Get it down to what you need to succeed.
You have to get under your brain’s radar, so your resistance is as low as possible.
As you repeat it, a habit will form, your brain will set up the proper neuron paths, and if you do it the same way every time, it will set up associations to help automate it.
For example, I walk at least five days a week at five in the afternoon. I wear the same clothes and walking shoes, carry my phone with music downloaded, and wear air pods in my ears. I walk the same path most days and walk for at least 30 minutes. I’m so used to it that it feels weird if I don’t do it. My brain has created neuron paths and associations, and they’re set in my psyche.
Step 3: If you start and fall back, start up again.
This is the pivotal part. Your old habits will pull at you, and your brain will create resistance. You have to coax it by jumping back on the horse and trotting slowly forward until the new wiring is stronger than the old one.
If you remember this, you won’t chastise yourself for falling back. You’ll be patient with yourself and your brain as it gets everything set up and automated.
The need to work with your brain is behind the idea of improving just 1% daily, as James Clear has suggested in his book Atomic Habits. Big changes rarely work well, but small persistent changes work, and recognizing that you’ll have setbacks is a necessary part of that.
When you throw in the towel because you fell back on your resolution, you’re not giving your brain the time it needs to rewire.
Here’s what happens next.
Once you establish a new habit and it’s neurologically embedded, your desire for the old habit will dry up. The old neuron paths will become inactive.
Secondly, your brain will facilitate attachment to the new habit and want more of it.
For example, if your new habit is to eat a healthy diet, the longer you do it, the more you want healthy food. Then when you eat junk food, it doesn’t taste as good as you remembered and it feels terrible.
The lesson is that whatever you tell your brain you want, and you show that with repeated actions, it will accommodate you and want more of that. Not only will you lose the old habit, but you also won’t crave it anymore, and your brain will amplify that for you.
The moral of the story is – Make your brain your ally! It will help if you give it what it needs to create your desired habits.
That’s all for today!
Have a great week!!
All my best,