Science behind habits and how to form new ones

January 13, 2019

The biggest myth of habit-forming is that its down to willpower. Actually, habits are created by repetition. This is the science behind habits and how they’re created by our neural pathways.

The language of habits

As someone who has always been more of a fan of instant gratification rather than working towards something, I’ve always assumed I lack enough willpower to get into good habits. I’ve told myself I don’t have enough moral fibre. That extra glass of wine? Yes, please. Fancy skipping a yoga class and going for dinner? Where do I sign up?

This is of course nonsense and outlines how little we really know about what habits are. We either tend to think of habits as goals we want to achieve like learning the piano and going to the gym or the language shaped around them is really negative. Drug habit is used instead of drug addiction or a 20-a-day habit when describing a smoker. We are completely confused as to what habits are.

What are habits?

The reality is habits are the thoughts, actions and behaviours we do every day without generally thinking about it. We brush our teeth, cross over roads and navigate our way to work semi-subconsciously because we have built up the right habits that enable us to do so.

Habits also include the self-beliefs and thoughts that influence what we do, our behaviour and the actions we take. Self-confidence is a habit, as are so many of the thoughts and ideas we have about ourselves.

The science behind habits

All our habits start with a psychological pattern called a habit loop. Our brains are given a cue, which tells your brain to go into automatic mode and start acting out a routine behaviour or thought process. Our brains are then given a reward which is what helps it to keep remembering the habit loop in the future. The reward might be something as small as seeing the green man and crossing the road.

The habit of making part of the brain is called the basal ganglia, which is where our emotions and memories and pattern recognition are developed. Our decisions are made in a different part of the brain called the prefrontal cortex. However, as soon as a behaviour becomes automatic, the decision-making part of your brain becomes less active. This means we can do routine behaviours like brushing our teeth and crossing roads without being fully aware of what we’re doing. The basal ganglia takes over and we carry out routine tasks without thinking and use our brain capacity for something else.

Creating new habits

Scientists say it takes anything between two to eight months for a habit to become fully ingrained. This means there is (sadly) an element of commitment needed in order to form new habits. I’ve really found the best way to form good habits is to prepare in advance. Make sure you have everything you need. Otherwise, tiredness sets in and it’s too easy to forgo healthy eating for a takeaway or skip a class you may have planned.

However, one way to shake up your basal ganglia is to try switching around your typical day. So, take a different train to work or walk a different way home. We are all creatures of habit (pun intended). Sometimes all we need is to be more conscious of our thoughts, behaviours and routines.


How to make change happen

November 18, 2018
how to make change happen

In my professional life, I work in change communications. I help organisations move their employees through a change process often involving new ways of working. Yet, ironically when it comes to my personal life, a change agent I am not. I don’t like change and my tendency to overthink means I can struggle with indecision even when it comes to the smallest things. I worry about the outcomes and lose confidence in my own judgement. I’m convinced most people don’t like change, but it’s not something we readily like to admit to for fear of being seen as boring or stuck in our ways. However, it is something that needs to happen. We need to evolve and find new ways of doing things so that we can move forward in life. So how do we make change happen?

What is change?

Change is the process or act of doing something different. It broadly falls into two categories: change that we create for ourselves, and change that happens to us. Change we create for ourselves is thought to be the more positive version because we are in control. However, what if the thought of change causes us to stall? In some respects it can be easier to have change happen to us – we just need to react. However, in order to really feel happy and fulfilled, it’s important to take responsibility for our own lives and make change happen.

Why don’t we like change?

The reason why humans don’t like change seems to be in part down to the way our brains are wired. Scientists have shown we find a known negative outcome less stressful than dealing with uncertainty. We can also put huge investments of time, money and energy into our decision making. This makes it hard for our egos to walk away from a situation that no longer serves us. It’s why so many of us have stayed in relationships for longer than we should have done or overlooked opportunities in favour of the status quo.

There is also a school of thought that says unless change can offer twice as many gains as a loss, then people would rather stick with what they know. So our brains need to see something as being twice as positive in order to take action.

However, getting over the wrong decision is part of the human experience and something most people do very well. It offers us learning opportunities and helps us grow. This suggests that even when change doesn’t work, it’s still hugely beneficial.

Becoming more comfortable with change

In organisational change, we know that the process must be managed because people will not accept change overnight. It needs to be done slowly, communicated properly and thoughtfully.

There are principles within change management that can be applied to our own decision-making. We can carry out a pre-mortem exercise which is a technique where you think of all the reasons why something might fail. This helps identify areas to be aware of and put solutions in place before any activity begins.

We also need to be aware that so much of our decision making is based on past experiences and habit. This is one of the main reasons why organisations tend to invest huge sums of money into a change process and their employees go back to doing exactly the same thing they did before. It’s habit that forms our neural pathways and creates thinking patterns that mean we tend to do the same thing over and over again.

In order to really become comfortable with change, we need to create new neural pathways. We need to retrain our brains into new habits. So for the next month, try to do something a bit different every day. Rewire the brain to enjoy change.

5 ways to make change happen (and feel good about your decision making…)

  1. Recognise that change doesn’t have to be a right/wrong decision. You can change your job, house etc – and keep changing it until you find what’s right for you.
  2. Write a list of pros and cons so you’re really comfortable with your decision.
  3. Understand that not taking a course of action is actually a decision in itself. So by not doing one thing, you are making an active decision to stick with the status quo. There’s nothing wrong with that of course. It’s just helped me when I’ve felt in a comfort zone to recognise staying in it, is a decision too.
  4. Remember that change isn’t linear. We all go through ups and downs, and zig zag throughout life.
  5. We all change in our lives. The best thing we can do is understand life has a way of turning out for the best and ride the wave.

How to form good habits

June 23, 2018
how to form good habits

I’m the patron saint of good intentions. I have lots of ideas and plans, which tend to fall by the wayside. The reason: I haven’t got into good habits.

It’s easy to stick to bad habits and harder to take on new behaviours. Our brain has learnt patterns and likes to stick with what it knows.

The good news is, there is a process to all this. We can form new habits.

How do we form habits?

A habit is a type of behaviour we do on autopilot without needing to think. They are  created through repeat behaviours until they become second nature.

Habit breaking is hard, purely because we’re not always aware of them.

To create a new habit instead of the old one, we need to repeat the same behaviour over and over again. We need to be consistent and create a setting to act as a behaviour cue. Once the behaviour pattern becomes ingrained in our brain, it will eventually become a habit.

However, it takes time.

The perceived wisdom was that it took 21 days to form a new habit. The reality is more than three times that amount. Researchers looked at how long it took people to reach a limit of operating on autopilot when for performing an initially new behaviour. They found it takes an average of 66 days. Although, in the grand scheme of things this isn’t much compared with changing habits of a lifetime.

How to get started with forming new habits

  1. Set an intention – decide what habit you would like to break and replace it with. Or what new habit you would like to form. Create a clear vision in your mind and decide how you will know when you’ve achieved it.
  2. Make a commitment – write it down, tell other people and do any preparations you need to in advance.
  3. Start off small – learn how to form habits and then move on to bigger commitments.
  4. Create a context – train your brain into behaving a certain way by designing a scenario around it. Stick to it.
  5. Repeat, repeat, repeat.
  6. Celebrate small successes – congratulate yourself on creating new habits. It’s a great achievement and your brain will start to recognise the reward.

How to start the day on a positive note

June 13, 2018
habits to start day on positive note

Anyone else remember the phrase ‘start the day as you mean to go’ being used a lot during their teenage years? I would hear it muttered after finally dragging myself out of bed in the afternoon – no doubt following an evening of being on the cider and black. But pass agg (passive aggressive) comments aside, there is a lot of sense to it. Personally, I do feel a lot better about myself if I feel I’ve started the day well.

A lot of our actions are habits and putting the right ones in place can bring about simple and effective changes. Our habits are essentially patterns in our brains (neural pathways). It takes time and effort to create new ones. Getting into good habits to begin each morning is how you start the day on a positive note.

Of course, there are always obstacles and incidents outside of our control. However, for the majority of the time, it’s the way we deal with them that affects our mood. Starting the day positively helps frame our thought-patterns and emotions so life feels a bit easier to deal with. So without further ado, let’s look at the 3 habits you need to get into to start the day well.

How to start the day on a positive note; the 3 habits you need

  1. Plan ahead

My day goes much more smoothly if I’ve managed to iron my clothes for the day ahead – rather than picking out what’s clean and hoping for the best. If I’ve made a green smoothie and my lunch in advance, then I am literally winning at life (small things here).

2. Be appreciative and show gratitude

Say thank you for the cup of coffee, your train arriving on time, or getting a good parking space outside work. Feel the appreciation for things around you and events going your way. This helps frame your mood and you’ll start noticing the good things and not look out for everything that can go wrong.

3. Start creative thinking or problem solving first thing

Use the first part of the day to tackle more challenging tasks and save the more administrative, basic jobs until later in the day. Your brain should be less tired and you’ll start the day with a sense of accomplishment.

Be kind to yourself

We’re all human and life doesn’t always turn out the way we intend to. If you oversleep, don’t make yourself an instagram worthy breakfast or begin the day with yoga etc, then don’t give yourself a hard time. Start again tomorrow.

%d bloggers like this: