Whether you’re enforcing a self-imposed Netflix ban, looking to get more fit, or are just cynical of the whole resolutions affair, we thought it’d be useful to have a think about behavior change. Why do we bite our nails? What’s stopping us from staying healthy? And why is Sweatcoining so damn addictive?!
What are habits?
Our brains love a shortcut. When we carry out an action enough times, we etch these behaviors into our neural pathways, a process known as neuroplasticity. Once formed, these can be carried out with little conscious effort. All this occurs in the basal ganglia – a cluster of nerve group cells in our primitive brain that deals with routine behaviors. This might be something good, (going for a run) bad, (drinking too much) or a routine behavior (brushing your teeth).
When we walk or cycle to get to work, we do so on autopilot, meaning that we’ve trodden the route so many times that our brains needn’t pay too much attention to the task. Introduce a new route into the mix, and suddenly we need to use our prefrontal cortex to consciously think about when to turn and what street to take, until we become familiar with the route.
Neurons that fire together, wire together
Every time we carry out a certain act, we make that specific neural pattern stronger. So when you’re trying to ditch junk food for salads, your brain is fighting to replace a deeply ingrained habit with known rewards, with a less appealing alternative. When you’re hungry and tuck into a sandwich, your body releases dopamine, a feel-good chemical. As you repeat this action over time, the dopamine release will occur earlier and earlier, to the point where just thinking about that food will give you a dopamine hit!
Cue, routine, reward
A good start to forming new habits or overpowering bad ones, is understanding the ‘habit loop’; what triggers you to do something? And what is the payoff for doing so? Here are some examples: smelling coffee could be your cue to order a latte. Seeing your running gear by your bedroom door as you wake up can help you to associate the morning with jogging. Monday night, 9.00 PM? Game of Thrones time.
A number of things can trigger habits, which sets the routine into play. Next comes the reward; the rush of caffeine, the release of endorphins, or the thrill of watching droves of undead walkers being barbequed by CGI dragons.
Gradual change for lasting impacts
Our bodies and brains crave stability. Oftentimes, pushing oneself too hard can lead to falling back into the same old routines. That’s not to say that radical change can’t be massively beneficial-moving to a new place can be a hugely exciting experience, full of new opportunities, for example. But when you’re trying to develop new habits, incremental changes and small wins can be the perfect recipe for permanent change.
Instead of starving yourself to lose weight, try swapping your lunchtime choccy bar for an apple. Trying to read more? Aim to read a couple of pages a day. By repeating these micro-habits, we build momentum. And remember, patience is key; one study found that participants took an average of 60 days to fully pick up a habit!
Tips for habit building
Want to walk more? Enjoy listening to podcasts? Bingo – by taking something you enjoy (listening to podcasts) and only allowing yourself to indulge whilst practicing your desired activity (walking), you have a greater incentive to stick to it.
Find an accountability partner. Someone you have to answer to when you haven’t done your lunchtime walk, and who you, in turn, can guilt trip for not doing their piano practice. A study conducted by The American Society of Training and Development (ASTD) found that when we promise someone we’ll do something, there’s a 65% chance that we’ll complete the task.
But be sure to choose someone who will be on you like a tonne of bricks when you don’t deliver. Better yet, choose someone who drives you up the wall-sometimes wanting to prove someone wrong can be the greatest motivator!
List your daily achievements
Be it an achievement journal, a daily wins checklists or just a scrap of paper titled “Why I’m so awesome”, tracking your growth is great for inspiration. One study found that out of a group of dieters, those who kept a food diary lost twice the amount of weight that the others lost!
Make a list of the behaviors you want to adopt, prioritizing them as you go. You can do this in a monthly format or whatever suits you best. The key is not to focus on the destination (losing 20 lbs) but on getting there-eating your five fruit and veg a day, or doing a light jog one afternoon. Get those wins down, throw some emojis in there and you’ll be a pro habit former in no time.
Now go forth and change!
Rewiring your brain is a complex business, but we hope you can take some comfort in knowing that there are more approaches to change than completely eliminating things from your life. Positive lasting change takes time, and by understanding how your brain works, you have the power to achieve your goals, whether it’s cutting down on caffeine or banking more sweatcoins!