Habit formation is an interesting science. Due to the fact that 40% of why and how we do something has already been decided and programmed by us at one point or another to create the habits we have, it’s particularly important to share with you how YOU can create a new habit and actually stick with it!
1) Understand: Human Psychology—our habits
Over time, we have come to learn more about the human body and neuroscience. Researchers have understood that the basal ganglia is part of our brain central to recalling patterns and acting on them. The basal ganglia basically stores habits even when the rest of the brain isn’t engaged. Scientists tested this using rats in a maze. As each rat learned to navigate the maze, its mental activity decreased. Scientists confirmed the brain probes on these rats indicated the rat began to ‘think’ less and less as the behaviour became automatic (after going through the maze over and over again).
The basal ganglia is a tiny, ancient neurological structure (the oldest part of our brains) that showed it took over the automaticity of the rat’s actions through the maze as the rat ran faster and faster yet its brain worked less and less. This is so fascinating that all animals throughout history have had a basal ganglia as part of their physiology. Species cannot evolve unless they have the ability to create habits because if you had to decide every time you took a step, or looked at a knife or a banana and had to decide which one to eat or not to eat, it would be so cognitively taxing you would never get anything accomplished!
According to Charles Duhigg, a habit is 3 things—A HABIT LOOP (basal ganglia creates a neurological structure for a habit):
- Cue: Basal ganglia says to the rest of our brain “stop paying attention, I’m going to take over now,” on an almost subconscious level. When I see the cue, I will do the next part of the habit loop, a routine or a behaviour that then delivers a reward.
- Routine: the behaviour that feels automatic (no longer need to decide)
- Reward: Note: It’s the cues and the rewards that shape why and how we do what we do! It’s the choices you made at some point. If you can learn to influence the cues and rewards, then you can change these habits that happen nearly automatically in your life. You made a choice at some time, but you stopped making the choice yet continued acting on the behaviour because it delivered a certain reward when you were exposed to a certain cue.
- So, are habits important? Yes! Forty percent of what we do on a daily basis is routine. In this case, let’s take a moment to apply what we know about ‘the habit loop’ with a particular habit we currently identify as something we wish to change!
2) Apply: Learn to Identify a new habit loop of your own
So, this is the time to apply the information about what makes habits stick and identify one area you wish to tackle. It may be a small habit that you do not have control over and would like to address…It might be anxiety that has triggered you to pre-empt a thoughtless reaction such as having a smoke, eating a bag of chips, drinking alcohol, yelling at family members etc. Identify when the trigger is coming. How do you diagnose a behaviour from one of your least desirable habits?
Typically, all cues fall into one of five categories: time of day; certain emotions you’re feeling; presence of other people; behaviour that has become ritualized; or a specific location. It is very easy for us to think we know which one of these is the cue, but life is complicated, and it is difficult to figure out what the cue is.
Activity: write on a piece of paper when you have the urge to do the ‘habit’ you wish to change. In a few days, you will better understand what your cue is. This is called cue awareness. It might be the time of day, your emotions…the anxiety may feel more than actually the time of day. Once you become aware of cues, you are more sensitive to them.
Now, let’s have you execute by implementing a new habit loop (cue-routine-reward) for you so it sticks!
3) Execute: Implement a new cue-routine-reward for it to stick!
To create a brand new habit, it is suggested that a new cue or trigger will create the craving. Once done repetitiously it will become automatic when the cue and reward are in place. To change an old habit; however, you must address the old craving. Keep the same cues and rewards that you already have but feed the craving by inserting a new routine.
By understanding human psychology, scientific research about the ‘habit loop,’ and implementing a new craving (cue-routine-reward) for a new habit, or changing an old habit by addressing an old craving (keep the same cues and rewards as before but insert a new routine), you are well on your way to create habits that stick!
The author of this article, Amanda Da Silva, is the founder and CEO of DS Education Group. She is on a passion-driven mission to create energy and excitement around lifelong learning and professional growth and development. She has a proven track record for effective team management and results-driven leadership as a former CEO of a K-12 independent school in Vancouver, B.C. Amanda is a sought out coach inspiring others to take action and reach their goals through the power of education and connection. You can read more about her services at www.amanda-dasilva.com.