The good news is that our brains love habit.
Habits are the things we do automatically, without having to think through every single step that’s required. We brush our teeth and get dressed and reach for a glass in the cupboard in the dark without even having to see what we’re doing. Our brain’s ability to store and simply re-use this information has a huge advantage: it’s super-efficient and frees up cognitive space in the brain for other more urgent things, like navigating busy traffic or preparing for an important presentation.
The bad news? Same deal: our brains looooove habit. In fact, the brain actively looks for ways to keep us in habits. The brain doesn’t really care all that much whether the habit is a healthy one or not; it just loves repetition, familiarity, and the path of least resistance. So, it fights change sometimes like a cranky two-year-old, kicking and screaming (neurologically speaking).
The way the brain entrenches us in automatic behaviors is through something called the habit loop. In the three phases of the habit loop, the basal ganglia communicates with the prefrontal cortex and basically takes a behavior and makes it a habit.
First, there’s the cue, the thing that “triggers” a certain behavior. Next is the routine, or the behavior itself (the habitual action). Once the action is taken, the brain releases feel-good or reward neurotransmitters, like dopamine or serotonin; these signal the brain to store both the trigger and the action for next time, so that we can be prompted to do it again. (A reward is only needed to create a habit, not to maintain one – so once the habit is established, the reward can diminish, and we’ll still feel prompted to do the same thing. Sneaky, huh?)
So, in the game of creating healthier behaviors, we need to pay attention to the habit loop: What’s the cue? What’s the behavior or routine? And what’s the reward? What is it that our bodies, minds, and spirits are really craving? A great habit serves the deepest need of the whole person; an unhealthy habit might take the edge off or serve a surface desire momentarily – but it still leaves us wanting for something more, more fulfilling, more nourishing.
So how do we break the habit loop and make positive changes in our life? The key is in the routine because ritual is a perfect fit for how the brain takes in and uses new information via the basal ganglia and prefrontal cortex in the habit loop. Here’s how you can use routine to make changes:
1. Be totally mindful, totally present to what you’re doing because it really does alter the physiological structure of the brain. It is a powerful tool. Practice being aware of what you’re doing before, during, and after a desired (or undesired) behavior. Notice what influences your feelings and your actions.
2. Pay attention to triggers – internal and external – and use them to your advantage. Do you always reach for the candy after stressful meetings? Do you crave a cigarette when your co-worker gets out of his chair to go outside? Do you reach for your smart phone whenever you feel uncomfortable in public? Learning to identify the split-second feeling or event before you act is a huge step towards gaining control.
3. Lay it out step by step. In an order that makes sense and flows naturally, decide how you’re going to approach the new behavior. If you’re trying to quit smoking or checking your smart phone all the time – intentionally create a series of tiny actions that will lead you through those moments. Follow them exactly each time. Think of them like stepping-stones across a river.
4. Repeat. As with so many things, establishing habit just takes practice. A ritual creates the right environment and encourages focus. It’s not always easy but practice does make us better at doing it.
This is exactly how the brain takes simple, small behaviors and turns them into habits. The refreshing bit of good news is that we get a say in how all of that happens.
Lake Geneva Higher Brain Living will host a three-part event at Mimosa starting in August. Please click here to view this event on our calendar.