The problem is your brain doesn’t want you to change – and for good reasons.
Our brains were designed to conserve energy for really important things like breathing and coordinating movement. Because habits require less energy to perform, our brains rely on habits whenever it is possible. The routines and structures hard-wired through thousands of neurological connections allow us to operate on autopilot from our subconscious mind without much conscious thought or energy.
Think about the time you were learning to drive a car and how much of your attention was required just to navigate the streets without hitting someone or something. And now, you drive, carry on conversations, listen to music, and amuse your brain in many distracting ways while your subconscious mind drives the vehicle.
This means you have to be very smart and very diligent to override what the brain is naturally programmed to do. In order to change a habit, you are going to have to persistently concentrate very hard to weaken and replace those neurological connections that have formed the habits that run your life. You’re going to have to outsmart yourself!
Changing habits is changing the status quo and the brain panics at that. Adrenalin gets released. You become stressed and revert to what I call “rut-behavior” – the familiar and effortless non-thinking choices. Binge-watching. Junk food. Staying up late and sleeping in. Bye-bye resolutions.
But wait! We are more than our habits – much more. Remember that your brain is a tool for you to master and use to your advantage. There are ways to win!
How Habits Are Formed
If we want to rewire our brains, it may help to understand how habits are formed in the first place.
Blame it on our biology.
Anytime we experience something that gives us pleasure our brains produce dopamine, a chemical that basically teaches the brain what we want, and motivates us to get more of it, regardless of whether or not it’s good for us. This is true for any behavior: winning a race, having an orgasm, eating chocolate, receiving bodywork, snorting cocaine. It’s all the same as far as our brains are concerned.
This fundamental system within our brains is crucial for survival. In order for a species to survive, it must want to continually repeat things that are necessary for its survival – like eating and having sex. (That’s why food tastes so good and sex feels great.) Every time you repeat these activities the brain rewards you with that pleasure-producing chemical dopamine that makes you want more. Brilliant!
When dopamine travels to the part of your brain where memories are formed, your brain creates a memory associating the behavior or trigger with getting a reward (dopamine).
I’ll use a personal example. One of my downfalls is potato chips. Although I’ve learned not to bring large bags home from the grocery store, when I go to the gas station, if I walk into the building, I am so tempted to buy a little bag. Thank you, retailers, for conveniently displaying them right at the checkout counter so I see them every time! If I do buy a bag, and then proceed to eat them in the car, I get an immediate rush of dopamine. I feel good.
What happens next has to do with another area that dopamine controls, and that is desire, decision-making and motivation. Next time I just see a photo of a bag of potato chips or just a gas station or am just driving in my car, my brain releases more dopamine from those memory cells that drives me to go get more potato chips. And that etches it deeper into my brain. It’s a never-ending cycle.
That is how habits are formed.
So, how do we go against our biology? How do we change habits that are not supporting us in the ways we want? Turns out that it’s our brains, once again, that hold the key.
When we reward ourselves immediately after having performed a new behavior, a portion of our frontal lobes associated with self-control, decision-making and behavioral change lights up. Every time we perform this new behavior our frontal lobes light up more and more until the behavior moves to our subconscious mind as a habit. In experiments run at the Kennedy Krieger Institute in Baltimore, it generally took about 50 repetitions to convert a consciously executed new behavior into an unconscious habit.
Habit Formation and Stress
Stress turns out to be our worst enemy when it comes to changing habits. And going against the grain of our comfortable, long-held habits produces discomfort and stress in itself. The hormones released when we are under any stress inhibit the brain activity within our frontal lobes that are cementing these new behaviors into our psyche, so we end up reverting back to behaviors that don’t require conscious decision-making (like eating those potato chips). So successful change depends in part on good stress management strategies.
Strategies to Create New Habits
So, although changing long-held behaviors is difficult, it is not impossible. Here are some strategies I have learned from reading research from those people who have devoted years of their lives to helping us poor souls:
- IMMEDIATELY REWARD YOURSELF for performing a new good habit. Key here is immediate. Promising yourself a reward if you exercise all week won’t work. It has to be immediate, after every single accomplishment. This is crucial.
- MANAGE STRESS LEVELS. Exercise and meditation really help with this, but if these are two of the behaviors you have yet to develop as a habit, then remember, there is always reflexology and massage! They always feel great and are dopamine jackpots.
- SUCCESSFUL CHANGE REQUIRES ABNORMALLY INTENSE, UNINTERRUPTED CONCENTRATION AND REPETITION. That means that when you are performing the new activity you must stay focused on what you are doing to create new neurological connections, not do it mindlessly. And you must keep repeating it day after day, even though you may still be defaulting to your old habit. Remember learning to drive the car? Focus.
- ELIMINATE ANYTHING THAT SENDS YOU BACK TO YOUR DEFAULT HABIT. Imagine you have one strong eye and one weak one. If you cover the strong one with a patch, the weak one will get stronger. But, as soon as you remove the patch, the strong eye will take over again and the weak one will get weaker. So, put a patch over the unwanted habit; completely eliminate any association that will trigger the old habit. For me, that means avoiding the chip aisle at the grocery store; no potato chips in the house; not going into the gas station building; no eating ‘just one’ at a party. The key is to stay focused on strengthening the developing habit. The more we restructure our lives, including shopping at different stores (gas stations, too), buying new brands of foods, eating on different and smaller dishware, eating in a different room, spending time with new buddies working on developing the same exercise habits – the more we will starve the undesirable habit and feed the activity we want to replace it.
- SUCK IT UP! So, maybe you commit to your new habit for two consecutive days – Hey, I’m feeling the dopamine! – and then you slip. This is when you must just make yourself do it! All it takes is two, maybe three weeks of performing your new activity for your brain to produce another chemical called brain-derived neurotrophic factor (BDNF), which neuroimmunophysiologist Monika Fleshner calls ‘Miracle-Gro for the brain’. In addition to helping you think more clearly and focus for longer periods of time, BDNF increases dopamine neurotransmissions! That means the more you perform the new activity, the more reward you get, and the sooner that new activity converts to a habit you will soon crave. So, bottom line: just suck it up! No excuses. JUST DO IT!As you move into creating the new you, please remember that you are doing nothing less than rewiring your brain. Be kind to yourself. It’s not easy. Remember when you were learning reflexology or massage? You weren’t smooth, fluid and confident those first days. It took daily focus and practice to perfect the art.
Creating new habits is no different. Don’t berate yourself for slip-ups. Just start over. Overriding an unhealthy habit requires changing the behaviors associated with it and diligent stress management. Stressing about making these lifestyle changes, or anything else for that matter will knock you off your wagon faster than anything else. Stay calm.