The Neurology of Habits

Why are some of us more successful than others?

Unlimitix
Unlimitix
Jul 29, 2019 · 8 min read

Unlimitix, as a scientifically inclined group has to acknowledge the role of luck in success. Yet, it is just as important to mention that after filtering luck out of the equation, there are still notable differences in people’s individual success functions. What are the other factors? And are those in our control? Many are — and one of the biggest ones I have observed in the past is the ability to establish positive habits. Thousands of books focus on habits alone and promise you the recipe for creating the ultimate routine. Some do that convincingly, others don’t — but almost all of them scratch the surface.

In order to understand habits really, one has to dig deep and explore the root cause. One of the ‘deepest’ ways is to explore the neurological, that is the brain-related, foundation of habits.

One of the simplest and most useful lessons of neurology

A fantastic analogy introduced by Norman Doidge in his book ‘The Brain that Changes Itself’ [1] goes as follows: Imagine you are on the top of a snowy mountain and about to slide down. The first trail you start to slide down is absolutely random. After you have pioneered through a couple of new trails, the existing trails become deeper and broader. You will likely slip into an existing trail and stick to it, as the snow at it sides prevents you from slipping off course. At the same time, running down the trails becomes easier and quicker.

This is roughly what happens in your brain when learning new behaviour. The more often you do a certain task, the less effort you need to perform it. The neuronal pathways get stronger and stronger. However, at the same time, it is more likely to slip into already adopted behaviour instead of acquiring new skills. In short: Neurons that fire together, wire together. This is often known as Hebb’s postulate and was introduced in 1948 in his book ‘The Organisation of Behavior’ [2]. The theory has been widely confirmed, adapted and greatly glorified. [3][4][5][6][7][8] There are exceptions, which are however not connected to the point I’m trying to make here, so I will leave their exploration up to you. [9][10]

The idea is simple, but has very strong implications. Firstly, it explains why habits are so hard to unlearn. The counter-principle in neurology is called “use it or lose it”, coined by Dr Kopp-Scheinflug from LMU. Every time you are not doing a certain habit, you are weakening the connection in your brain, making it easier and easier to stop. Sometimes, as the theory of learning goes, simply knowing that “use it or lose it” exists, will help you unlearn bad habits easier. Secondly, installing a habit needs less willpower than repetition. The mere act of repeatedly doing something will make it effortless and easy. At the same time, a tiny change in one area can lead to many positive others. James Clear calls this ‘atomic habits’, in his recently published book which has the same title [12]. He speaks about the idea that a tiny change every day will lead to remarkable results in the long term. Again, a 1% change every day will lead to a 3780% change after a year. The idea that those habits ‘spill over’ and spark many other unrelated positive habits comes from Charles Duhigg [13]. He explains that a study found that going to the gym regularly can lead to many other positive changes, such as studying more often and being more reliable. ‘Neurons that fire together, wire together’ — and you decide whether you link them up in positive ways or detrimental ones.

A note on identity

How could going to the gym regularly possibly make you more reliable? James Clear makes a strong point by identifying three layers of habitual change. The first one is changing your outcomes, the second one is to change your processes and the last one, the very core, is to change your identity. If you are ‘a person of discipline’, you act in a different manner. That identity change can help you go to the gym more regularly, but the general principle behind is much broader than this. Seeing yourself as a disciplined person will help you get your sleeping habits right, lose weight, and much more. Proctor even argues that seeing yourself as a wealthy person, someone who is confident in expressing his interest in accumulating wealth, makes you richer in the long term. [14][15] It is important to mention here that Proctor’s work is not a scientific piece, but his 40 years of experience in studying wealth and money makes his findings at least worth mentioning. If you do want to change your behaviour, change your identity first. Behaviour will follow.

Identity, Process, Outcomes; retrieved from: https://jamesclear.com/identity-votes

Some practical lessons

Again, as a scientifically inclined group, Unlimitix is adamant about referencing scientific work. However, experience often serves as inspiration for scientific work. It is the root that gives direction to science, not its counterpart. Therefore, I cannot resist to include a quick passage on the practical lessons I have learned from years of coaching experience. In particular, I would like to introduce a framework that I have used to initiate new habits in people.

First, a habit should not be a loose thing in itself, as in one particular thing you would like to do. It is part of a bigger system, usually a goal that you have set yourself. The habit of not eating carbs after 6pm could be tied to you trying to lose weight ultimately, but just as well to you trying to sleep better. The habit of studying Mandarin for an hour every day might be tied to your career aspirations, but just as well to you trying to connect with your girlfriend. The habit of writing an hour every day might be tied to you trying to finish a book, but just as well to you becoming a good writer in general. What I want to say with this is that our goals motivate our habits, and they are usually a means to an end.

Second, once you have made the above realisation, you can map your goal hierarchy. That should be having a 20 years goal, a 5 years goal and a 1 year goal at least. For most people, the 20 years goal is too far off, such as winning a nobel price — and the actions that lead to this are unknown. I hence usually recommend to start with your 5 years goal, but be realistic with yourself and do what works best for you. Be clear on your goals, but don’t plan them too meticulously. As you learn more about yourself and the world out there, your goals are going to change. They should change frequently on a micro-level and less frequently on a macro-level. Also, if you have many goals, give them a hierarchy. It will be impossible at one point to chase two goals at the same time, and it will paralyse your decision making.

Third, once you are clear on your goal system, make a list with all the habits (at least 10) that will help you achieve your goals. In the best case, you do that in excel and rank them by importance and ease of implementation, i.e. how easy it is to implement that habit into your routine. There are many practical considerations about what follows afterwards. Reach out to Unlimitix at any point in time if you would like to hear the details. Yet, for the sake of keeping this article short, I will not go into the details. The first thing you do is to filter the habits by importance and delete any habit that doesn’t score top 5. Afterwards, maybe to your surprise, you start with the easiest one — and you do that for the next two months (the scientifically best number is 66 by the way). Afterwards, you will move on to the next habit. If you struggle particularly with one habit, add one extra months of focussing on your implementation.

After roughly a year, you will have rewired your brain completely. Neurons that fire together, wire together. And believe me: You’re going to be a completely different person. Within one year, and I have seen this time and time again, you can make the changes necessary that lead you to becoming the person you always wanted to be, because the moment you started doing so, you already were that person.

Action step

Create your Unlimitix habit execution plan. This starts with you defining your goals and their hierarchy, mapping out your habits and starting with the one that is easiest to execute. The neurological and psychological principles explained in this article support this approach — it is so far the best one I have ever encountered in empowering people to transform their lives.

Sources

[1] Doidge, N. (2007). The brain that changes itself: Stories of personal triumph from the frontiers of brain science. New York: Viking.

[2] Hebb, O. (1949). The Organization of Behavior. New York: Wiley & Sons.

[3] Caporale, N., Dan, Y. (2008). “Spike timing-dependent plasticity: a Hebbian learning rule”. Annual Review of Neuroscience. 31: 25–46

[4] Seung, S. (2000) Half a century of Hebb. Nature Neurosci. 3, Suppl. 1166

[5] Sejnowski, J. (1999) The book of Hebb. Neuron 24, 773–776

[6] Martinez, L., Jr., and Glickman, E. (1994). Hebb revisited: perception, plasticity, and the Hebb synapse. Contemp. Psychol. 39, 1018–1020

[7] Nicolelis, A., Fanselow, E., Ghazanfar, A. (1997) Hebb’s dream: the resurgence of cell assemblies. Neuron 19, 219–221

[8] Spatz C. (1996) Hebb’s concept of synaptic plasticity and neuronal cell assemblies. Behav. Brain Res. 78, 3–7.

[9] Horgan, J. (May 1994). “Neural eavesdropping”. Scientific American. 270 (5): 16. doi:10.1038/scientificamerican0594–16

[10] Fitzsimonds, R. (January 1998). “Retrograde Signaling in the Development and Modification of Synapses”. Psychological Review. 78(1): 143–170. doi:10.1152/physrev.1998.78.1.143. PMID 9457171

[11] LMU (2017). Use It or Lose It. NeuroscienceNew. Retrieved August 2, 2017 from http://neurosciencenews.com/brain-development-myelin-7224/

[12] Clear, J. (2018). Atomic habits: tiny changes, remarkable results: an easy & proven way to build good habits & break bad ones. New York: Avery, an imprint of Penguin Random House.

[13] Duhigg, C. (2012). The power of habit: Why we do what we do in life and business. New York: Random House.

[14] Proctor, B. (2003) “You were born rich”, Life Success Pacific Rim.

[15] Proctor, B. Blood, M. (2009). “Become a magnet to money through the sea of unlimited consciousness”, Micheles Musivation International

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