How to Build Your Own Neural Route 66

Optimize for consistency to overcome your brain’s inertia in creating new habits

James Garrett
Apr 24 · 14 min read
Credit: V.J. Wedeen and L.L. Wald, Martinos Center for Biomedical Imaging at MGH

If you saw me a few weeks ago on an otherwise average Thursday morning, you might have wondered if I was okay. Out of nowhere, I started smiling and couldn’t stop. The surge of satisfaction was just too much. It was finally working. My years-long quest for consistency had paid off.

Why the natural high? I made a deeply satisfying “X” on my calendar signifying that I had completed the 66th day of my new morning “REM” routine: reading, exercise, and meditation.

What makes day 66 different than the rest? Researchers have discovered that the median time it takes to form a new habit is 66 days (with a range of 18–254 days).

I liked giving my habits project a Kerouac twist, so I took 66 days as my own goal—to build my own neural Route 66.

It wasn’t a joyride, however. It felt more like learning to write with my left hand: doable, but painful.

During that 66 days, there was one time that I was coming back from speaking at an event four hours from where I live. After a long grueling day of chumming it up with complete strangers from behind my booth, I crawled into my car for the four-hour drive home. Pulling into my driveway at 11:45 p.m., it hit me that in the whirlwind of getting to the conference that morning, I’d failed to do my REM routine.

If I stayed up late to do it, I couldn’t sleep in the next day, either. I was slated to present on an early-morning webinar, for which I hadn’t yet prepared. As I sat staring at my steering wheel — all the neighbors around me fast asleep — I knew I had an ugly choice. Give myself a pass (maybe I could make it up tomorrow?), or do something irrational — push through the pain and do my hour of reading, exercise, and meditation right then.

While the research suggests that missing a day doesn’t necessarily doom your seedling of a habit, I’ve found — for me personally — that it does. Once I get knocked off the consistency wagon, I seem to struggle to get back on.

Knowing this about myself, it was then that I was reminded of a hard personal truth: if I want my habit to really stick, I had to be unreasonable about doing it every day for the first 66 days. So I stumbled through my REM routine and then dragged myself into bed at 1:15 AM.

I’ve been on a personal quest to apply brain science to create the habits that will give me the biggest gains in happiness, focus, and productivity. In this article, I’ll share what I’ve learned and how you can apply it get through the tough part of habit change: to overcome the inertia of old habits and establish new ones.

The Neuroplasticity Revolution

One of the most groundbreaking discoveries made in the last few decades is just how malleable our brains are. Before this paradigm shift, scientists thought our brains stopped changing in our mid-twenties. Not so: our brain is constantly rewiring itself. You’ll wake up with a different brain tomorrow than the one you have today. And this happens throughout our lifespan. In fact, in one study done on 57-72-year-olds, scientists found that their brains gave birth to between 500 and 1,000 new neurons in their hippocampus alone — every day.

So if the brain is so easy to change, why is change so hard? Why do we need to stick to a habit for so long before it sticks with us?

Smart Brain/Dumb Brain

I hate to be the bearer of bad news, but your brain is both smart and dumb. The key is to learn how to use your smart brain to outsmart your dumb brain.

Put another way, your brain’s primary goal is to keep you safe. It likes to know what’s coming next; it likes to predict the future. As such, your brain holds on tight to the status quo, not because it’s good for you, but because it’s predictable. Change, from your brain’s perspective, might mean danger. (That’s the dumb part.) No, there isn’t any real danger. But your brain doesn’t know that (and, frankly, doesn’t care). Knit into the neural logic of its operating system is the tendency to keep things the same. That is… unless you convince it that the change you’re trying to make really matters.

So how do you do that? That’s where the unreasonable part comes in.

If I give myself a pass whenever I’m exhausted, I’ll naturally always think of that loophole — a loophole that often becomes a sinkhole. On the other hand, if I tell myself there are no exceptions, I will scan my schedule for opportunities to get my habit done earlier in the day (my brain doesn’t like going to bed at 1:15 a.m. any more than I do). Over time, the daily (and occasionally irrational—like doing my morning routine at midnight) consistency is what convinces my brain that it has one job to do — to make sure my new habit happens every day.

Consistency is the key

I’ve been a yo-yo exerciser for years. You know — on again, off again. It’s not that I haven’t had good streaks. I have. Like my NYTimes Scientific 7-Minute Workout right before I showered. Or the time I was on a roll going for a morning jog first thing after I woke up.

My problem has always been consistency. After a good two-week go, inevitably I fall off the wagon; then I get back on; then off; then on…you get the point. After enough rounds, the motivational whiplash always bummed me out. It wasn’t an upward spiral, it was a sideways spiral. It felt like what went up must come down, which made it harder and harder to try to push upward. Why couldn’t I get enough momentum to sustain meaningful change?

The problem wasn’t motivation. It wasn’t for lack of trying. It wasn’t because the goal was too big (at one point, I tried to do a 30-second plank as my entire workout). It was simpler than that. I hadn’t done it consistently for enough days in a row.

My new REM morning routine was part of a larger year-long quest to rewire my brain — and I knew if this year was going to be different, I had to take seriously how stingy my brain is.

Why It's Difficult to Form New Habits

Your brain, it turns out, has plenty of energy — it just doesn’t like to use it. At a neural level, it’s literally a form of metabolic energy (or the capacity for neurons to repeatedly fire).

As Daniel Coyle argues in his brilliant book, The Talent Code, the brain is a miserly hoarder of its power. Imagine Uncle Scrooge standing in front of a vault full of energy — with that scowl on his face — and you’ll get the picture. Old habits are always an easier, less energy-demanding program for the brain to run. Given the choice, the brain will always choose the easier option.

Notice I said that your brain likes to run old habits, not “bad” habits. Your brain is actually habit-agnostic. It doesn’t care if the old habit is good or bad for you — it’s logic is more primal than that. It only cares how easy or hard it is to run the neural program.

If you’ve run a program for months or years, it’s easy — so that’s the default. If you’ve only run it for a few days, it’s hard — so you’ve got to do some serious convincing to get Scrooge to open the vault.

But once you’ve convinced him to open the vault for, say, 66 days in a row, you’ll have a new default. What used to be hard has now become easy. What used to take effort has now become effortless. Scrooge has had a change of heart.

From dirt roads to super Highways

Another problem with your brain is that it likes to take the road most traveled. Give it a choice, and it will always take the “neural freeway.” Imagine that you’re driving in the Nevada desert — nothing sagebrush for miles around.

Credit: Shirley Dickard

Let’s just say you’re trying to get from Las Vegas to Los Angeles. Taking I-15 is, of course, the fastest route and the one you’re likely to stay on. Now, imagine pulling over to the shoulder and beginning to drive on the sagebrush. What happens to the speed of the car? Where is your attention now focused? Is it more pleasant or less pleasant? The goal is still Los Angeles. You’re just using a less efficient route. Will you get there? Sure. (As long as your car has four-wheel drive.) Will it take more time and be more painful? Definitely.

But if you take the road less traveled day after day, driving over that same stretch of the desert again and again, eventually tire tracks will form. You may not be able to go a lot faster, but you will be able to pick up your speed… to maybe 15 MPH.

Credit: The American Southwest

Now imagine you’re not the only one. There are hundreds — maybe even thousands — of cars who are driving on this same stretch of dirt again and again. If that happens, eventually a dirt road will form. Now, you can pick up your speed to 30MPH.

Credit: Tau Zero

With more speed, more cars will likely want to use this route, and soon there might be tens of thousands of cars driving on the same dirt road every day. Now we’ve got the attention of the Nevada Department of Transportation.

Clearly, if there’s enough demand for an alternate route to LA (based purely on use), it starts to seem logical that more resources should be invested. Soon the NDOT decides to pave the road. Now we’re talking. At this point, the cars can go up to 60 MPH on this road. A serious jump from where we started.

Credit: Mobilus In Mobili

But what if there are too many cars? What if there are hundreds of thousands of cars traveling that road every day and it gets bogged down by traffic? In that case, even more resources will be invested, making it a multi-lane freeway.

Credit: On The Road With Jim And Mary

What does all this have to do with the process of forming habits? Everything. Your brain is nothing more than a complex interconnected system of neural tire tracks, dirt roads, two-lane highways, and six-lane freeways.

Every day, your brain is trying to decide where — not if — it will invest its stockpile of resources. It allocates those resources based on which areas of the brain are getting the most action. New morning routine? Great! Send the reinforcements. Regular road rage? Great! Reinforce the angry circuits. Negative self-talk? Great! New neurons needed in negative self-talk. Meditation routine? Great! Strengthen the prefrontal cortex. Your brain decides where to invest based on use. Neuroscientists now call this phenomenon “activity-dependent neuroplasticity” — the areas that get used are the ones that get strengthened.

There are many ways the brain rewires itself. The first is called neurogenesis, or growing new cells. Remember those 500 to 1,000 new baby neurons in your hippocampus every morning? They’ve got to go somewhere, and the brain allocates them based on demand.

The other primary way the brain reshapes itself is through neuroplasticity — a fancy word for your brain’s ability to rewire itself. If you use a particular part of your brain over and over again — just like a muscle — it will build that particular pathway while letting other, underused pathways wither away.

Neuroplasticity takes many forms, but one of the more interesting ones is laying down something called myelin sheath (or myelin for short). Myelin works as a kind of insulation for neural pathways, helping neural signals travel faster and more efficiently in areas that get a lot of traffic.

Made of fatty tissue that wraps around the longest part of the neuron (the axon), myelin is like the pavement that allows for speed. The more layers of myelin, the faster your brain’s signals can travel. The faster those signals travel, the faster you can think and the easier it is to execute a habit.

Nerve conduction velocity can actually be measured. Although the measured value depends on a number of factors, it is influenced — to a large degree — by myelin “insulation.” A poorly insulated neuron fires at around 2 MPH. A fully insulated neuron fires at around 200 MPH. And if that weren’t enough, myelin can also decrease the amount of time between neural firings by up to 30 times. That’s a lot of dormant potential. How do you access it? Challenge your brain by taking the neural road less traveled. Again. And again. And again.

In those moments in the past when I fell off the exercise wagon, my brain simply wanted to get back on the easy-to-travel neural freeway of not doing exercise. Since not exercising was my default, every time I started driving on the “neural dirt road” of exercise, my brain would protest. But with a dose of stubbornness, day after day, I got back on the dirt road — and, as poet Robert Frost would undoubtedly add, it’s made all the difference. How do I know it worked?

After 66 days, I had this staring back at me.

My calendar marking off the 66th day of doing my reading, exercise, and meditation each morning.

By externalizing my progress by making an “X” for each part of my REM morning routine (including a fourth box when I texted my accountability partner), I kept building the visual proof day by day that turned into the confidence, motivation, and momentum I needed to keep going.

My sideways spiral had finally become an upward spiral. I had stuck to the habit — and it was now sticking to me.

My tracking system, however, was only external validation of a deeper internal truth — an outward reflection of an inner transformation. Although invisible to the eye, there was a deep realization that I was the designer of a neural construction project. My morning routine had actually reshaped and strengthened neural freeways in my brain that weren’t previously there. I wasn’t just a habit designer. I was a neural architect.

But it wasn’t just nose-to-the-grindstone that made my habit work. There were three other keys that made a real difference.

How to Build Your Own Neural Route 66

Now, you understand the primary importance of consistency. But understanding it and doing it are two different things.

Here are the three tactics I use to make sure I maintain consistency, and tips for implementing them yourself.

1. Squeeze out ambiguity

My brain (like all of our brains) has an inner lawyer that likes to let me off the hook. How did I outsmart him this time?

I squeezed out any ambiguity. For me, this meant defining my plan in black and white terms — no room for mental fudging.

For example, instead of just telling myself that I’d do the three elements of my morning routine for an hour, I defined exactly how much time I would do each: reading for 30 minutes, exercising for 20 minutes, and meditating for 10 minutes.

I also set a timer when I began each portion and didn’t stop until my phone’s alarm went off. This may seem like a minor point, but brains work hard to shave off any unnecessary effort. Setting up external markers (like timers) helped keep my brain honest and kept the goal crystal clear.

Set your goal specifically. Take some time to define it in terms of measurable value like time, distance, repetitions, and other units.

Once you’ve decided on measurable values, make a plan for actually measuring them, and implement that measuring as part of your habit routine.

2. Shore up habits with if/then plans

Another key was creating if/then plans to help strengthen my resolve in the critical moments.

Since my new habit centered around my morning routine, a related problem was my nighttime routine. Before I started my habit, I was going to bed an hour later than I wanted. Why? Because in my half-depleted late-night brain fog, I was often too tired to muster the ten minutes of effort to brush, floss, and throw on my PJs. Instead, zombie-like, my brain would often choose an easier option — like dawdling, or a social media binge.

The solution? If/then plans.

Psychologist Peter Gollwitzer has discovered that a surprisingly simple if/then plan can automate behavior — so in the tough moment, it’s easier to make a better decision. With an if/then plan, you effectively “pre-decide” what you’ll do before the moment arrives. If______, then_______.

What was my if/then plan for getting to bed earlier? If it’s time for my 5-year-old’s bedtime routine, then I will brush/floss/put-on-my-PJs before we start bedtime stories. That way, I’ve taken the nighttime friction out of the equation. Once she’s asleep, no dawdling — I go directly into my own bed and win back that extra hour I was losing before.

Although I didn’t plan it in advance, I could have used an if/then plan to handle the day I almost missed: If I get home after a busy day and realize I haven’t done my REM routine, I will remind myself that my consistency is key to my habit change, and do the routine at any time of the day.

3. Add a“plasticity partner”

Another key for me was adding accountability.

I resisted this one for a long time. I thought I should be able to do it myself. But sure enough — having a friend waiting for my daily text saying I’d done each piece of my morning routine put just enough teeth into the commitment to make it stick.

Why plasticity partner instead of an accountability partner? Because to me, the word accountability just feels heavy. But more importantly, I love the idea that another person is helping me not only stick to my habit, but in doing so, is helping me rewire my brain!

On the Road to Change

Behavior change, for me, came down to doing something hard for 66 days.

Your habit may take a little bit less time or it might take a little bit more. But the key for me has been a willingness to stare down the sagebrush of my new habit, grit my teeth, and do it again and again. As William James — the father of American psychology — once said:

“In the acquisition of a new habit, or the leaving off of an old one, we must take care to launch ourselves with as strong and decided an initiative as possible…Never suffer an exception to occur till the new habit is securely rooted in your life. Each lapse is like the letting fall of a ball of string which one is carefully winding up; a single slip undoes more than a great many turns will wind again.”

The reason behavior change is so hard isn’t because we can’t change. It’s because we’re not skilled at it…yet.

Yes, changing your habits is hard in the beginning — no question. But once your neural superhighway is built, you’ve changed the game. What once was painful is now a joyride. What once was difficult is now a breeze. What once was a struggle is now automatic. And there’s no better feeling than to look back at your superhighway and know that it didn’t get there by accident. It was built by design.

Better Humans

Better Humans is a collection of the world's most trustworthy writing on human potential and self improvement by coaches, academics, and aggressive self-experimenters. Articles are based on deep personal experience, science, and research. No fluff, book reports, or listicles.

James Garrett

Written by

I’m the founder of Brain by Design and in 2019 I launched the Deep Change Project, a year-long adventure in Brainhacking. Join here:

Better Humans

Better Humans is a collection of the world's most trustworthy writing on human potential and self improvement by coaches, academics, and aggressive self-experimenters. Articles are based on deep personal experience, science, and research. No fluff, book reports, or listicles.