There are thousands of small behaviors we engage in on a daily basis that we aren’t always consciously aware of. We touch our faces, run our hands through our hair, chew our fingernails, tap our legs; and most of these subconscious habits are triggered by stimuli we may not be aware of. But in order to change our habits, we have to first understand where these behaviors started. And why our brain repeats them.
Our brain wants us to develop habits. In fact, most of our routines are solidified by a series of habits. When we eat, what we crave, our level of physical activity, along with complicated behavioral routines such as driving a car or playing an instrument are all examples of our brain taking conscious decision making and transferring them to these subconscious routines. Without them, our brain would be required to actively focus on making a decision regarding our behavior all the time.
Imagine if simple things like how to get out of bed or the mechanics of brushing our teeth required this level of attention. Our brain would quickly become overloaded and we’d be exhausted before we made it halfway through our day. Instead, the brain has learned to pay attention to our environments and create shortcuts for the reoccurring activities we engage in every day. In other words, our brain forms habits.
Habits In The Brain
When we are learning new behaviors, our prefrontal cortex is responsible for our conscious decision-making. As new situations — stimuli — are presented, it interprets the data — cues — and assigns it a reward.
This process is known as a habit loop. We begin to associate a cue, or a set of cues, as a trigger to engage in a specific behavior. Once we make the active decision to engage in the behavior we begin reinforcing the cues, leading to the reward. When our brain receives the reward a few times, it begins creating a path identifying the cue as the kick-off to the reward. And once our brain solidifies this path, it moves the entire behavioral process out of our executive decision-making prefrontal cortex into the part of our brain responsible for automatic functionality, the basal ganglia.
The basal ganglia is key in the development of emotions, memories, and pattern recognition. And a habit is nothing more than an elegant pattern. When we learn new behaviors, the neurons in our brain fire nonstop during the activity. However, as the behavior becomes learned, the neurons begin firing less, focusing more on the first behavior and the last, in a process called book-ending.
Ever left your house wondering if you left the garage door open or if you turned the coffee maker off? We all have. And it’s this book-ending process that’s responsible. Once our brain recognizes the cue, we simply follow the routine without thinking, behaving on a learned auto-pilot.
The upside to these habits is that once these behavioral routines move into the automatic processing functions our brain is freed to focus on the tasks that require more brainpower to complete. And once we understand how the brain forms habits, we can learn how to train our brain into forming healthy habit routines.
Six Ways To Hack A Habit
1. Start Small
The most important thing when attempting to form a new habit is being realistic with our goals. If we expect to run a marathon in two weeks on our first attempt at training, we’re probably going to become frustrated with our results. Instead, we should start with small bite-size goals.
If getting more exercise is our ultimate goal, we need to take a look at our daily routine. Perhaps parking the car at the back of parking lots or at the top of parking garages will help us walk more. Or we can take the stairs over the elevator or walk around the building on our breaks. These small goals are called micro-adjustments. We use them to change small pieces of a behavior, nudging us closer and closer to our desired goal. Using micro-adjustments ensures that our brain finds the quickest path to the goal-reward loop.
2. Use Visual Cues
Since we know the brain needs to associate a cue with a behavior, we can jumpstart the process by deliberately using chosen cues. Hanging up our workout clothes so that they’re the first thing we see when we get home can cue our brain to begin an exercise routine. A large post-it on a computer, setting a timer or an alarm, even wearing different color shoe laces can all help form a trigger in our brain, helping to begin forming a new routine.
To change a habit, it’s a good idea to use existing triggers to our benefit. For example, smokers often report craving a cigarette after eating a meal, and therapists have successfully used this already established trigger as a way to mold non-smoking behaviors. By using the end of a meal as a signal to, say, take a walk instead of smoke, the brain has an easier time coding this new habit into the book-ended behavior behavioral process, thereby helping replace a “bad” habit with a “good” one.
When tackling a behavior we find difficult, be sure to use visual cues that are difficult to ignore or require physical action in order to stop or move the cue. Placing an alarm clock across the room, for example, forces us out of bed, making it easier to stay awake and jumpstart our morning.
3. Seize The Morning
The dreaded morning advice. We know, not everyone is a morning person. But there’s a reason experts always advise us to seize the morning. Turns out, willpower isn’t an intangible thing that we either have or we don’t. It’s a direct result of the level of serotonin in our brain. And serotonin likes the morning.
Serotonin and melatonin work hand in hand to control our sleep cycle. Since melatonin increases at night, helping us rest, serotonin naturally increases in the morning hours, helping us wake up. More than that, serotonin is the brain chemical translation of willpower. Increased levels of serotonin have been shown to increase motivation, not just for short-term problem solving or physical activity, but for long-term sustained reward seeking.
Researchers have shown that higher levels of serotonin in the brain make tasks appear easier to us. When presented with a challenge or problem, we are able to find the motivation and focus required when our serotonin levels are boosted. Further, we are also able to delay our immediate impulse for gratification, holding out for bigger and better rewards as well. And this is exactly what we need when establishing new behavioral routines and solidifying these routines into habits.
4. Have Some Fun
There’s nothing in the habit handbook that says forming new routines has to be all work and no play. In fact, the more fun we make it, the faster we can train our brain into forming a new reward. And when it comes to cementing any behavior into a steadfast habit, it’s all about the reward.
The good news is rewards come in all shapes and sizes, and often, what our brain finds rewarding can be different than we initially suspected. Because so many triggers and rewards are formed subconsciously, they can be difficult to pull apart. We may avoid going to the cafeteria at work or eating out at restaurants as a way to avoid the temptation of cheating on our new dietary goal. However, if our reward isn’t the donut or french fries but instead the social company, eating a salad at our desk is doomed for failure. Instead, having lunch with friends at healthier restaurants will meet your reward while linking healthier eating with having fun.
We can use this same approach by getting our nails done frequently as a way to stop biting them, making a morning playlist to to help us wake up early, or playing our favorite songs when we exercise. The more fun we make falling into our new habit, the easier the habit will form. A win-win all round.
5. Make It Easy
When we’re learning a new behavior, convenience is key. And nothing says easy like being prepared. More than setting up a visual cue, preparation is about eliminating as many obstacles that will prevent you from forming your new routine.
If eating healthy is our goal, we can plan our meals in advance. By going to the grocery store and ensuring we have healthy snacks on hand, on top of all the ingredients we need for our daily meals, we can set up ourselves up for success in meeting our mealtime goals. We can go further with weekly meal preparation or even make use of our morning routine by finding easy slow cooker recipes so we come home to a delicious and healthy meal. The easier we make our goals, the faster we can cement these new behaviors into habits.
6. Use External Reinforcements
Jerry Seinfeld long ago revealed his productivity secret. He hung up a year-long calendar on his wall and would mark each day with a giant red X when he met his writing goals. Every day his chain of X’s grew, and the motivation to keep going grew with it.
This trick wraps several several habit hacks into one. It’s using a strong visual cue, prompting motivation, while also reminding the brain of its goal: don’t break the chain. And by repeating the same behavior daily, this method is a sure-fire way to cement this behavior into a well-established habit. With the prevalence of smart phones, there are all kinds of tracking apps designed exactly for this purpose.
Don’t stop with an app or a calendar for your external reinforcements. Another effective method is an accountability partner, where you both commit to sending your goal in the morning and a check-in at night. By including an outside source into your goal, that morning check-in becomes a cue that this is important, and your brain will work to prioritize this goal and put it in the forefront of your conscious thinking.
Our brain wants us to form habits, but it’s up to us to ensure they are healthy habits. By starting small, being prepared, and understanding how to maximize our willpower, we can have fun while training our brain to form new habits. So grab a buddy and start making changes to your routine today.