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By Valentina Wright
Whether you like them or not, your habits govern a lot of who you are; your health, your lifestyle, your productivity, and even your relationships. No doubt, like everyone, there are some habits you’d like to build, and some you’d like to break. Whether it’s exercising more, drinking less, or checking in with family, changing our behaviours is easier said than done. What makes these transitions successful and sustainable? How can we shift new habits from the manual labour of constant cognition, to the cruise control of intuitive, everyday practice?
While discipline and willpower are important, they’re a fraction of the picture. This is not a battle of rational vs irrational, where we hope the rational will triumph. Successful habit building comes from helping both sides, the cognitive and emotional, work together. We can make things easier or more difficult for ourselves by the extent to which we integrate new habits with our needs, identity, and environment.
If we want to master the process, we should understand it first.
From a neuroscience point of view, habits are an evolutionary adaptation to save energy and increase our survival rates. The brain is only 2% of our body mass, but it consumes 20% of our energy. The neocortex, and especially the prefrontal cortex (responsible for executive functions, like decision making, logic and reason) are the most energy consuming parts of the brain, while subconscious processes requiring less awareness are the most efficient.
Therefore, the brain constantly looks to save energy by shifting as much as possible from effort-heavy conscious processes, to automatic subconscious processes. While this is great for saving energy, once a process becomes automatic, it is very difficult to change it without re-engaging conscious decision-making and will power. Unless you learn how to hack the system.
Our brain and nervous system has evolved to serve the needs of safety, exploration and belonging. The way we meet those needs has ensured our survival for millions of years. We’re wired to seek rewards, avoid danger and consume energy, priming us to become cake-eating, Netflix-bingeing, comfort lovers. While we all engage in unhealthy activities from time to time with no harm, gaining an awareness of what it takes for lasting habits to form will help us shift the weighting in favour of healthier ones. There are 3 key ingredients:
Therefore, we can build new habits by following this method, or break old habits by interrupting the sequence. If we learn our triggers, understand the positive intentions of our behaviours, and the hidden needs they look to meet, we can replace the process with a different activity to satisfy the same need, and still get our reward.
“It is important to realise that most of our habits and behaviours are actually not intentional. So by trying to fight our subconscious processes with these cognitive, rational, logical parts of our minds we end up just fighting ourselves, and burning a lot of energy in that way”
– Evelina, CEO and Founder
How can we do this in real life? Here we share some brain-based approaches to drive the change.
The most valuable and necessary precursor to habit building is a high degree of self-awareness. Knowing what motivates our behaviour, what needs we’re satisfying (or pacifying) through our habits, can help us hack the system for our own benefit.
For example, someone wanting to reduce their alcohol intake might ask themselves: “What does drinking alcohol do for me?”. They might find the social element stimulating, perhaps they drink to signify the end of a hard week’s work, or maybe they like feeling uninhibited and free from anxiety. All of these are valid needs which must be met, and finding ways to meet them through other means will reduce the likelihood of set-backs.
We are motivated both by hopes and by fears, and how we connect to these can help generate energy for change. Some are motivated by an inspiring future ideal, while others find energy by working away from the worst case scenario. Knowing what drives you will help you to stay motivated.
If you’re motivated by the ideal, start by envisioning the future you hope for. What will it feel like to be there? Spend some time connecting with this desired future state, asking yourself what it looks like, sounds like, smells like. Form a clear vision that you can connect with regularly, and note what it feels like in your body to be there. How will your habits help you get there?
If you’re motivated by avoiding the worst case scenario, or overcoming challenges, envision the future you fear most. Take time to connect with what it would look, sound, and smell like; how would it feel in your mind and body? Once you have a clear vision, note which aspect you fear most. Feel where that fearful energy lives in your body and use it to fuel the habits that will steer you towards a different future.
It’s all well and good fantasising about what you want, but if you don’t truly believe you will get there, trying will seem futile. Consider what internal and external resources you can tap into to power the process.
Ask yourself, “Which of my beliefs and values support my goal, and which limit me?”. For example, you may believe that you are strong enough to make the change, and that you deserve its rewards. Or, you may believe the opposite. Explore the origin of your limiting beliefs, how they are trying to help or protect you, and see if there might be another way to honour their aims without hindering your progress.
Then, ask “What external resources might I draw upon?”. Perhaps a role model for this habit comes to mind. Can you hold them in your mind when making the decisions that will develop your new habit? Lean on friends, family or colleagues, and remember that technology is there for you too. Are there apps, alarms, or gadgets that could carry some of the load?
A lot of our behaviour is automatically triggered by our environment. Rather than understanding this as a lack of control, we can hack the system and take control. Capitalise on sensory cues to give those “little nudges to help facilitate behavioural change” (Evelina). For example, if we want to go to sleep earlier, we can switch to dim lighting, use relaxing fragrances, and minimise stimulating sounds before bedtime. Where possible, design specific environments for resting, focused work, or creativity, and create triggers to kick-start the action.
“I do yoga every morning, and I set up my environment in a way that encourages me to do that. My yoga mat is always out in the middle of my room, so I actually have to step on it if I want to leave the room.” – Evelina
We can also do something called habit stacking. Habits rely on entrenching neurological pathways in our brains, and carving out a whole new path is a lot harder than following one that’s already there. So, next time you want to create a new habit, see if there’s an existing one it can piggyback.
“For example, I’m not drinking enough water, but I always have a cup of coffee in the morning. It’s like my morning ritual. I will have that cup of coffee no matter what. So now, every time I boil that kettle, while I’m making that coffee, I will have a glass of water.” – Evelina
Learning the triggers for our set-backs is vital. When you fail to keep your habit, take some time to reflect on what happened. How might you incorporate these barriers into the plan?
For example, if you fail to do your morning exercise because you wake feeling groggy and craving a lie in, then you might have to acknowledge that sleep is your deeper priority here. After accepting that you can adapt around it, perhaps by exercising in the evening, or taking steps to sleep earlier.
Don’t let ideas of perfection stop you from getting back on the horse. Maybe things haven’t gone exactly as planned, and perhaps you’re not sticking to your new habit exactly as you wanted to, but something is better than nothing. It’s important to keep carving that neural pathway, even if with a lighter touch; consistency beats intensity. First, we make the habit, then we refine the details.
For example, if you’ve lapsed in making lunch for work and are finding it hard to set aside 30 minutes to do so, try taking 15 minutes instead and make half. Maybe you cook the chicken, and then buy rice and salad at the supermarket. That way, you’ve maintained the habit while leaving room to build on it later.
Similarly, if you struggle to exercise for an hour, start with 5 minutes first. Engaging in regular activity, no matter how small, helps us fuel a sense of accomplishment. Successful completion of a goal releases a dose of dopamine in the brain, which helps to embed new habits and build on them.
Think about the small milestones along the way. Having a road map will help you see that the journey is possible, and each time you reach a checkpoint you’ll gain the boost of dopamine, and self-belief, needed to continue towards the next one.
Found these tips helpful? Let us know by sharing and tagging us on LinkedIn. This article was inspired by the live weekly conversations between Evelina and Valentina, discussing the research we conduct at Elite Mind Labs. You can watch the full episode on habits here.
Valentina is a mental health and wellbeing expert with a diverse range of training and experience. She draws upon anthropology, social science, psychology, neuroscience, and philosophy to inform her practice in impact evaluation and therapeutic coaching.
Valentina takes a person-centered approach, giving primary attention to individual experience, while maintaining awareness of overarching factors. She has worked supporting and researching wellbeing across varying intersecting identities and circumstances.