It’s a familiar story to many of us. It’s the start of a New Year and we promise to do Dry January, sign up for a new gym membership and commit to losing 10 pounds so we can fit into that new outfit. However, many of us find this sort of behaviour change really challenging, and we often fall back into our old drinking and eating habits before the month is out.
So why are habits so hard to break? How can we break unwanted habits? And how can we introduce new habits into our life? Well, you might be surprised to know that you already have the answers to these questions, you just don’t know where to find them. The answers are sitting right there between your ears. That’s right, in your brain!
I am going to explain how habits are formed in your brain and share some neuroscience-inspired techniques to help you break your unwanted habits.
We know habits as things we do automatically. What we do subconsciously. Think back to how you learned to drive a car. At first driving a car is tough. You’ve got a learn how to accelerate, break, change gear and steer the car, all at the same time. You have to consciously think about each action. This happens in an area of the brain called the prefrontal cortex, the part associated with complex thought. Eventually after you pass your test and drive enough, you no longer have to think consciously about each individual action. Driving a car has become a habit.
Habits are controlled by different parts of your brain in the basal ganglia called the striatum. The striatum weighs up whether or not to repeat a behaviour and form a habit from that behaviour. When you develop a new habit, the striatum takes control of that behaviour by telling the conscious thinking prefrontal cortex to stop controlling it.
To develop a new habit, you have to learn the relationship between your action and the subsequent outcome. For this to work, you need a trigger, a behaviour and a reward. For example, if you feel hungry (that is the trigger), that will make you seek out some food, let’s say some chocolate, and eat it (that is the behaviour) making you feel full (that is the reward). The reward is signalled in your brain with a hit of dopamine that’s released as you consume the chocolate and fill your belly.
With the right trigger and the right reward, most people will engage in almost any behaviour. Once a habit and reward are tied together in our brain, the dopamine neurons start firing before you even do the behaviour (picture of someone eating chocolate). And this is what causes craving. Why you want chocolate. Why you smoke. Why you drink. Why you want popcorn when you go to the movies. And this is exactly why habits are so hard to break.
Habits hijack the stimulus-response learning system in your brain by helping you connect certain behaviours with certain rewards. Every time you engage in a certain behaviour that leads to a certain outcome, like eating chocolate to fill your belly, the neural circuit that processes that behaviour becomes more strongly connected. The neural circuit becomes more and more ingrained in your brain. And over time that circuit fast tracks that information about the relationship between the chocolate and your feelings.
It is important for our brain to create these shortcuts otherwise it would run out of capacity and we would get overwhelmed really quickly. Imagine if you had to think carefully about each of the steps every time you had to tie your shoelace or driving your car. It would take forever to get anything done. We build habits to do things more efficiently and to free up our brain to process up other information
So, if you’ve got a bad habit, can you break it or are you stuck with it forever? The reason habits are so hard to break is you have literally woven new neural pathways into your brain. And we used to think that our brain does not change all that much when we reached adulthood. But it turns out that the neural connections in an adult brain are very flexible. With the right type of change to your behaviour, you can decommission neural pathways that control an old habit and replace them with new neural connections to learn a new, healthier habit.
The key to changing unwanted habitual behaviours is to recruit the same stimulus-response learning system in your brain that new habits hijack to break old, unwanted habits. Specifically, you want to break and replace those connections that your brain has learned between the trigger, behaviour and reward.
Based on the latest neuroscience, I have 7 steps for you to help break those unwanted habits.
The first step is to become aware of the behaviour and, importantly, the trigger. Since we perform habits automatically, it may take time to pinpoint the trigger. So, next time you notice your bad habit, slow down and work backward — ask yourself what triggered you?
Once you are aware of a habit, you then need to make the choice to change. This step is crucial because if you’re not willing to change the habit and take responsibility for altering our behaviour, then attempts to break the habit will falter. At this point, it can be helpful to reflect on your reasons for wanting to break the habit.
The simplest way to break a habit is to not be exposed to the trigger. For example, if you often snack and overeat chocolate when you are watching television, the trigger is watching the television. However, for most habits, we can’t eliminate the trigger — but we can reduce our exposure to it by changing our environment. In this example, you can’t eliminate the trigger by throwing out your television, but you could make sure chocolate isn’t accessible in your house by not buying any on the shopping. You would then have to go to the shop to get your chocolate fix, and this additional step already makes it harder to perform the unwanted behaviour.
Habits form because they deliver a reward as a dopamine hit. Most times, that reward is feeling good (thanks to dopamine). When we’re hungry, we eat, then we feel good. When we go to the gym, we exercise, then we feel good. When we’re stressed, we meditate, then we feel good. In other words, we’re wired to seek out things that make us feel good, and habits are no different.
This step is where many people fail because they believe they should “just stop” the bad habit. Unfortunately, our inbuilt drive to feel good overides our will power when we’re exposed to the trigger. We still seek the reward our bad habit gives us. That’s why replacing the behavior with one that delivers a similar reward is so important.
In our chocolate example, you could swap eating chocolate and fill up on a healthy snack instead. You could look for foods that are low in sugar and high in protein or whole grains. These foods will keep you full longer and also prevent that sugar crash.
Your trigger (watching television) stays the same, your reward (filling your belly along with a dopamine hit) is still there, but now you’re eating healthily instead of eating chocolate.
When making any behavioural change, it’s important to be supported in your endeavours. Change can feel hard, so having a network to support that change (and hold you accountable) can be the difference between success and failure. It may be as simple as telling a friend, colleague, or family member that you’re changing a bad habit. Or, it may mean surrounding yourself with others who have values and beliefs similar to yours (like a gym, club, team, or professional organization).
In habit formation, there’s a concept called “don’t break the chain” that helps reinforce new behaviours. Basically, by tracking new behaviours in a visible way, it means we’re less likely to “break the chain” and fall back into bad habits. For example, ticking each day in your calendar when you perform a new habit is a simple way to visualize your progress and provide impetus to keep going.
And finally repeat, repeat, repeat. The saying “old habits die hard” is true. It may have taken months or years to develop your bad habit. Your new, more helpful habit will take just as much repetition and practice to become fully embedded. But you can do it!
That is how habits are formed in your brain and some neuroscience-inspired tips to help you break those unwanted habits.
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