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A fresh start feels incredible. New Year. New home. New job. New relationship. Life changes bring hope and intention for new. Whether you’re vowing to stop working so much or to start working out every day, incorporating new behaviors require similar approaches. You’re tapping into the part of your brain that’s in charge of habit and understanding the science behind creating new habits may very well be the key to your success.
Researchers have identified two places in the brain that are in charge of habits: the basal ganglia which is partly responsible for motivation and inhibition and the brain stem which regulates natural body functions and controls the motor and sensory systems. However, just like there’s no magical formula for losing weight, science has yet to uncover a magical formula for forming new habits.
In his book The Power of Habit, Charles Duhigg explains that every habit is different and thus the way to create new habits is also different. Your brain processes going to the gym every day in a different way than it tackles efforts to be more organized or punctual.
Science is still exploring why some habits are easier to pick up while others are more difficult but the science of creating new habits has shown that there are thousands of ways to make new behaviors become routine. As each habit is unique and each person dealing with that habit is unique, you’ll have to find the ones that work best for you.
While the specifics may be different, researchers at MIT discovered one common characteristic in the way that we all adopt new habits: our brains form a habit loop—three steps that make behaviors, well, habitual. In a habit loop our brains:
- Encounter a trigger that starts a behavior
- Begin that routine behavior
- Experience a reward when the routine is complete
This habit loop applies to both good and bad habits. For example, you might set your coffee pot to start brewing at 5:45 a.m. in an effort to wake up earlier. At 5:50 a.m., your brain will receive a cue from the aroma of brewing coffee. You’ll get up and pour yourself a cup of coffee. Your brain will be rewarded with a hit of caffeine.
Similarly, your coworker might always go for an afternoon cookie at 2:30 p.m. That cue might trigger you to crave nicotine, your way of avoiding eating unnecessary calories. Simply looking at your coworker eating a cookie will tell your brain that it’s time to smoke and outside you’ll go.
Create Your Own Loop
The science behind creating new habits suggests that forming a new habit may be as simple as creating your own loop. In his book, Duhigg suggests a four-step process for harnessing the powers of the habit loop to form good habits (and to break bad ones):
Identify the routine. This one is usually simple. All you need to do is figure out which behavior you want to start. Go to the gym. Read daily. Stay more organized.
Experiment with rewards. Every habit is driven by some kind of craving—to escape boredom, to release stress, to feel connected. Want to read more? Join a book club that will offer a social outlet. Trying to take up running? Look forward to the five minutes of stretching afterward that will help you relax. Experiment until you find a way to make your new behavior satisfying on another level.
Choose the cue. Figure out what’s going to send your brain the message that it’s time to kick into habit mode. Pick a trigger that’s already part of your life like a time, a place, or an emotional state. For example, you arrive at work every day, so if you’re trying to get more organized, arrive at work and then make a list of your top five priorities. No email. No checking in with colleagues.
Your “and then” must immediately follow your trigger. You feel anxious and then you immediately sing your favorite song in your head. You turn on the light and then you hang up your keys. Find the cue and connect the new behavior.
Have a plan. As they say, practice makes perfect and you’ll have to practice your new behavior before you’ll actually create a habit loop. Come up with tricks to remind yourself about your newly-formed habit like leaving a memo on your monitor at work that you’re supposed to create a priority list before doing anything else.
If you tend to forget your new intentions or always have an excuse ready, create an if/then plan to counter any excuses and keep yourself on track. If you don’t want to clean the bathroom, play video games for 10 minutes first but then afterwards you must clean.
While you’ll have to adjust the details to accommodate your brain and behaviors as well as the habit that you’re trying to create, this game plan for making your own habit loop taps into the science of creating new habits to help you succeed.
Here are a few more tips that can help support your efforts:
Create small, attainable goals. Instead of trying to work out every day, aim to work out four days this week. Your brain can handle the logistics of making that happen and once you’ve succeeded, your success will serve as motivation to stick with your newfound habit.
Decide in advance. After you’ve set your goal to work out four days this week, decide when and how you’ll do it. Book a spinning class Wednesday afternoon before you pick up the kids from school. Plan to meet the running club on Friday morning before the storm rolls in. By eliminating choices, your brain will only have to focus on actually meeting your goal, instead of how you’re going to do it.
Think about the process, not just the results. According to research from UCLA, fixating on your results or an outcome can actually decrease your odds of successfully sticking with a habit. If you’re trying to work out regularly, you might be tempted to think of your trim figure or the compliments you’ll get.
If you incorporate the vision of sweating on the treadmill and hoisting kettlebells to get those results, the study suggests that you’ll be more likely to stick with your new routine.
Forming new habits is definitely challenging but it isn’t impossible—especially when you understand the science behind creating new habits and how to make it work for you! If you’re already an expert at making goals, creating new habits, and finding motivation, consider applying your talents to working with others as a life coach.
Cheers to you and your goals in the coming year!