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What you are going to learn:
- Why Habits are so Powerful and Potentially Dangerous
- The Three Elements of a Habit
- How a Better Understanding of Habits can Help Us Replace Bad Habits with Good Ones
- A Simple Approach to Overcoming our Natural Resistance to Change
- Why We Often Blame our Lack of Willpower when it is usually our Lack of Commitment that is to Blame
People often say that change is difficult, and they are correct. Change is difficult, but we are all capable of change. Our lives are continually changing, learning to drive, marriage, having children, new job responsibilities, and new technological tools. Initiation is the most challenging phase of any change because when we are learning to perform new tasks, it is mentally exhausting. Learning to perform a new activity requires our cerebral cortex (“Conscious Brain”) to do the heavy lifting.
As the new task becomes routine, the more resilient basal ganglia, (“subconscious brain’), takes over. The action becomes easier and easier to perform. Our conscious brain essentially goes on autopilot, and the actions flow almost effortlessly. You undoubtedly experienced this when you were learning to drive. In the beginning, it required all of your mental focus, but now you can drive, adjust the cabin temperature, tune the radio, carry on a conversation, and heaven forbid, use your smartphone while driving.
Change is possible, but it starts with awareness. The hardest part of creating a change in behavior is just not repeating the behaviors of the past. Approximately 40 to 45% of the decisions we make are out of habit.[i] Unfortunately, these aren’t conscious decisions. These are decisions our conscious brain has delegated to the subconscious brain. Our subconscious mind controls the performance of repetitive daily activities which frees our conscious mind from making countless decisions each day, which would lead to decision fatigue and mental exhaustion. For this reason, we aren’t mindful of actions we have repeated enough times to make them habits.
Bad habits are dangerous because we don’t give them much thought. We encounter a trigger and execute a learned routine to receive a predictable reward. In the early 1990s MIT Researchers studying the brain activity of rats navigating a maze made a surprising discovery. As the rats navigated the maze for the 100th time and zipped through it faster and faster, their brain activity quieted. During the initial phase of the experiment, when the mice were learning the maze, their brain’s were exploding with activity, but now their minds were only active at the beginning and the end. The process of learning a new routine requires the prefrontal cortex and the basal ganglia to work. The cerebral cortex is guiding the action, while the basal ganglia are learning to perform it. Once the routine has been performed enough times, the basal ganglia can perform the routine without any guidance from the conscious brain.
Our conscious mind, which fatigues easily, prevents mental exhaustion by delegating repetitive tasks to the more resilient basal ganglia. Our basal ganglia learn repetitive behaviors and convert the sequences of actions into an automatic routine, which is known as chunking. These automatic routines are stored in our basal ganglia, waiting for a cue in the environment to be initiated.
Every habit has a Cue, a Routine, and a Reward. Our mind identifies the Cue, a physical, mental, or emotional trigger then executes a conditioned Routine to receive a predictable Reward. In this case, the rat encounters the Cue, it hears a click and sees the maze partition disappear. The Cue initiates the Routine, and the rat runs through the maze in a memorized sequence of turns. At the end of the Routine, the rat receives his delicious chocolate Reward.
Our brain relies on automatic routines stored in our basal ganglia to conserve mental energy, but it needs to decide which Routine to perform and when to perform it. The initial spike in brain activity is the rat determining which Routine to perform. Once the rat decides, the rat’s decision centers quiet, their basal ganglia (“subconscious brain”) takes over, navigating the maze quicker than when it was slowed down by conscious thought. At the end of the exercise, when the rat sees the reward, the brain jolts itself awake. It makes sure that the pattern unfolded as anticipated.
Habits are a three-step process. First, there is a Cue, that triggers our brain to execute a conditioned Routine. Then there is the Routine, a learned behavior stored in your basal ganglia. Finally, there is the Reward, that reinforces the habit by causing your brain to judge the routine worth remembering and repeating.
This explains the pattern of brain activity the researchers observed and it helps explain why habits are so valuable and potentially dangerous. Ann Graybiel, one of the scientists who oversaw many of the basal ganglia experiments, said “Habits never really disappear. They’re encoded into the structures of our brain, and that’s a huge advantage for us because it would be awful if we had to relearn how to drive after every vacation. The problem is that your brain can’t tell the difference between bad and good habits, and so if you have a bad one, it’s always lurking there, waiting for the right cues and rewards. [ii] “If a learned pattern remains in the brain after the behavior is extinguished, maybe that’s why it’s so difficult to change a habit. It is as though somehow, the brain retains a memory of the habit context, and this pattern can be triggered if the right habit cues come back,” Graybiel said. “This situation is familiar to anyone who is trying to lose weight or to control a well-engrained habit. Just the sight of a piece of chocolate cake can reset all those good intentions.”[iii] Unfortunately, bad habits are the easiest type of habits to resume because they always provide an immediate reward.
Habits are valuable because they free our easily fatigue cerebral cortex to focus on higher level thinking, but they are dangerous because they remove us from the decision making process. Our mind goes asleep. When applied to good habits, this is a blessing, but when we mindlessly perform bad habits, the consequences can be devastating. Habits are the compound interest of self-creation. Habits form us as much as we form them. This is the reason why Aristotle said “We are what we repeatedly do. Excellence, then, is not an act, but a habit.” No one is born great. If you study anyone that has accomplished great success, you will discover daily rituals that lead to their development and achievements.
“Awareness is the greatest agent for change.” Eckhart Tolle
Awareness is the key to changing any habit because when habits emerge, our brain stops participating in the decision-making process. I am as vulnerable to bad habits as anyone. On the weekends, I typically indulge in a drink or two, but a year ago I developed the habit of drinking every night. It began with me having a drink after an unusually long stressful day at work; then it progressed to an everyday occurrence. What was once a weekend ritual had become a nightly one.
As earlier stated, at the core of each habit is a neurological loop consisting of three components: a cue, a routine, and a reward. The cue, in this case, was me arriving home after work, tired and stressed. The routine was drinking a cold refreshing alcoholic beverage. The reward was a sense of relaxation.
When you are trying to break a bad habit, it is always a great idea to let supportive friends and family know what you are trying to do. Not only will they provide a layer of accountability and encouragement, often they can help you formulate a plan. We lack objectivity when we are solving the problems, we created for ourselves.
My beautiful wife asked me why I drank. I told her that it helped me to relax and I enjoyed the cold refreshing beverage after a long day. She suggested that I substitute the alcoholic beverage for some Topo Chico with a slice of lime. The calorie-free mineral water would give me the sensation I was craving without the unwanted alcohol and empty calories. An additional benefit was waking hydrated, instead of slightly dehydrated from the previous night’s drinking.
Substitution is a very effective way of breaking a bad habit. Typically, the cue, in this example, me arriving home isn’t something we can change, but my routine can be. We cannot always control the cues and events in our lives, but we can always decide what they mean and how we will react to them.
The most effective substitutions are those that provide similar rewards. In this example, the Topo Chico provided a cold refreshing sensation that helped me to unwind after a stressful day of responding to the numerous demands of my job. If you don’t have someone to help you solve your problem, I recommend you brainstorm on a piece of paper. Jot down the cue, routine, and reward associated with the bad habit. Then determine what new routine can provide some of the same benefits that the bad habit provided.
Another technique you can use is shaping your environment. In this example, eliminating alcohol from our home would have eliminated the temptation of drinking. I didn’t choose that option, but I did shape my environment by ensuring I always had lime and a couple of cold bottles of Topo Chico in the refrigerator.
Perhaps you want to replace the habit of staying up late watching Netflix with nightly reading. You could shape your environment by setting-up an ideal area for reading. Ensuring that you always have a great book, adequate lighting, a bookmarker, a highlighter, and your journal to capture your notes in would foster the new behavior. You could develop a cue, for example, “After I eat dinner and clean-up, I will read for a few minutes.” You can shrink the commitment to 5-minutes. When it comes to habits, consistency is most important. Start small and build momentum.
With a little imagination, you should be able to figure out how you can interrupt a bad habit and replace it with a good one. It isn’t difficult, but it does require effort and diligence. It is easy to do, but what is easy to do is even easier to neglect. Neglect is normal. Bad habits are normal. Most of us have both good habits and bad habits. Success in any area is dependent on your ratio of good habits to bad habits related to that area of your life.
“Your net worth to the world is usually determined by what remains after your bad habits are subtracted from your good ones.” Benjamin Franklin
Reading this article can potentially change your life, but knowledge isn’t power. Knowledge is potential power. The application of knowledge is power. Execution produces results. Ideation without execution is the beginning of delusion. Reading an excellent self-improvement book won’t change your life, but repeatedly applying what you have learned until you do it naturally will. “Knowing is not enough; we must apply. Willing is not enough; we must do.” Bruce Lee
Thus far I have provided you with the tools, the mechanics of breaking a bad habit, but I haven’t addressed the Elephant in the room. In the New York Times bestselling book, The Switch: How to Change Things When Change is Hard, the authors describe the struggle we all face when we make a change in behavior. The battle is between the logic driven part of our brain, the Rider, and the emotion-driven part of our mind, the Elephant.
The Rider is weak and prone to overthinking things, becoming overwhelmed by decision fatigue and analysis paralysis. The Elephant, on the other hand, is powerful, fueled by emotions and primal urges. The Elephant can easily overwhelm the smaller Rider, especially when the Rider is uncertain of which direction to go. The Path they travel is the external environment. The Rider can influence the Elephant’s behavior by shaping the Path, removing cues and temptations from the environment.
Environment is the invisible hand that guides our decisions. The Rider must be prepared and anticipate situations that will tempt the Elephant. He must develop a plan and pre-decide ahead of time what he will do when the cue presents itself. The Rider cannot hesitate to guide the Elephant, or the Elephant will quickly take control, driven by strong impulses. Shaping the Path and pre-deciding what you will do when presented by a cue in the environment are very effective, but we still need to motivate that Elephant. Creating a strong emotional linkage between the new habit and the results it will produce will help inspire the Elephant.[iv]
The most effective way to remove one habit is with another; “un clavo saca otro clavo” one nail drives out another. Cues in our environment trigger our habits. When our mind identifies the cue, we need to have pre-decided what we will do so our Rider doesn’t hesitate to guide the Elephant in a new direction, instead of following the well-beaten path of the past. We must give our Elephant a way forward, something to do when the cue is present. Instead of telling ourselves not to do something, we want to provide ourselves with something to do instead. Telling ourselves not to do something, fixates our mind on doing it. When we deliberately attempt to suppress specific thoughts, we make them more likely to surface. Psychologists call this Ironic Theory. A classic example is when someone is asked not to think of a white bear, they find it difficult to think of anything else. White bears aren’t something we usually think about unless you live in Alaska, but when we are asked to not think about them, our mind suddenly finds it can think of nothing else.
Pre-deciding and preparing to execute an alternative action is crucial to interrupting a bad habit. If you are uncertain or cannot perform the new behavior, you will regress to your old familiar one. Ideally, the new routine will provide some of the same benefits that the old routine provided. In my example, the cold Topo Chico gave me the same pleasurable sensations of an alcoholic beverage without any of the unwanted calories.
When we tell ourselves not to do something, our mind is left to dwell on it. In this case, that something is a bad habit that our experience has taught us provides immediate pleasure. Focusing on what you want to avoid doing is like filling your environment with temptation instead of shaping your environment to remove them. Give your mind something else to focus on instead. We all have good and bad habits; our success is determined by our ratio of good habits to bad habits.
A better understanding of how habits work will help you to change your behavior. The five change strategies you will be applying to each of the three disciplines are designed to increase your awareness of cues in your environment that are initiating your bad habits, developing triggers for each of the disciplines we want to build, and shaping your environment to foster good habits and eliminate temptations.
The efficacy of these strategies has been proven in clinical studies, but no approach will work unless you do the work. Unless you give these strategies a sincere effort, unless you change what you have done in the past, you will not achieve a different result. I want you to change the way you think about willpower and habits. Your struggles aren’t unique. Everyone struggles with willpower, and everyone develops bad habits because they are so easy to form and resume.
For change to occur it starts in your mind; you must change the way you approach habits and willpower. Different thinking leads to different decisions. Different decisions lead to different actions. Different actions produce different results. I am no genius, but Albert Einstein was. He said “We cannot solve our problems with the same thinking we used when we created them. The definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over again, but expecting different results.”
For things to change, you must change. These five change strategies will help you Shape the Path, and Guide the Rider. The progress you will see will help to Motivate the Elephant, but ultimately the challenge of getting and keeping your Elephant motivated is your responsibility. You must want the results that the new habits are going to produce more than the immediate gratification your old pattern of behavior gave you. Whether it is a fitter sexier body, more strength, and vitality, greater confidence, or a better sex life you must want it bad enough to overcome the seductive allure of bad habits.
When people fail to change, it isn’t a lack of willpower that is stopping them. It is a lack of commitment. Most people blame their lack of willpower for their inability to break old habits, but this is an excuse made by people that weren’t committed enough to guard themselves against temptation. Instead of admitting that they lacked the commitment to reduce their exposure to temptations, they blame their willpower. No one has enough willpower to subject themselves unnecessarily to temptation. It is easy to blame your willpower. So many demands are placed on our limited willpower each day that every unnecessary temptation is one too many. Willpower is an ineffective strategy for changing behavior, pre-commitment, on the other hand, is a very effective strategy. Pre-commitment eliminates the need for willpower. If you shape your environment correctly and focus your mind on executing good habits you won’t need a lot of willpower. Shaping your environment and developing good habits are the two most powerful techniques we can use to conserve our limited willpower. I hope you are ready for the challenge because if you are, the five strategies in the next chapter are going to transform your body and your life.
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[i] Charles, Duhigg, The Power of Habit: Why We Do What We Do in Life and Business, Random House Trade Paperbacks (January 7, 2014).
[ii] Charles, Duhigg, The Power of Habit: Why We Do What We Do in Life and Business, Random House Trade Paperbacks (January 7, 2014).
[iii]Cathryn M. Delude, “Brain researchers explain why old habits die hard”, News Office Correspondent
October 19, 2005
[iv] Chip Heath, and Dan Heath, Switch: How to Change Things When Change Is Hard, Crown Business; 1st edition (February 16, 2010).
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