How You Can Train Your Brain to Create New Habits

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Last week, we talked about using the power of our brain to break bad habits.  This week we will be talking about the opposite, using the power of our brain to create new healthy habits.

As elucidated by MK McGovern, habits are sequences of actions that are learned progressively and are more often performed unconsciously. The brain cannot handle every little detail about the things we do. Hence, habits are the brain’s way of helping us simultaneously memorize and repeat the things we do on a regular basis. Instinctively, switching the lights on upon entering the room, lighting up that nth stick of cigarette, and glancing at both sides before crossing the street are only a few common examples of habits that one does every day.

Methodically, the brain is capable of changing, adapting, and re-organizing neural pathways as a response to various changes in the environment or situations. To point out the exact term, it is the brain’s neuroplasticity that is behind all these. Such a remarkable habit-forming capability of the brain can be used to one’s advantage– creating new habits. Suffice to say, using your brain to create new habits and maintaining them is highly achievable. Here are some insights that can help you effectively form goal-oriented habits:

1) Specify the habit you would like to create.


Habits come in various forms and degrees. You may either want to shake off an undesirable habit, transform it into something more fruitful, or start from scratch in creating an entirely new one. By identifying what change you want to see in yourself, you are better prepared, focused, and eventually, more motivated. Be honest to yourself and make sure that whatever it is that you want is attainable and within your means.

2) Recognize the intentions and purpose of your habit.

Knowing your intentions in wanting to achieve something can set you off in a purpose-driven journey to habit formation. It is advantageous to list down your reasons why you want to acquire a certain behavior. The journey ahead may be easy or it may be tough, but as long as you are constantly reminded of why you want it in the first place, it is sure to help you stay on the right track. Moreover, if you are trying to eliminate or transform an existing habit, know what this habit is doing to you and your life, and be aware of the possible consequences if you do not stick to your goal.


Read more: learn how to break bad habits


3) Understand the value of adopting the new habit.

Is it going to help change you into a better person in the long run? What’s really in it for you? The whole process of using your brain to create new habits isn’t going to be easy, so there really has to be a payoff. Identifying the outcome of acquiring a new habit is crucial to keeping you from veering off from your real objective.

4) “Practice makes perfect” and “repetition is key.”

As the famous line of Aristotle goes: “We are what we repeatedly do. Excellence, then, is not an act, but a habit.” When a basketball amateur constantly plays, persistently does his workouts, and never backs out of training, he eventually becomes very good at the sport. When a child learns to play a musical instrument, say a guitar, at a young age, and follows a regimen of practice, his fingers become accustomed to plucking the strings effortlessly over time. It is important to note that the brain is a very adaptive and flexible machine. Change always depends on the amount of effort and time you exert for it to manifest in the results, so does using your brain to create new habits.

Besides, “neurons that fire together, wire together” and consequently, “nerves that fire apart, wire apart.” The neurons associated with a certain activity function together and form a neural pathway. Through practice or repeated actions, the connections of these neural pathways become established and stronger. Therefore, with continuous practice and training, you are also re-wiring your neural pathways according to the habit you want to form. Contrarily, pathways that are not used are bound together weaken and wear off in due time, making room for new neural pathways to form. This is why it is easier to form a new habit than maintain an old one.

5) Anticipate early warning signs or triggers.

What clues does your body tell you that you are on the verge of acting out your old habits? Who and what situations in your life render you susceptible to backsliding? Say for instance, you are prone to snacking on junk food especially when you feel stressed. So for you to be able to overcome this old habit, work on being aware of that moment when you feel the urge to grab a bucket of popcorn and lounge in front of the TV. By anticipating the telltale signs and triggers of your old habits, you are able to figure out how and when to effectively activate your newly-acquired habit.

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6) Create a plan with a solid time frame.

According to an article by Florida International University, it only takes as little as 21 days to kick out a bad habit and practice a new one. With the right strategy and focus, it is possible for you to use your brain to create new habits. Start a new routine and adjust your daily activities according to your goals. Yes, there will be distractions along the way. One might even relapse right at the brink of succeeding. Keep in mind that these things are not indications of failure, but rather how you deal with these interruptions and how fast you get back up that determine the end results.

7) Stay motivated in keeping the new habits.

Staying motivated may not be an easy task. It is possible for one’s level of determination to slide down as days pass by. However, there are endless ways of giving yourself a pat on the back as you progress. One day at a time, as they say. In order to stay motivated, you can envision yourself enjoying the fruits of your efforts. Be optimistic. Obtain positive reinforcements from your peers and family members. They are a very powerful tool to boost someone, both mentally and emotionally.

We have all heard it time and again: You cannot teach an old dog new tricks. However, with incessant research about the brain and its restructuring capabilities, it has been proven that there is no limit to what the brain can do, regardless of a person’s age and gender. Even someone who has been critically ill still has the chance of recovering, so do you if you are determined to use your brain to create new habits. There definitely are no excuses for something that can be possibly done, let alone creating new habits. It is all up to you– and your brain and willpower.

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How long does it take to form a new habit?

Obviously we are all wired differently so how long it takes for us to form a new habit will depend on each person.  The popular psuedo-myth is that a new habit forms after 21 to 28 days.  However, psychology research from the European Journal of Social Psychology seem to indicate that it takes around 66 days to truly ingrain a new habit into your brain.  At 66 days of continuous activity, that habit is going to be as much of a habit as it is ever going to be.  In other words, the action has become automatic and that habit is never going to get more habitual.

Graph from Spring.Co.Uk

Graph from Spring.Co.Uk

Now 66 days is the average and there are always variances.  Some people can form deeply ingrained habits in as little as 18 days while others can take well over 200 days to form a habit.  The ease and convenience of the habit also has a large part of how long it takes to form a habit.

More tips on creating habits

Now in the past we talked about visualization and mental practice in helping us perform at our peak.  Visualization and mental practice can also help us in forming and sticking to our new habits.  Visualize yourself doing the habits the night before bed and visualize yourself doing the habit each morning.

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If you are interested in further readings on creating habits, here are some excellent books on the topic:

The Power of Habit: Why We Do What We Do in Life and Business (name one of the best books of the year by NY  Times)

Mini Habits: Smaller Habits, Bigger Results

23 Anti-Procrastination Habits: How to Stop Being Lazy and Get Results in Your Life

References

  • http://www.psc.edu/science/Miikkulainen/Miikkul-fire.html
  • http://www.stanford.edu/group/hopes/cgi-bin/wordpress/2010/06/neuroplasticity/
  • http://www2.fiu.edu/~oea/InsightsFall2004/online_library/articles/daily%20activities%20to%20help%20change%20habits.htm
  • http://serendip.brynmawr.edu/bb/neuro/neuro05/web1/mmcgovern.html#2

About the author

Tri

Netflix enthusiast, horrible speller, jiujitsu hobbyist, weekend drinker, and occasional poker player. Favorite quote is "[o]ut of suffering have emerged the strongest souls; the most massive characters are seared with scars."

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