We all develop habits, good and bad, over time...but how are they formed and can they be changed?
Habits are formed in a primitive part of the brain called the basal ganglia. They are behaviours or routines that we repeat over and over again until they become automatic.
The brain takes a sequence of actions and turns it into an automatic routine - a process known as 'chunking'. The reason the brain ‘chunks’ these sequences together is to save effort. Parts of the brain are then able to power down, the basal ganglia takes over and we go into a sort of autopilot.
Habits themselves are formed into a loop which involve a cue, routine and a reward.
The cue is the trigger that starts the behaviour, the routine can be something physical but can also be mental or emotional and the reward is the part of this habit loop that lets the brain know if this behaviour is worth saving & repeating.
The basal ganglia is very clever...rather than having us spending all of our time on 'autopilot’, these habit loops have a beginning and an end. Just like a pair of book ends, brain activity increases at the start of the behaviour and also at the end.
Habits can be ignored, changed and replaced BUT if we don’t keep an eye on them, they will unfold automatically like they have been doing up until this point. The brain also does not distinguish between ‘good’ and ‘bad’ habits. Once a habit has been created, it will be always be there. The good news is we can push them into the background and build new ones over the top of them. This can empower us and using this knowledge we can take back the control to make those changes.
Once we have worked out the cue, routine and reward of a new habit, we then need to develop the ‘anticipation’ or craving to drive that behaviour. Using exercise as an example, the endorphin rush a workout can give you or the feeling of accomplishment we get when we finish a workout, these can fire us up and drive a new habit. Anticipating, and in turn, craving those positive feelings keeps us wanting to exercise more!
The final piece of the habit jigsaw is having the belief that what we are doing and the changes we are making, will work! Surround yourself with like minded people that are on the same journey and are achieving the results you want. By seeing other peoples success and the success you are achieving yourself, you will generate the belief that you need to cement these new behaviours and make them a long term habit!