Steps to success – Step 9

Steps to success – Step 9

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In this episode, we talk about hacking your brain to become more productive or to stop bad behaviours! This is all done through implementing good habits or rewiring bad ones.

What are habits?

Habits are your brain’s own internal productivity drivers. Your brain has a lot to do each day between controlling your bodily functions and actions along with your though process. Thankfully, it is constantly striving to become more efficient in doing this through transforming as many tasks or behaviours as possible into habits. This allows you to do things without thinking, freeing up more brainpower to tackle new challenges.

If you are like 98% of people, your habits each morning will remain relatively unchanged. These habits may be to wake up, have a coffee, shower, have breakfast and go to work all without thinking. In doing all of this without thinking your brain has conserved resources to put towards your daily activities.

While this mechanism allows us to become more efficient, it occasionally works against us in forming bad or unproductive habits. It may seem impossible to break bad habits or integrate new ones, but once you know what’s happening inside the black box of your unconscious it becomes far easier.

How habits are formed?

When we first engage in any new task, your brain will have to work hard to process all the new information to complete the task. But as soon as you understand how a task works, the behaviour starts becoming automatic and the mental activity required to do the task decreases dramatically.

Think about how much brainpower and concentration you had to use when you were a child to tied your shoelaces for the first few times. Now I bet that you do this without even thinking. This exactly how habits work in your favour, to save you time and mental effort! This process is known as The Habit Loop!

The habit loop is a neurological loop that governs any habit. The habit loop consists of three elements: a cue, a routine, and a reward. Understanding these elements will allow you to change bad habits or form good ones.

MIT researchers first discovered the habit loop while experimenting with rats in mazes. They discovered that the first few times a rat ran the maze, its brain generated a great deal of activity in the cerebral cortex (the area in the brain responsible for information processing).

However, after the rat had run the maze a number of times, the activity in the cerebral cortex reduced significantly. This was due to their brain converting the sequence of actions, “chunking” them to the primitive basal ganglia (an area partially responsible for automatic movements). This allowed their cerebral cortex to be reserved for more intensive functions. This is the mechanism that operates when you are driving home at the end of the day without actively thinking about the route to take.

The Habit Loop Elements:

  1. The Cue:

The cue for a habit can be anything that triggers the habit. Cues most generally fall under the following categories:

  • a location,
  • a time of day,
  • other people,
  • an emotional state,
  • immediately preceding another action.

This trigger then sets off the chain of events of entering into the routine to get the reward your brain as come to expect from the habit. For example, if you suddenly crave chocolate, this could be set off by the time of day, finishing dinner and wanting a sweet treat, really it can be anything!

As children one of the most power cues we ran into was the ringing bell from the ice cream truck going around the street.  

2.     The Routine 

A habits routine is the most obvious element and easiest to identify. It is simply the action that you wish to change (e.g. smoking a cigarette or biting your nails) or reinforce (e.g. taking the stairs instead of the elevator, or drinking water instead of soft drink).

3.     The Reward 

The reward is the reason that your brain decides that the cue and routine are worth remembering and following in the future. As the reward provides positive reinforcement for taking action, this helps to reinforce the behaviour and engrain this to become a habit. This reward can come in the form of something tangible (e.g. chocolate), something intangible (e.g. a half hour of television or endorphins).

So how do you break the habit loop?

As the habit loop governs a lot of your actions, it takes some self-analysis to overcome any bad habits, or a game plan on how to implement new habits.

I read a book by Charles Duhigg called The Power of Habit which suggests the best framework for reshaping bad habits I have seen so far.

If you want to get rid of a bad habit, you have to find out how to implement a healthier routine to yield the same reward. In the book, he says that once habits are formed you cannot remove them, however you can rewire them to achieve what you would like. The reason for this is that if you remove the routine which would then yield no reward, you’ll likely be unhappy and fall back into the old habit.

The trick is to keep the cue and the rewards while changing the routine.

Steps to implement:

  1. Identify the Routine

Most habits have a routine that are pretty easy to identify as this is the behavior you wish to change. This may be sleeping in, eating junk food or watching too much television. From there, you have to identify the cue and the reward.

  1. Experiment with Rewards

The reward for a given habit isn’t always as obvious as you might think. While the reward for a daily craving for chocolate could be just the chocolate, it could also be the resulting social interaction with the folks next to the vending machine or an energy boost from the calories (which could be replaced with an apple or some coffee).

Experimenting with rewards is the most time-consuming part of hacking your habits. Each time you feel the urge to repeat your routine, try changing the routine, the reward, or both. Keep track of your changes, and test different theories on what drives your routine.

In Duhigg’s book, he would crave a cookie each afternoon, but did he want the cookie or just want a walk to get it or the calories? Was he hungry or was he just seeking social interaction? Each time you try a different routine, ask yourself after 15 minutes if you’re still craving the original “reward”. Duhigg discovered his craving went away after just chatting with friends, so he was just craving socialising, and he isolated that craving by experimenting with the rewards.

  1. Isolate the Cue

With the amount of stimuli bombarding you each day, isolating a habit’s cue is a difficult proposition. Experiments have shown that habitual cues generally fall into one of the five categories;

  • Where are you?
  • What time is it?
  • What’s your emotional state?
  • Who else is around?
  • What action immediately preceded the urge?

To whittle these down, try to think what could be triggering your habit and write down your answers to each of these over a number of days. If you see the same thing reoccurring in one of the categories it is likely that you have just found your cue!

  1. Have a Plan and believe

Once you find out what your cue is, then you can get to work with changing the routine. Just remember to keep the same cue, and implement a new routine for the same or an equivalent reward. For instance, if you sleep in through your alarm, then your alarm is the cue, the action is to switch this off and the reward is the feeling of going back to sleep for more energy. So, if you are trying to break this, the cue will remain unchanged however to get your out of bed (the action), and do some pushups or have an extra hit of coffee to get the same boost of energy!

While implementing any new plan there will be hiccups, however after a few weeks of paying careful attention to your new routine, it will become part of you as a habit.

One of the most important parts is actually believing that you can change this! Studies on AA members have shown that those who give up drinking are those who believe that they can.

On average, it will take around 30 days for your brain to form a new habit or break an old one. While it may seem like a big task, it is worth it in the long run!

So what habits do you want to introduce or break in your life?

Check out this episode!

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