Brain Health

The Science Behind Habit Formation

Have you ever heard the saying, "The way you do one thing is the way you do everything"? A new year rolls around and we swear to start it off right by hitting the gym 3 times a week, living predominantly on green “super” smoothies, and finally finishing that Norwegian novel we bought last year.

The hard reality is that we tend to slip quietly back into our old habits and routines. In fact, it is estimated that only 35% of Americans who made a New Year’s resolution in 2020 were able to stick to their new routines.

Habits are Routine Behaviours

It can take between 18 to 254 days to successfully form a new habit, leaving plenty of opportunity to quit before the habit has had a chance to fully form. Habits are in their most fundamental form, routine behaviors. You probably have plenty of personal habits which you may not even be aware of. It is the active and passive habits that we have incorporated into our day-to-day lives that ultimately determine who we are and how we feel. This accounts for everything from how we wake up, what foods we choose to eat, as well as the thoughts we regularly entertain about ourselves and the world around us.

Harmful vs Helpful Habits

Habits can be either harmful or helpful. They range from active conscious habits such as regular meditation to passive subconscious habits like picking at our skin when feeling stressed or the instinctive reach for the TV remote after a long day at the office.

The main reason why human beings have habits is that they provide a helpful structure for life upon which we are able to build both comfort and efficiency. Our habits are built on the foundation of learning and repetition, which means old habits can be changed and the new ones can be adopted.

Introducing Heuristics

Because of the power of a habit to become virtually unnoticeable with time, bad habits can be increasingly difficult to spot and change. The brain likes to conserve energy, relying on mental “shortcuts”, referred to as heuristics, to progress throughout life. Sometimes these shortcuts are sugar-rushing sweets in the afternoon or getting lost in a feed of TikTok reels on a Tuesday evening.

Heuristics act as a rule of thumb in the brain with the purpose of reaching decision-making faster, freeing up cognitive resources, and saving energy. Unfortunately, pleasure-triggering habits are particularly difficult to break. Enjoyable behaviors prompt your brain to release the feel-good hormone dopamine. Dopamine strengthens the unhealthy habit by creating a craving to repeat the hormone-inducing behavior. Typical dopamine-releasing habits include smoking, drinking, gambling, and binge eating.

Reframing Habits

The first step towards breaking a bad habit is to start by asking yourself the following question: Why am I reaching for this cigarette, or why do I want this cookie?

By starting to reframe why we succumb to damaging routine behaviors we may reach the conclusion that our bad habits are, in fact, covering up for another more important need that is not being met, such as an underlying need for connection, rest, or self-fulfillment.

5-Way Framework for Incorporating Healthy Habits into Your Life

  1. 1. Be clear about your Intention

A good place to start is to be clear about why incorporating a new habit into your life is important to you. This means looking at your life and acknowledging the impact this new habit will have if applied regularly. This mindset sets you up to think long-term which means you are less likely to give up prematurely.

  1. 2. Minimize Distractions

Once you have a better understanding of your “why” you’re adopting a new habit. For example, if your new healthy habit is to get started with Mendi Neurofeedback Brain Training, you may want to create boundaries that will allow you to stay on track. This can be things like identifying potential blockers, finding a perfect training time that suits your schedule, setting up reminders on your phone, and rewarding yourself for staying consistent.

  1. 3. Make yourself accountable

If you're someone who appreciates the structure of checklists, it's crucial to understand how to monitor your new habit effectively. Regardless of your approach, ensure that you make it straightforward for yourself to begin.

  1.  4. Practice

Meticulously following a new training schedule or consuming a completely flawless diet can be difficult at the best of times. Try adopting a long-term mindset and see small bumps on the road for what they are. Don’t beat yourself up if you miss a day, allow your high standards to motivate you instead of crushing your spirit. 

  1.  5. Pause and Reflect

Finally, remember that creating a new habit can take up to 6 weeks. Taking time to reflect, allows you to learn from your mistakes as you go. Remember, no matter how daunting the mountain before you may seem, merely staring at its peak won't help you make any progress. Instead, take time to reflect, strategize, and pursue your objectives with determination.

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