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Beginners Introduction to Using Habits to Change Behaviour

the science of habits and how to change our behaviour post by tenacious thinker image of person doing yoga and person reading

Our brains love efficiency. They seek patterns so that decisions are made faster. Patterns repeat which makes them easy to predict; your brain doesn’t need to do as much thinking if it’s following a blueprint.

Whether we’re conscious of it or not, our brains are always looking to cut corners. They create habits, where they can use existing instructions and follow a predetermined pattern. When we understand how our brain forms habits, we can use this to our advantage to get rid of habits that don’t serve us, and replace them with ones that do.

Our brain doesn’t differentiate between good and bad habits; it wants to get things done more efficiently. This means our brains will happily let us engage in bad habits as long as it is following a pattern. But if we’re conscious of our brain’s habit-forming ability, we can make it work for us.

What is a Habit?

A habit is simply a behavior that is regularly repeated. Over time, a habit can become automatic. A habit is considered automatic when we perform it with a lack of awareness, unintentionally, and uncontrollably. Some examples of automatic habits we may have are:

  • Grabbing our phones
  • Brushing our teeth
  • Making our morning coffee

Unless your brain is dramatically malfunctioning, you probably have several automatic habits you do throughout the day. If a habit negatively impacts you, like eating junk food late at night, we consider it a bad habit. A good habit positively impacts you; such as going for a run every morning. Some habits are just neutral; they let the brain switch to autopilot and conserve its energy, and don’t impact us significantly.

How Are Habits Formed?

Simply put, a habit is formed when we repeatedly perform a behavior. Part of our brain, the basal ganglia, sees this repetition and takes the behavior and turns it into an automatic routine.

There are three components to a habit; there’s the behavior, of course, but there is also the cue to do the behavior and the reward for doing it. These 3 components make up the habit loop.

  1. The Context Cue
  2. The Behaviour
  3. The Reward

The cue, or context cue, is the hint that it’s time to do the behavior: this could be waking up, walking into the bathroom, or when you get home from work. Types of cues include time, environment (where you are), preceding event, emotion, other people.

The behavior is the action part of the habit. The reward is positive reinforcement you get after completing the behavior. It prompts the brain into realizing that this is a behavior worth repeating; the brain wants to feel good.

Here’s an example of how the habit loop plays out with some already established habits:

You wake up in the morning. This is your cue to go have a shower. Getting in the shower and washing is the habit. The reward is the feeling of warm water rinsing off the sleep.

Perhaps your next cue is once you’re out of the shower, you do a skincare routine. Your behavior is the steps in your routine, and the reward is the relaxed feeling from that act of self-care.

Your third cue might be when you re-enter your bedroom, your journal. The behavior is sitting down, pulling out your notebook, and writing. The reward is the good feeling from journalling.

What are the Benefits of Good Habits?

There are 2 big benefits of creating habits out of the good behaviors we want to engage in:

  • Once habits are formed, you will engage in behavior as if on autopilot. This means you won’t constantly have to fight with yourself to “be good.”
  • Following habits through your day conserves your mental energy for more important tasks.

If you turn exercise into a habit, you don’t have to convince yourself to exercise every day; it just becomes something that you do.

As for mental energy? Recent studies are showing that willpower is actually a resource we can deplete. We use our willpower when we make decisions or practice restraint. When we run out of willpower, our ability to multi-task, to assess risks and consequences, and our initiative are all affected. This is called decision fatigue.

Because you’re doing good behaviors on autopilot, instead of fighting yourself, you have more willpower leftover for critical tasks and thinking creatively.

But How Can We Change Our Bad Habits?

Unfortunately, many of us also have bad habits that we do on autopilot. Eating junk food, biting our nails, even scrolling through social media — these habits are often a waste of time. And, since they’re habits, we’re not even aware we’re doing it! So, how do we break a bad habit?

When our brain stores information, like a habit, it does so by creating neural pathways in our brains. As we repeat the behavior, the neural pathway is reinforced and grows stronger: like a tree branch. Our brains don’t have a function for destroying these pathways once they’re created.

Since we can’t erase the part of our brain where our bad habits are stored, we instead must overwrite them with new, good habits. There’s a bit more strategy involved, but that’s the basics.

What’s the nitty-gritty behind changing our habits? The good habit we use to overwrite the bad one has to be chosen specifically. Remember the habit loop? If you want to swap a good habit for a bad habit, the cue and the reward must be similar!

if you want to swap a bad habit for a good one, determine what the reward you get from the bad habit is, and then find a good habit that will provide a similar reward.

How to Build Good Habits

So, how do you effectively build good habits? It all comes down to utilizing the habit loop and being consistent. By knowing how and why habits are formed, we can make behavioral changes based on science. And being consistent is important because every time we do the behavior and get the reward we are strengthening the neural pathway in our brain for that habit.

  • Choose an obvious, unavoidable, and consistent cue
  • Make it easy for yourself to do the activity: e.g Having your gym bag already packed in the morning
  • “Bundle” the behavior you want to turn into a habit with something “fun.” For example, listening to an audiobook or watching tv while exercising.
  • Start with something small, easy, and sustainable.

Final Thoughts

Habits are a powerful tool that can help us achieve our goals. For the same reasons, bad habits can be really harmful. But that also means getting rid of our bad habits can have a dramatic, positive effect on our progress.

By breaking your goals into daily habits that you gradually implement overtime, and by identifying and overcoming your bad habits you’ll find yourself making consistent, positive progress. What habits are you trying to implement, and what strategies have you tried or heard of? Let me know in an email, and subscribe to my newsletter for more tips on reaching your wellness goals through consistent progress and self-development.

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