“More than 40% of the actions people perform every day aren’t actual decisions, they are habits” (The Power of Habit).
Wow, that statistic, right? Almost half of our waking hours are in autopilot mode! I remember this figure when I read Duhigg’s book a couple of years ago now. My curiosity has recently led me back to this topic, and in particular the neuroscience behind habits, so I’d like to share some further learnings from another great book I read, Neuroscience for Coaches (NFC).
5 things to know about your brain and habits
1. The brain area primarily associated with habits are the basal ganglia. “There are billions of basal ganglia and they are key to storing routines, repetitive behaviours, and thoughts” (NFC). They use ‘if-then’ coding to create maps and “every habitual thing you do has a map” (NFC). For example: ‘If I make a turn whilst driving my car, then I turn my indicator on’. So, the basal ganglia are trying to help us out here, but unfortunately the maps created don’t always include behaviours that service us (ie. ‘If I go outside, then I have a cigarette’).
2. ‘Neurons that fire together, wire together!’ – an adage you don’t want to forget when it comes to habits. Neurons are cells in our nervous system that receive and transmit information, making them the foundational building blocks for brain activity. “As you have repetitive thoughts or take actions repeatedly, your neurons fire again and again, forming a stronger and stronger neuronal circuit” (NFC). This certainly benefits us if the circuits created have beneficial outcomes, but as we know that isn’t always the case – in other words, we can form an unhelpful circuit or bad habit.
3. Cool fun fact building on the above: Habits become stronger the more they are performed because of proteins in the brain. “When the neurons fire they attract a protein blend called myelin to insulate it. This speeds up the transmission of signals, in effect making it easier and quicker for the habit to occur next time” (NFC).
4. Stress can impact habit extinction! Research from Ivan Pavlov “found that stress could reinstate a previously extinguished response” (NFC). If you’re in the pursuit of changing/creating habits keep stress management in mind. If you find you’re falling back into an unhelpful circuit, managing stressors and stress may pop to the top of your to-do list.
I LOVE Burnout: The Secret to Unlocking the Stress Cycle if this feels relevant to your circumstances… I mean, 2020 – am I right? For the men reading, please don’t be put off from reading due to the focus on women’s experience of stress; for me, there are truly a lot of really interesting general takeaways (and hey, it’s an added bonus that you will be able to empathise better with the women in your life).
5. Research from MIT looking at the role of the prefrontal cortex in habit formation/maintenance “found that there is a degree of executive function involved in breaking habits” (NFC). In other words, there is a cognitive process we can go through to help rewire our brains which is really good news!
Now that we’ve explored a bit of neuroscience I want to pivot to look at this topic through a different lens. You won’t find loads about it online and it has been largely applied in educational systems, but the Knoster Model for change management has a nice formula we can apply to our quest to change/create habits. The model is as follows:
Purpose + Skills/Behaviours + Incentives + Resources + Action Plan = Success
Based on this, reflect on my enquiries below – ideally, get some thoughts down on paper:
Purpose – the compelling call to action for change (often linked to your greater life purpose and personal values)
Enquiry: What is my ‘why’ behind changing/creating this habit? (If you get clarity on why it is truly important to you/link it to a higher sense of purpose, it will give you a boost of intrinsic motivation!)
Skills/Behaviours – the relevant technical and non-technical skills or supporting behaviours (think of it as your internal ‘resources’)
Enquiry: What (if any) skills or behaviours do I need to acquire or further develop to take on the challenge of changing/creating this habit?
Incentives – the what’s in it for you along the journey
Enquiry: What rewards can I create for myself along the way as I achieve milestones in the right direction?
Resources – the external resources you’ll need to get there
Enquiry: What sources of supply, support, or aid will I require to change/create this habit?
Action Plan – as simple as it sounds!
Enquiry: When I look at the long-term, big picture goal, what are the stepping-stone actions I need to take to get there? How will I keep myself accountable? How will I build in consistent, reflective practices along the way on what is working well and what isn’t servicing me? (An action plan must be flexible to change and can be improved along the way so don’t fall into the trap of do, do, do mode once you plan!)
Next, I’d encourage you to share this with an appropriate person in your personal and/or work life to create an extra layer of accountability and get some feedback on your thought process. Active support networks when we are chasing goals are a game-changer. Lastly, looking for some formal learning to further your understanding of this topic?
Check out: Tiny Habits by BJ Fogg & Atomic Habits by James Clear
If you feel you could use a focused space to work on habits, contact the Acre Frameworks team to link up with one of our professional coaches, including myself, to discuss this support further by email at firstname.lastname@example.org at +44 (0)20 7400 5570.