If you want to change a habit that gets in your way, get ready to battle your own brain. The mind that creates good habits is the same one that thwarts them.
Imagine an automatic response that you want to change. Say, for instance, obsessively checking email throughout the workday instead of setting aside blocks of time to read and respond. To cut down on the distraction, you might try a new routine, but it fails to take root.
You are not alone. Roughly 54 percent of people who resolved to change their ways failed to make the transformation last beyond six months, and the average person made the same life resolution 10 times over without success, according to research by the Journal of Clinical Psychology.
The mind is not easily won. Your intentions and rules are not enough to convince it to change. Understanding how the brain works for maximum efficiency reveals the obstacles we face in cementing a new habit – and the path to conquering them.
Neuroscience and Me
When the brain gets in the way of change, it’s only doing its job. Our mind is an optimizing machine. By setting much of our actions on autopilot, we free up space for more difficult thinking.
“Your brain wants to find routines that have succeeded in the past and allow you to repeat those actions again in the future without having to think about them explicitly,” writes Art Markman, professor of psychology and marketing at University of Texas at Austin in Fast Company.
Repeated reactions form neuronal connections. Each time you behave a certain way, that pattern gets stronger. A habit forms, set in motion by a trigger, which induces an action, which we reinforce with a reward.
Despite your efforts to confine social media use to downtime, there’s a reason you feel the urge to check in throughout the workday.”The brain’s reward center keeps us craving the things we’re trying so hard to resist,” according to researchers with the National Institutes of Health.
NIH-funded scientists discovered another way our minds fight change. When you substitute a new habit for an old one, your brain doesn’t erase the original behavior. Both of them remain. The good news is that you can give the new ones center stage while nudging the old ones into the background.
Break the Chain
Successfully replacing one entrenched behavior for another involves rewiring. “If you want to change how you work or a bad habit, you should have a clear exit strategy to break out of the chain,” writes Thomas Oppong.
By bolstering your plan with a few supports, and giving a new habit two months to become ingrained, you can trick your brain for the better.
- Strengthen rewards – White knuckling usually fails against the drive to feel good. So, feel good with added rewards for changing your routine. The best rewards bring you deeper into the habit. Trying to write up a daily agenda every morning? Once you’ve established the practice, treat yourself to a nice journal to keep it in.
- Ride the Motivation Wave – Time new behaviors with your energy to do them, according to the Persuasive Technology Lab at Stanford. Accepting that motivation will flag reduces feelings of failure.
- Partner up – Find an accountability partner to make the process fun and social. A colleague can certainly help keep you on track, but don’t be afraid to look beyond the workplace – anyone who can be both supportive and unreservedly honest will fit the bill.
Traps lie in wait for those trying to create new behaviors. No matter how hard you try, you can’t ignore those distracting email notifications. Now, with an understanding of your wily mind, you can outsmart it and build new habits that stick.