Brain Tricks to Make Your Habits Stick This Time
We humans are creatures of habit, and much of our lives depend upon routine. Every day, we function, following a series of actions we’ve come to rely upon without really thinking about them. From the route we drive to work in the morning to the way we choose to settle in at the end of the day, many of our behaviors become somewhat automatic.
And sometimes, we want to step off of the conveyor belt and try something different. Unfortunately, making changes to our ingrained habits isn’t quite so natural. It can be challenging to create new habits or break bad ones.
Think about it. You’ve probably vowed to start a healthy routine or keep a New Year’s resolution, only to find yourself giving up entirely a few weeks to a few months later. You may feel like a failure when you find yourself unable to stick to a new routine, but don’t despair.
Once you slip up, you might think you’re weak, or you don’t have the willpower to accomplish your goals. It turns out that success or failure doesn’t entirely depend on willpower, and the inability to make behavioral changes isn’t a reflection of your character. Instead, science offers several explanations for the ways the brain influences behaviors.
Knowing this, you can use brain tricks backed by science to make your habits stick. These tricks are based on the scientific concept of neuroplasticity, or the brain’s ability to change over time through the creation of new neurons and the building of new networks.
Start with small changes
Much research has shown that one of the best ways to make changes to your everyday routine is to start small.
Grand goals can seem exciting. Unfortunately, they can also soon become overwhelming and lead to abandonment. Instead, follow the advice of human behavior expert BJ Fogg, founder of Stanford University’s Behavior Design Lab and author of the book, Tiny Habits: The Small Changes that Change Everything. He recommends starting with baby steps.
Those small steps should also be very specific. Instead of completely overhauling your diet to eat healthily, commit to eating one piece of fruit or one vegetable each day. Instead of vowing to start a fitness routine, commit to joining one class per week at your gym.
If that’s too much, don’t sweat it. You can make your new goal as small as you need to. Tell yourself you’ll do five push-ups a day, then work your way up from there. When your objective is this doable, your brain won’t be so resistant to completing it. Soon, you can begin to add more steps toward creating your health routine.
Time to fire up the grill! Recipes to try:
Use habit stacking
James Clear, author of Atomic Habits suggests that you attach new habits to habits that are already part of your routine to help motivate you to make lasting change.
For instance, say you want to start taking a supplement each day, but you keep forgetting. If you’re a coffee drinker, set the bottle next to your coffee pot. That will remind you to take your pill in the morning when you reach for your cup of joe.
Looking back at our fruit and veggie goal, it might make sense to place an apple next to your laptop that you’ll open for work.
If you’re trying to get out from under your endless laundry pile, you might opt to fold a basket whenever you put on your favorite show in the evening.
Whatever the case may be, customizing your cue to link your goal to your existing habit can be a powerful change-maker because it teaches your brain to make new associations.
Set up your environment
Set up your surroundings for success. If you’re trying to quit sugar, don’t buy sweets. That way, you only have to be strong at the store. Instead, buy treats sweetened with monk fruit to quell those cravings.
If you want to cut back on alcohol, don’t purchase it. You may also want to avoid alcohol-centered social situations (as in, going to happy hour after work) until you know that you won’t be tempted.
If you want to add movement to your work day, place a few kettlebells or stretch bands near your desk that you can reach for during quick breaks. Your surroundings have more influence over your behaviors than you might think.
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Another trick to help motivate you to keep going when new habits get hard is to reward yourself at the end. You have a reward system in your brain that influences learning and motivation, and small rewards can influence that system to help you repeat behaviors. Your reward doesn’t need to be grand or expensive. Some ideas for rewards:
- Add a big red checkmark to your calendar when you exercise, even if it was just a brisk walk around your neighborhood. Seeing several checks in a row (and not wanting to break your streak) may be all the motivation you need!
- Give yourself a luxurious home manicure when you’ve finished your kitchen “closing” steps after dinner.
- Make yourself a batch of decadent sugar-free brownies or cookies after you’ve gone a week or more without sugar.
Numerous studies have pointed to the benefits of reward on habit formation. Both tangible rewards like sugar-free chocolate and affirmations such as self-praise can provide tremendous motivation when it comes to sustaining your goal of creating a new habit. When you feel good, you want to keep going.
These are merely a few of the ways you can trick your brain into making your new habits stick. Overcoming your brain’s natural inclination to follow your current routine can be daunting, but this difficulty has less to do with willpower than it has to do with human biology. Failure to alter your behavior isn’t a character flaw, and it’s not likely you’ll be able to talk yourself into making lasting change. Instead, consider using your new knowledge of these scientifically backed shifts to spark the transformations you seek.