A habit is a behavior that’s wired into our brains so well that we perform it without thinking. It's automatic. Neuroscientists at MIT have recently found a key that gives us a little advantage in determining which habits will prevail in our daily life.
The researchers found that the infralimbic cortex, a small part of the prefrontal cortex, appears to control which habits get expressed in a given moment. They discovered habits are like programs, and there is a command center that decides which program gets to run.
Use the "Habit Loop" to Your Advantage
The idea that our habits are flexible offers hope to those of us who want to take up healthier habits. But how can we be sure to express the habits we want to express? While researchers puzzle out that question, Charles Duhigg, author of The Power of Habit, suggests using the "habit loop" to your advantage.
A "habit loop" has three stages:
1. Cue: A trigger that initiates the loop.
2. Response: The behavior that happens when you take action based on the cue.
3. Reward: Something satisfying that reinforces your behavior, strengthening the connection between the cue and response.
This loop is the reason that advertising is so effective and New Year resolutions aren’t. Ads leverage the brain's process by speaking to emotional cues and enticing action, which we think will lead to the desired reward. When it comes to resolutions, we usually have an action we want to take, but we often don’t couple it with cues and rewards.
How It Works
Choose an area of your life where you want to change a habit. Maybe pick a self-care habit that you haven’t been able to make stick, like running or meditating each morning.
According to the research, habits cannot be killed (in fact the old ones will always be there to default to), but they can be switched out for other habits. Duhigg's trick is to look at the habit that already exists and focus on modifying it using the response and reward process.
When you wake up in the morning, what is the first cue that starts your day? One of the first things you might see is your phone. The response (action) is to check email or social networks before you even get out of bed. Your reward is a little dopamine rush, setting you up in what Psychology Today calls the “dopamine loop.”
If your goal is to go for a run instead of getting on your phone, set your running shoes right next to your phone. Better yet, put your phone somewhere else and leave your running shoes where your phone usually sits. If your goal is to meditate, replace your phone with a kitchen timer.
You've changed the cue, and now you can change your action. Make your goal something small so you can accomplish it. Run for 10 minutes or meditate for 5. Anything is more than doing nothing.
Then make sure there is a reward. A reward might come automatically in the form of endorphins that are released by both exercise and meditation. Or maybe your morning coffee becomes your reward.
One of the keys to successfully shifting habits is believing it can be done. Science backs this up, but remember you don't have to do it alone.
Community can help you make and keep new habits. Leverage the help of your friends. Check out a running club or meditation group. Ask a friend to help keep you accountable to your new habits. Or turn to your phone and record your achievements on an app like MapMyRun or Headspace, and get a reward and community support all in one.
© 2015 Omega Institute for Holistic Studies