Want to Make New Habits? Try These Brain-Based Tips!
When many of us start a new activity or behaviour which will get us closer to our goals, we feel keen to get going and excited about how our new routine will give us the results we have always wanted. After actually starting, we can cling on to this initial momentum for the first few days or weeks. But eventually, steam runs out and the dreams of how life-changing our new routine would be are replaced with the reality of how tough it is to make real change in our lives. We start to cut corners and let ourselves off with not fully following through, which eventually turns into a new habit’s worst nightmare: the “I’ll start on Monday” excuse.
A common pitfall which leads to new habits falling flat is our dependence on motivation to get us to make change. We think “if only I was more motivated to go to the gym”, “I wish I had the drive to make new YouTube videos”, “This would be so much easier if I had momentum to work on my project every day”. But lack of motivation is not the problem when it comes to giving up on the actions which we know will get us to our goals, it is our expectation that we should feel motivated every single time we perform these actions. We see an absence of desire to get up at 6am to workout as a sign we shouldn’t be doing it. However, this is the exact time we should be acting if we want to solidify new routines in our brains.
The human brain today is extremely similar to the brain of our ancestors hundreds of thousands of years ago. And although our world has evolved extensively, our brains instincts, interpretations and reactions are like we are living in an environment filled with unknown threats. These actions enhanced our ability to survive in the wilderness, but now can work against us when trying to reach our goals. The survival instincts of our brains means it is wired to seek short-term reward as in the past, these pleasurable experiences aligned with keeping us alive and safe. This logic leads us to form many habits which feel good in the immediate aftermath but are not the best thing for us in the long-term. This desire for quick pleasure explains why many of our long term goals such as “get stronger” or “build a business” turn into “chill on the couch and watch Netflix”. Although we understand our big goals will give us joy in the future, they require going through short-term “painful” actions – like pushing yourself in a workout – which our ancient brain detects as threatening. Our internal escape instincts will therefore attempt to keep us safe from such threats, so tempts us towards the comfort of the couch and away from the discomfort of the gym.
However, our brains are plastic and we can change our reactions to this discomfort with persistence and reinterpretation. Habits are essentially default behaviours which our brain builds to deal with the abundance of information we are faced with on a daily basis. These behaviours are established by strong connections between brain cells; making them easy to initiate in specific situations. The brain recognises “use” as “important”, so even when we know a behaviour isn’t good for us, if we have done it many times our brains will keep leading us down that unfavourable path. But this simple association means we can redirect our actions through repeating the new action we want to be our default; tricking your brain into learning “this behaviour is now the most important”. This means over time, with commitment to your new actions which will lead you towards your goal (and fighting that resistance your brain will throw at you to make you stick to the old habit!), your desired behaviour will start to feel normal. However, this requires showing up when you don’t want to! When motivation is depleted and your really cannot be bothered, this is the most crucial time for showing your brain “this is my default” and reinforcing these new neural pathways.
Here are a few ways you can make your new routine more easy to follow though with while working through resistance and depleted motivation to create the habits you require to reach your goals!
Set your schedule in advance: Decide when and where you are going to perform your new behaviours each week before Monday comes around. You can make these decisions with your long-term ambitions in mind. During the week, follow this schedule and do not deviate unless absolutely necessary. This will help ignore excuses like “I’m tired” or “I’m too busy” which your brain likes to bring up when it feels threatened and doesn’t want us to follow through.
Make your new behaviour convenient: Give your brain as little resistance as possible to perform the behaviours you need to make a habit. If you are wanting to get fit, sign up to a gym near your home or en route to your work, not miles away in an area you will never go. If you are trying to set up a business, schedule your work for your most productive free hours to allow yourself to make progress. You can also attach these actions to daily routines you normally perform; like reading through research for your next project when having your morning coffee instead of scrolling through instagram.
Improve self-trust and accountability: Set yourself easy tasks throughout your day and follow through with them to teach your brain you commit to plans and action them. This could be something as simple as waking up on your alarm clock instead of pressing snooze – you are teaching your brain “I follow through with the plans of my past self”. This will help you fight the urges to drop your plans around your new habit!
Change your self-image: Not how you look, but how you see yourself! The core of forming a habit is your beliefs about yourself as your brain always wants to be right. Really think about the person you will be once your have already achieved your goal and then start to tell yourself you are that person. If you want to get into running, tell yourself you are a runner – like Mo Farah or Dina Asha Smith. How would these professional runners act when scheduled a 5km run? They would see it as normal. When you start to get into this headspace and normalise the actions you have set for yourself, you will be more likely to follow through with them. This means you will be pulled towards reaching your goal (because in your head, you have already achieved it) rather than pushing yourself to do something out of your norm!
Reflection, Recognition (and reward): After we reach milestones, our brains normalise them very quickly (updating our internal model to keep us safe) and put the next goal in front of us. So when faced with particular resistance around an action, reflect on when you have combatted similar situations in the past and recognise your ability to get through tough tasks. Use this information to build up self-believe (“I have done this before to reach my current normal, I can do it again”) and go forward in this frame of mind. Reward is something which I think can be useful in celebrating your successes and expressing gratitude towards your past self for the hard work you have put in. But thinking about self-image again, rewarding yourself after every small thing (like going on that 5km) could misalign with the “normal” you are trying to achieve (like an actual runner wouldn’t be like “Well done me for going on that 5km run” – they see that as a normal thing they would do). So reward yourself once you reach the big milestones and reflect on the amazing work you have put in!
You can make any new habit you desire with persistent action over months. Do not let lack of motivation stop you getting your goals!
Julia xoxox (@julia.ravey.science)
For more brain-based tips, see my YouTube!
My thoughts in this post were inspired by the book “Atomic Habits” By James Clear. It is so inspiring and practical!