While it’s in our nature to want to improve and achieve our goals, what often stops us from getting there, is a lack of understanding of how we operate as individuals. Luckily for us, thanks to the latest discoveries in neuroscience (the science that studies the brain), we can learn how to train our brain more effectively to live healthier, more productive, and inspired lives.
Part of that training resides in the creation of better habits which is nothing more than a systematic repetition of desired actions. The problem with picking up good habits is that we often experience a gap between our desired intentions and actual outcomes and this is mainly due to a lack of alignment in our brain. Our brain is divided into 3 main parts (the rational, emotional, and instinctive) and while they all serve their function, they often disagree with each other creating an internal tension that leads us to poor results.
The good news is we can learn how habits are formed and with the right mindset, knowledge, and patience, we can let go of bad ones and build good ones.
According to behavioral expert BJ Fogg, habits are formed around three elements: cue, routine, and reward, the so-called “habit loop”.
Cue – This refers to the initial trigger motivating our desired behavior, and it can either come from our external environment (ex. phone notification) or from our internal environment (ex the desire to plan our day).
Routine – This refers to the action required to perform our desired habit, whether that is deciding to read more or stop mindlessly scrolling on social media.
Reward – This is the most enjoyable part and is what motivates our brain to perform the behavior. As human beings, we are hardwired to seek pleasure and avoid pain and so when we align our desired behavior with a great reward, we are much more likely to pursue it. Rewards can be tangible (receiving money), or intangible (getting recognized by a friend) but what matters most, is to choose ones aligned to our wellbeing and personal growth. Rewarding yourself with 2 slices of cheesecake every time you succeed in going to the gym, is a clear step in the wrong direction.
The key to building healthier habits is in playing around with the routine and reward to find the combination that works best. There are several studies trying to demonstrate how long it takes to build a habit, and while there is no exact number, the one thing needed is a continuous repetition of effort.
“Habits are not a finish line to be crossed, they are a lifestyle to be lived.” – James Clear
Putting the habit loop into practice
Let’s say you want to read Addicted 2 Success 5 times a week. Now that you are clear on the outcome, it’s time to understand the nature of the reward. To make the most of this step, you must dig deep to explore the WHY of you wanting to read Addicted 2 Success. Other than a desire to be well informed, you could be driven by a fear of missing out or by the aspiration of starting a blog. While there is no right answer, the more reasons you can come up with, the more your brain will put a value on this activity and identify it as a motivating experience.
Willpower is undoubtedly important, but so is setting up your environment for success. If you are planning on reading from a browser, closing all other tabs or putting your phone away are simple techniques to resist any form of temptation and distraction.
Next, identify the cue. What could be the trigger driving you to consider this new habit? Maybe it’s whenever you are having a low moment, but if you want to “win easily”, try directly time-boxing it in your calendar. As you can imagine, the second approach which is more proactive, will significantly increase your chances of completion.
And if you want to take it to the next level, focus on practicing the so-called “if-then technique”.
In this case, you could say “if it’s 7 pm on a Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday, and Friday then I will read Addicted 2 Success”. By taking this approach, not only are you avoiding tapping into your precious willpower but also creating a stronger connection between the situation(if) and the action I want to take (then).
Want to know how this simple trick can increase your chances of success? In one study, 91% of people who used an if-then plan stuck to an exercise program versus 39% of non-planners!
“Practice isn’t the thing that you do once you’re good. It’s the thing you do that makes you good.” – Malcolm Gladwell
Now it’s time to play around with the reward. My suggestion is to focus on intrinsic rewards such as tracking the number of articles or time you spent reading as when we rely solely on extrinsic rewards that bring us immediate gratification (ex. validation, unhealthy food),we might succeed in forming the habit but not in growing as people.
As with all great things in life, growth only happens at the end of our comfort zone, but with the right knowledge, you can accelerate that process.