A BRAND NEW YOU: The Science behind creating healthy habits
Updated: Feb 22, 2019
Sangeeta Bansal Ph.D
“Excellence is an art won by training and habituation…we are what we repeatedly do. Excellence, then, is not an act but a habit.” (Aristotle)
While working with more than three hundred high schoolers from New York to Hong Kong this academic year I was not surprised to see that most kids struggle with similar issues. These young adults have dreams that they want to accomplish, to live their optimum life, and to do the kind of work they find exciting. What stands in their way is lack of structure. They are stuck in the prison of bad habits and don’t know how to get out of this quagmire. The stress is high and the coping mechanisms not healthy. It is not uncommon to find teens engage in self harming behaviors such as binge-eating, vaping, cutting or even substance abuse. Kids want to live a healthier lifestyle: they are keen to sleep more, eat better, reduce addiction to social media, reduce procrastination, incorporate physical exercise, and have time during the day to practice new skills such as music, a foreign language or a sport. But they don't know how to manifest these habits into their busy lives.
Vaping is now an widespread epidemic with teens, a harmful habit that can lead to nicotine addiction.
Working with my adult groups in New York, the goals were somewhat different. Amy for example, was an exhausted young mother of two, who wanted to create some quiet time during her day in order to decompress. Mary had been smoking for thirty odd years and now wanted to give it up. Joan wanted to eat healthier by giving up sugar. Peter wanted to spend more time with his children in the evening and Anita the yoga teacher wanted to get into daily meditation. Some wanted to give up the habit of negative thinking, and others the habit of cluttering. Some wanted to take on a musical instrument – and others wanted to give back more to the community.
Working with habits is a great way for us to bring awareness to our own mental patterns. What do I set an intention on, and how do I get it done - this is rich information about my priorities, my strengths and weaknesses in implementation. It doesn't matter if the habits are relatively small (such as flossing or drinking more water) or they are aimed at bigger life goals (such as staying mentally and physically healthy or changing careers) - they can be tackled by the same scientific process outlined below.
Grow your Goals with a Process
Having a goal, a dream and a burning desire for one’s life direction is a critical step, without this desire there is no energy for action. Often people have no clarity as to what might bring more meaning to their life. This is where mindfulness can help – it settles the mind and quietens the internal chatter so that we can see more clearly. But goals and dreams are not enough. We need a process and a system to go along with that. Goals can give us a specific direction but it is our willpower and the structure of habits that will determine how far along that road we will be able to travel. For example, one can aim to be a concert pianist, but it is the habit of daily practice that will determine our future in this area. Social scientists and psychologists such as Charles Duhigg, BJ Fogg, James Clear and Kelly McGonigal have come up with brilliant “brain hacks” to help us figure out how to work with the slippery mind and get it to cooperate with and support our aspirations. Philosophers and contemplatives have long pondered the question whether self-transformation is at all possible – or are we just destined to be a certain way? Habit science would certainly imply that not only is it possible to transform ourselves, but that we can grow at exponential rates by following some simple rules diligently.
Here are a few highlights from the Habit Change Workshop that helped several of my students (ranging in age from 16-70) this year.
1. The Will Power Muscle: Will power is a muscle that needs to be built, just like our biceps and triceps. We need to practice it as a DAILY habit, in order for it to stick. The repetitions are what makes a habit stick. When I repeat a task that is difficult for me, I am building my willpower muscle – this muscle can then be used to accomplish even more goals. McGonigal, a psychologist at Stanford University cannot speak highly enough about the importance of developing this muscle. "When pitted against other virtues, will power comes out on top. Self control is a better predictor of academic success than intelligence, a stronger determinant of effective leadership than charisma, and more important for marital bliss than empathy. If we want to improve our lives, will power is not a bad place to start." (1)
Figure 1: Will power is a Muscle that can be Trained and Strengthened
2. Energy Economy in the Brain: The brain likes to economize on energy expenditure. Any task that we have on auto-pilot conserves energy, because the brain does not have to think about it or negotiate between different parts if that activity needs to be done or not. For example, brushing our teeth is an activity that most of us have on auto-pilot so it does not rob us of our precious reserves of will power. When we use our will power to do something new, for example, go for a run after work, it uses up energy in the brain. Once we make a new behavior automatic, we can use will power to work on the next healthy habit. Think of your body’s energy as your phone battery. It starts of as green but towards the end of the day it turns yellow and then red. Our bodies are also high on will power earlier in the day and get depleted by night time, which is often when we try to incorporate new habits.
Figure 2: A new Habit consumes energy in the brain much like the smartphone battery
3. The War Within the Brain. Our brain has two sides: the emotional side and the logical side. Very often we find that these two are at loggerheads and do not cooperate with each other. The logical brain will say “You should not be on the phone checking social media – instead you may want to consider writing the report that’s due this week”, but the emotional brain will counter, “But I don’t feel like doing that”. We are more than likely to go along with what the emotional brain wants, much like a five-year old gets his way by throwing a tantrum. One way to counteract this tendency is to involve the emotional brain in the habit change process. It helps to articulate to ourselves how good it will feel when we have had a full night of sleep, or how great is the feeling of being on top of school work, or how sweet is the taste of freedom from an addiction to smoking. One can visualize how great we look with a strong and healthy body, and while we are it, we can just visualize being recognized for efforts by getting an award on Prize Day. We must also take the time to work on the analytical conviction – have very clear reasons why our new habit would be something that’s beneficial for us. It’s a good idea to educate ourselves on the benefits of meditation if we are trying to create that habit; or we remind ourselves of the harm that any kind of substance abuse does to our body and our relationships.
4. The Habit Loop: Once we have set the goal and have the emotional and analytical reasons well thought out, then we need to set up the procedure of creation. This is the CRR method that Duhigg (2) explains in his book, The Power of Habit. Find a Cue (also known as a Trigger or Reminder) that tells you that it’s time to Do Your New Habit, then you actually Do the Routine, and after that you Reward yourself. The brain loves a little dopamine high, so without creating another unhealthy habit, give yourself a small reward.
Figure 3: The Habit Loop from Charles Duhigg, The Power of Habit
The process of breaking habits begins by identifying the “bad” behavior or Routine that we already have in place. We have this routine because it gives some some short term gratification, we feel good in the moment that we are engaging in that routine. What is the cue that reminds us to go into this behavior pattern? By identifying the cue, we can find an alternative habit to replace the old one, and reward ourselves in a new way. As Duhigg says, bad habits cannot be eliminated, rather they must be displaced.
5. Hold yourself Accountable:Set up a system of accountability either with a person you enjoy working with or just an app on the phone. Alternatively one can create an X-chart on a calendar to cross off the day every time we accomplish the new habit behavior. This keeps track of our growth and progress so we don’t fall off the rails. Be honest and regular with the tracking process. Crossing that box on the sheet of paper that I hang over my study table also serves as a reward in itself – I get a little high when I boxes checked off for 7 days in a row. It usually takes anywhere from 21 says to 8 months for a habit to form, depending on the particular habit. So you could go through many of these!
6. Think Small for Success: Yes, that's right - go small or go home. BJ Fogg (3), professor at Stanford University encourages us to think tiny when it comes to instituting new habits. The brain has enormous resistance and inertia (remember that a new habit requires an expenditure of energy) so any grandiose plans are immediately abandoned by this energy conscious brain. But we can usually sneak in a tiny change to our existing routines. Further, when we create several small tiny changes in multiple areas, it results in ground-breaking change in our lives.
7. The 1% Rule: While we should start small, we should make small marginal improvements every day. As Clear (4) points out, if we improve ourselves by 1% every day we would be 37 times better by the end of the year. Interestingly, that number grows to 1400 times better by the end of the second year, and after five years you would be 76,000,000 times better! This is the power of compounding and building on skills daily. By the same logic if we got a bit worse every day we would be down to zero very soon. The 1% rule is dangerous when it comes to acquiring bad habits; a little bit of slip up here, a little bit there and before we know it we have a full blown addiction and are severely off course. Often people find that with eating sweet desserts, they start with a small piece of candy but don't realize that sugar is even more addictive than cocaine. Very soon the 'eat healthy' goal that most people have has been replaced by a sugar addiction.
8. The Plateau of Patience: Every January people make lists of new resolutions, but somewhere along the way (usually before February) they have abandoned most of their goals. People give up because they don’t see results in the first few days or weeks. But as Clear explains, every time we engage in the habit we are building up “latent potential”, which looks like a plateau for quite a while. And then one day the accumulated practice turns us into a virtuoso. Therefore, perseverance and patience are absolutely key to this process of habit change. Even when you are not seeing any results, rest assured that you are building up this latent potential.
9. Bring Self-Compassion to the Process: It seems counter-intuitive to say that we should plan for failure. When we fail (and we will, initially) we must remember to be kind to ourselves. It is indeed a hard task that we have undertaken, and we could instead try congratulating ourselves on the commitment to self-improvement. Besides, all studies on human nature show that a self-critical attitude hinders success whereas an empathetic one is more helpful to accomplishment of goals.
10. Work on Keystone Habits First: A practice of mindfulness meditation is what the habit scientists call a keystone habit, one that spills over and changes all other areas of one’s life. Once the nervous system is calmed by breathing and focusing techniques, the mind is liberated to think of long term goals rather than immediate survival. Meditation is not an easy habit to put in place, for the same reason that the results take a while to show themselves. But once accomplished, a daily meditation habit is a gamechanger. It helps us identify all the gaps in our lives that could be filled, and it helps us see what our cues, routines and rewards are. Where do we flounder, how can we pick ourselves up? With meditation, we bring more a quality of compassionate self-awareness to the process of habit change.
To summarize, it’s a great idea to understand the brain and how it works in order to bring about transformative change in our lives. Change IS possible, we can re-create our identities, optimize our lives and be anything we want to be by understanding the science behind habit change.
To learn more and to schedule a private coaching session or group workshop please contact firstname.lastname@example.org
Kelly McGonigal, 2011. The Will Power Instinct.
Charles Duhigg, 2012. The Power of Habit
BJ Fogg and Doug Abrams, 2010. Tiny Habits: The Small Changes that Change Everything.
James Clear, 2018. Atomic Habits: Tiny Changes, Remarkable Results.