Why is it so Hard to Create New Habits?
Ladies, let’s be honest here. We’re notorious for criticizing ourselves when we fail at, well, anything. And when we don’t follow through on a goal, or if we have one bad day, we’re oftentimes so hard on ourselves that we spiral, and then we give up.
Why is it so challenging to break old habits and create new ones?
Here’s the deal.
Your brain is always looking for ways to be more efficient—to conserve energy—and it does this by automatically creating systems around habits so you don’t have to think through each step of the things you do on a daily basis. I mean, imagine if you had to actually think through every step of brushing your teeth, showering, getting dressed, vacuuming, or backing your car out of the driveway.
There are probably a million things going on here, but we’re going to focus on two of them—the basal ganglia and neural pathways. Stay with me. I’m going to make it as simple as possible so it’s easy to apply to real life.
When you have a basic understanding of how your brain is working through the habit creation process—just as you’re working through the process of changing your behavior and taking different actions—you’ll be a little bit nicer to yourself along the way. Patience is a virtue, my dear.
The Basal Ganglia
There’s a clump of cells in the center of the brain called the basal ganglia (I’m not a doctor or a neuroscientist, so go ahead and do some research for yourself on the inner workings of the brain), and according to Charles Duhigg in The Power of Habit; Why we do What we do in Life and Business, this ancient part of the brain is central to recalling patterns and acting on them. It’s basically storing habits.
As you actively move through the same routines over and over again each day, the basal ganglia are keeping track of your behavior and actions while creating systems that require less and less work, to become more and more efficient by using a three-step system. This three-step system consists of a cue, routine, and reward.
This is how it works. Let’s use brushing your teeth as an example. You reach for your toothbrush, which is the cue to your brain that you’re going to brush your teeth. Your brain fetches the correct habit patterns, and then powers down while you go through the routine of putting toothpaste on your toothbrush, brushing, and rinsing. Your brain fires up again as you put your toothbrush back in its place and you’re happy with your clean teeth, the reward, to make sure everything unfolded as expected.
Cue = picking up your toothbrush
Routine = brushing teeth
Reward = clean teeth
The more often you do something, the more automatic it becomes. Then add the anticipation, cravings, and emotions wrapped up in the habit and you can see why it’s so challenging to create new habits. Give yourself a break here and take one day at a time.
As Canadian neuropsychologist Donald Hebb, says, “Neurons that fire together wire together.” Your brain develops neural pathways that send signals to your nervous system based on your habits, behaviors, and lifestyle. When the same message travels the same pathway over and over again, it starts to transmit faster and faster and soon becomes completely automatic.
Decades ago, in the 1970s, neuroscientists discovered that you could rewire your brain—it’s interesting that it’s taken 50 years for this information to become mainstream, isn’t it? Don’t worry I won’t go off on a tangent as to why humans do this, I’ll save that for another blog post.
You can build new neural pathways by changing your thoughts, changing your behaviors, and taking different actions to develop new habits. It takes consistency, discipline, and repetition on your part. This is called neuroplasticity (again, I’m not a neuroscientist so don’t take my word for it, go to Google and find out for yourself).
To enhance your experience, and to connect the new behavior to as many areas of the brain as possible, scientists recommend tapping into all five senses: sight, smell, sound, taste, and touch. Try this super fun technique that only takes a few minutes each day.
Make a cup of tea (taste). Light a scented candle (smell). Pick out a song that represents the new you for 2020 (sound). Put on a silk robe, a wool sweater, your fluffy slippers, or wrap yourself in a blanket (touch). Then, sit in a specific chair with your feet flat on the floor, close your eyes and visualize (sight) yourself succeeding at your goal for the entirety of your selected song.
Visualize yourself crossing the finish line, eating healthy foods, going to the gym each day, writing the book, or starting the business. Really feel into this visualization. Feel it and see it as if it’s actually happening. Feel the emotions that come with succeeding. What does it feel like to write a book? How does it feel to cross the finish line? How does it feel to lose weight?
Side note: each time you make tea, put on the robe (sweater, slippers, wrap yourself in that blanket), or hear the song, it will trigger the visualization which creates the connected emotion, which will inspire you into action. Sneaky, right? The action you take changes your behaviors and thought patterns, and before you know it, these new thoughts and new patterns become your new normal. They become automatic.
You’ve successfully created new neural pathways. Get creative and have fun with this.
You are not your circumstances, you are not your addictions, and you are not your childhood trauma. You can rise above. It is a choice. Not just one choice in your entire lifetime, but one choice after another every minute of every day.
The Bottom Line
You must mentally, physically, and lovingly FORCE yourself into changing your behaviors to allow your brain to build new systems and new neural pathways. You have to push through the brain’s reluctance to do more work. You have to give your brain the proper amount of time to gather the necessary information to build these new systems and new neural pathways.
Once that work is done in the background, your new habits require less energy and your brain becomes more efficient.
I believe it takes at least 90 days for a new habit to become fully automatic to the point where it’s part of your lifestyle and takes less energy for you to accomplish the task.
This is why experts recommend that you lay your workout clothes next to your bed before you go to sleep at night. You are setting yourself up to create a new habit loop pattern. Getting dressed in your workout clothes upon waking is the cue to start the routine of going to the gym (the basement/garage/workout room, or heading outside for a run). From there, you have the chance to have some fun with this. Create your own reward system to complete the loop, and make it something fun, so you look forward to it at the end of your workout. For example, treating yourself to a smoothie or some fresh carrot juice.
Alright, alright. Some of you are probably thinking that a 12-word mocha caramel latte blah blah from Starbucks is a good reward and that smoothies and carrot juice ARE NOT good rewards. Listen up, they are for me because your body craves what you feed it (because…habits), and since I feed my body healthy foods, that’s what it craves so that’s what lights up my brain and body—another tangent, and I see an opportunity for another blog post here.
Do you see why it’s fun to understand how your brain is working in the background? It allows you to be creative with the system, so reaching your goals actually feels enjoyable instead of burdensome and frustrating. Make a game out of it and see how many habits you can change with this newfound information.
Let’s take a moment to look at this from another perspective, shall we? As we age, I think we can all agree, that we get more and more settled into our routines. The more routines you actively participate in throughout the day, the less your brain works. If your brain is working less and less, it becomes more and more inactive, and more and more unhealthy.
Yes, the quality of food, physical activity, lifestyle, and continued learning play a very large role in overall brain health, but I wonder, if we do something as easy as to continually change our behaviors and habits throughout our lives, will we keep our brains actively growing and changing later into life?
It seems to me that if we continue to take a different route to work each day, randomly go for a hike once in a while instead of running the same daily route, travel, take public transportation instead of driving, or do something as simple as brushing your teeth with the opposite hand, can we keep our brains healthy and alive later into life?
I’ve done these things my whole life, basically out of adventure, curiosity, and the desire for exploration without knowing anything about the brain. Now, I have an appreciation of the deeper benefits of doing these fun activities. I, for one, am going to continue to learn new things, do new things, and change the patterns of the things I do daily to see what happens. Why not? What have I got to lose?
I look at everything in life as a science experiment. This body is made of living cells and is ever-changing. Why not have some fun with it and see what happens? Are you with me?
Available Apps to help you shift into healthier and productive habits: HabitMinder, HabitShare, and Momentum Habit Tracker.
LIVE LIGHT. BE FREE. ALWAYS STAY YOUNG AT HEART.
CONTACT Tina for collaborations in photography, writing, or coaching.
Comment below and let me know what your goals are for this year, along with some things you’ve found to help you succeed. I’d love to hear from you!