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Neuroscience of Habits (and How a Coach Can Help to Create New Habits)

Author: | 14.11.2022

Picture this:

 

It’s already half past ten at night, so you begin preparing for bed. You lock the doors, close all three windows, go to the restroom, double-check the doors, double-check the windows, turn out the lights, and retire to bed.

 

You do it again the next night, then the next night, and so on. Then you board up one of the windows and take down the railing and drapes. The next night, you go through your routine, only to be startled when your fingers come into contact with a wall rather than a window lock.

 

You know, you have one fewer window. You helped board it yourself. Nevertheless, your body moved on its own. 

 

Those ingrained routines we do as if on autopilot are what we call habits. It’s not something that happens immediately, but an action, whether external or internal, repeated enough times within similar circumstances can turn into one.

 

That’s just a simplified take on the topic. Let’s discuss the neuroscience of habit formation and behavior change to better understand building habits.

 

A Scientific Look at How Habits Are Formed 

 

Neuroscience of Habits (and How a Coach Can Help to Create New Habits)

We need to flashback to when people used to live in the wild when talking about habit formation and its importance. It helped them stay aware of their surroundings while they did other things, honing their ability to do more than one thing at a time so they could survive. It also helped them become acquainted with their tools, weapons, and surroundings.

 

In the present, despite not being as dire as it was a long time ago, it is still a part of survival, especially if it involves maintaining a healthy lifestyle or a vital routine. Not to say, of course, that bad habits also exist.

 

A habit is a repeated behavior born out of spontaneous action. Multiple studies on how to start a new habit generally conclude that it takes three weeks for a behavior to be embedded. Or according to the Oxford Research Encyclopedia, building new habits involves behavior repeatedly performed in the presence of one or more cues.

 

To understand the science of habits better, one must learn to tell the difference between actions that are done out of habit and actions that are done to reach a goal. Goal-oriented activities are powered by motivation and can be broken down into specific steps. Meanwhile, habitual actions are primarily unconscious and done automatically. 

 

How exactly are we subconsciously repeating these actions? The habit loop can explain that.

What is a Habit Loop?

A habit can be broken down into four stages. No matter what kind of habit it is, it will always go through these steps.

Cue

 

The cue is the circumstance that triggers your brain to do something. Take, for example, the situation in the introduction. The cue is the time. Your mind knows that after 10:30 p.m. is when you start getting ready for bed, and thus it sends a signal to the rest of your body.

 

Craving

 

Continuing the scene, you may yawn, feel drowsy or tired, and crave lying in your comfortable bed. With that signal comes the craving. It is not a literal desire for something, but it motivates your body to take action to obtain a reward.

Action

 

The craving has set in, motivating you to take the action that will bring you that reward. This action is now an actual habit. 

 

You lock your doors, close all the windows, go to the bathroom, double-check the doors, double-check the windows, switch off the lights, and then go to bed. Sometimes not in that order, and sometimes forgetting or adding a step. Sometimes you won’t even remember doing your routine and simply find yourself settling comfortably under the covers.

Result

 

The result is the reward you get for performing that action. It can either be physical, like an object, or abstract, like a pleasant feeling—a cathartic feeling in some instances. This is what it all leads up to and what spurs the habit loop to repeat.

How to Change a Habit, One Step at a Time

Habits are built over time, and it is difficult to stop at the drop of a hat. Creating new habits simply means change. 

 

Change is indeed frightening. No matter how horrible it is, change is a danger to the security provided by routines because assessing the risks and rewards associated with it is essential. And, regardless of the good payoff, the fact that there is a danger in the first place is enough to put others off.

 

According to Emergenetics, new information is compared to known information in a region known as working memory. Our prefrontal cortex—the part of the brain in charge of rational thinking—compares these two sets of information with other environmental errors, usually causing fatigue due to the amount of information and energy needed. A perceived contradiction activates the fear circuitry, which starts an anger or fear response that interferes with any attempt at change. 

 

But thankfully, our brain has this wonderful ability called neuro-flexibility. Neuro-flexibility implies a person has the lateral hemispheric integration to be analytical and creative, encoding and decoding simultaneously, and having an equally verbal and non-verbal approach during communication.

 

Meaning that, while we tend to function within our safe space, our minds are adaptable in the face of challenges or when it comes to something meaningful. As habits aren’t static, a healthy dose of neuro-flexibility can pave the way to healthy habit formation. Here are a few things to take into account when changing your habit.

Acknowledge the habit

As always, the initial steps to self-improvement are acknowledging the problem, recognizing it, and deciding to do something about it.

Determine the triggers

What are the circumstances that trigger your habit? The more you understand your behavior, the more power you have to avoid bad habits or redirect your actions.

Devalue the reward

The result or reward is usually the culprit in creating habits and what powers the habit loop. Rewiring your thinking is a slow process. You need to remember that for this step. You need to change your response and perspective toward that reward gradually.

 

Say you’re going on a shopping binge during payday. The reward is the feeling of being able to finally afford a lot of the items you’ve been eyeing, as well as the items themselves. Next payday, think of your lack of storage space, the number of items that have been barely used, your bills, and the times you barely had enough budget for food.

Interrupt the pattern

You are aware of your bad habit, you know the factors that trigger it, and the reward does not look like it’s worth the trouble. The next step is to apply them and shake up your routine.

 

Remove a step in your ritual, do it under a different cue, or replace a step with something more beneficial that can deliver the same result or something similar. However, remember to start small. 


Take a look at the Fogg behaviour model:

This shows that three elements must converge simultaneously for a behavior to occur: motivation, ability, and prompt. An incomplete set naturally results in no occurring behavior.

 

Say you want to learn calligraphy. You don’t start writing in a highly stylized font; instead, you practice writing lines and curves. It is simpler, and you are more likely to succeed. Then, when you can finally manage to consistently draw straight lines and smooth curves without a guide, you have improved, and you can now increase the practice level.

Support system

Any attempt at progress is sometimes halted due to perceived isolation or lack of progress. Don’t be afraid to seek assistance, if not from a professional; then from people you can rely on.

 

Your support system’s words of encouragement can mean a lot. They can also assist in your journey by pointing out habit cues or giving out reminders when the other steps leave your mind.

 

If you prefer a professional, you can always arrange an appointment with your local specialist or enlist the help of a coach. A coach, in particular, is almost like a close peer but professional and more pragmatic.

Repeat

This is when Hebb’s Rule comes into play. Hebb’s Rule is best summarized as “neurons that fire together, wire together.” According to this rule, nearby cells’ simultaneous and persistent activation strengthens their connection.

Successfully repeating this change in habit reinforces the change. And with further rewiring, the change will be able to stick better

When you think about it, this step is like the phrase “fighting fire with fire.” That’s exactly what you’re doing by fighting a bad habit by enforcing a good one.

Hacking the Habit Loop with the NOA App

Setting a goal is easy, but the journey towards it is daunting. 

Habits are helpful, and there’s no denying it. It is the nature of these habits that brings in the risks. After all, some of these habits are formed to cope with or escape unpleasant thoughts and emotions. But if utilized correctly, a good habit improves our well-being and makes us more productive.

As previously mentioned, the help of a coach can bring monumental progress. They are professionally trained and can personalize the coaching in a way that can help you best.

But if you’re worried about the cost and how to fit coaching into your daily schedule, you can try Noa. It’s like having a personal coach you can take anywhere and talk to at any time.  

Noa is operated by an AI that, like our brain, rewires itself with every piece of information given to it and uses that to bring insights that will help you best. The latest research backs it up in emotional and behavioral neuroscience, best practice coaching frameworks, and cognitive behavioral coaching.

 

Noa will support your every step to break out of the bad habit loop. Let’s chat!

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