Neuroplasticity and Designing Habits

In my last post, I offered an overview of your capacity for neuroplasticity. If you read it, I’m sure you agree that the implications of the brain’s changeability are astonishing! For today’s follow-up, I could share inspiring stories about people who mastered skills, optimized their mental performance, or even healed their brains. But I’m not; instead, I’m writing about habits.

We’re all creatures of habit, probably enacting thousands of habits every day. Our lifestyles are built of habits, and in fact, researchers have come to understand that to make lifestyle changes, it’s more important to think about habits than about goals!

“We are what we repeatedly do. Excellence, then, is not an act, but a habit.” Aristotle

What are Habits

Image by <a href="">Martin Slavoljubovski</a> from <a href="">Pixabay</a>Habits are simply shortcuts or routines that get stored in your plastic brain.

When they’re well designed, habits happen effortlessly, putting your lifestyle on autopilot and freeing up your energy for more challenging activities. Without habits, you wouldn’t be able to function. You’d be too busy trying to figure out how to brush your teeth! Every day, you wake up and engage in habit after habit beginning with how you get out of bed, and ending with how you go to sleep at night.

Since your lifestyle is built of habits, it makes sense that knowing how to design habits gives you the power to design your lifestyle.

The Simple Proven Formula for Designing Lifestyle Habits

Every habit has 3 elements:

  1. A trigger. The trigger tells your brain to run that routine.
  2. The behavior or routine itself.
  3. A reward. The reward is necessary to keep you motivated. It also helps wire the routine into your brain more effectively.

Here’s an example: Suppose you want to build the habit of drinking water every morning when you wake up. This is how you might design it.

  1. Choose a trigger. For example, you can put your water bottle on the kitchen counter or in in front of the coffee pot. A smartly designed trigger should be something you practically trip over when you’re building a new habit. The trigger reminds you to engage in the routine. No trigger – no habit.
  2. The routine. In this case, the routine is drinking some water.
  3. The reward may be feeling good from drinking water, but don’t count on that as enough of a reward. You should add a simple reward, for example, keeping a calendar and putting a checkmark each day you drink your water. It’s amazing how well we respond to these simple kinds of rewards, even as adults.  And give yourself a little praise for completing your routine; our brains love praise!

Each time you repeat the habit, it gets wired more sturdily in your brain through the magic of neuroplasticity. With this simple habit formula, you can wire almost any lifestyle habit you choose into your brain, and even replace old habits with better habits.

Here are some considerations as you get started on habit design.

  • You need motivation: If there’s no good reason you can think of to build this habit, it’s probably not going to happen.
  • You need to practice and persist: This is neuroplasticity in action; habits get wired in through repetition.
  • Take baby steps: Make it almost impossible to fail by taking very small steps as you build your habit – nudging yourself in the direction of the behavior you’re looking to design. Using the example of drinking water in the morning, you can start by having the cup of water ready for you in the morning, filled with only a couple of ounces of water, and having it in the bathroom in front of your toothbrush.  Behavioral designers often talk about starting a flossing habit by flossing just one tooth!
  • Add a layer of accountability: It can be helpful for some people to hold themselves accountable for completing their habit;  either by letting someone know, or even by logging your completed habit into an app. If you like the idea of using apps, there are many apps you can download to help you install your habits – some of them are free. Here’s a  list of habit tracking apps.
  • No one can tell you how long it will take to wire in your new habit: Some people will tell you that it takes 10 days to create a new habit, or 6 weeks, or 2 months. But no one knows how long it will take you to wire in your new habit. It depends on the complexity of your habit, how much you practice, your level of motivation, whether you’re replacing another habit and the strength of that other habit, etc. But while I can’t tell you how long it will take, I can tell you that if you’re motivated, your habit is well designed using the formula I shared with you today, and you practice, your brain will do its job and will wire in your new habit.

In my next post, I'll conclude this series on neuroplasticity and help you learn how to change unhelpful habits! Stay tuned!

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2 thoughts on “Neuroplasticity and Designing Habits”

  1. It’s so nice to be offered solutions that don’t make me groan. The example of flossing one tooth may seem extreme but it’s a wonderful illustration of how we can start small and still realize the change we want. I love how practical Michelle is – it’s obvious that she understands what it is to live day to day in the real world, and not on some remote mountaintop with nothing to do but meditate. Thanks!

    1. Thanks for your comment and for your support. I’m glad you found the post helpful; I know the example of flossing 1 tooth is extreme, but now I’m up to 3 :)!!! If there’s anything you’d like me to post about, or any questions you have about habit building, feel free to let me know!

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