How to Change Unwanted Habits using Neuroplasticity

In this final post in my 3 part series on neuroplasticity, I'll help you learn how to change unwanted habits. In case you missed them, you can check out the first post here, and the second here.

How to Change Habits

If you want to change a habit, you need to do a little detective work and figure out the formula for that habit.  What’s the trigger and what’s the reward? You also need to know what purpose the old habit serves. Then you can use that trigger to substitute in a new habit.

Earlier, I used a metaphor of neural pathways as trails in the woods. When you change a habit, you’re carving out a new trail by creating a detour. The old trail is well worn, so without paying attention, you’re likely to find yourself traveling it – out of habit!

To get yourself to travel on the new trail, you’ll need to make the detour sign pretty clear, and the new trail as easy as possible to follow. You also need to know what purpose the existing habit served, and choose a replacement habit that serves the same purpose; the new trail has to get you to the same place as the old trail.

It might help if I offer another example. Let’s say you want to replace your habit of snacking right before bed. You would start by figuring out what triggers the bedtime snack, and what need it satisfies. If, for example, snacking is triggered by boredom and serves to engage your attention for a few minutes, your replacement habit would need to be something that holds your interest at least as well as the snack, and also, something that’s pretty easy to do. You might try watching a funny video online, calling or texting a friend, or spending a few minutes practicing a new hobby. Then you would put a trigger for the new activity in the place where you’d likely go to find the snack (that’s your detour sign) and make sure you reward yourself each time you engage in the replacement routine.

As you take on the challenge of habit change, please be gentle with yourself.

If you’re looking to build a new pathway alongside a deep track, you probably will have instances where you “habitually” follow the old path. If you do this, see if there’s any change you need to make to your trigger or any boosting you need to do to your motivation.  Don’t get down on yourself; if you criticize yourself, you’ll actually make it less likely that you’ll succeed next time, and you’ll be strengthening your self-criticism habit.

If you want to learn more about behavioral design, check out Charles Duhigg, the author of The Power of Habit, or the work of BJ Fogg. And for more complex challenges, behavior designer Nir Eyal notes that different strategies may be needed.

Now you understand how neuroplasticity works, and how simple (but not always easy) it can be to sculpt your own brain, and design your own lifestyle! I would love to hear from you. Feel free to comment or email me with your triumphs and challenges as you start sculpting!

If you have any questions, let me know and I'll try to address them, either privately or in an additional post.

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2 thoughts on “How to Change Unwanted Habits using Neuroplasticity”

  1. I will definitely check out Charles Duhigg on behavioral design. This series on neuroplasticity was wonderful. I hope you’ll revisit it periodically. It’s like discovering you can make a “New Year’s Resolution” any day of the year – and if you stick with it, a new and better route to satisfaction and fulfillment will emerge. Here’s to stick-with-it-ness! Thanks, Michelle.

    1. Thank you. I’m glad you enjoyed the series and found it motivating! I do have some ideas for posts on similar topics; the new brain science is completely fascinating and changes so much about what we used to think we knew about how people grow, change, and stay stuck. I appreciate your comments!!!

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