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Tips to forming healthy habits according to neuroscientists

As the New Year sweeps over us faster than what feels legal, I figured a post about forming new life long positive habits would be well received right now. We all understand that habits are consciously (and sometimes unconsciously) developed through repeated behaviours, thought patterns and thought processes. For example brushing your teeth every morning, walking your dog every afternoon, repeating daily positive affirmations or meditating everyday.  What most of us don’t realise however is that according to author Charles Duhigg we are on”autopilot mode” for over 40% of our life, as stated in his book ‘The Power Of Habit’. This is why he places such a strong emphasis on forming healthy habits.

Gardner, Sheals, Wardle & McGowan (2014) highlight in the International Journal of Behavioural Nutrition and Physical Activity that newly formed habits should to be repeated for a minimum of 6 weeks first in order for them to become long lasting automatic processes. Failure to do so may result in a “relapse” with regard to progress. This is due to individuals being at risk of going back to their old patterns of behaviour, thus reinforcing old habits. They came to this conclusion as a result of an intervention-based study involving 57 parents. It should however be noted that this study revolved around dietary behavioural change only. This leaves room to ponder about whether other habitual behaviours could be formed in an even shorter time frame? 

An evidence-based study conducted by Lally & Gardner (2011) concluded that you can form new habits that you only do on occasions if there are other variables present alongside the habitual behaviours. For example some people might only form the habit of eating healthy on days when they work out and even though this is still an occasional (conscious) habit on workout days only, it is not considered as an automatic (unconscious or second-nature) process. Despite this, forming any healthy habit is still better than not making any positive progress at all so it should still be acknowledged and celebrated. 

So what are the best techniques to use when forming long lasting healthy habits? Lally & Gardner (2011) note that a Self-Report Habit Index (SRHI), which was introduced by Verplanken & Orbell in 2003 is the most popular method to measure habits and track progress. According to this tool in order to form long lasting habits you need to practice behavioural repetition to form a second-nature habit, have a strong sense of self so that you can truly understand why you want to learn these new behaviours thus increasing motivation and have high levels of self awareness to understand how much control you truly have over developing this new behaviour e.g. if you are trying to combat addiction it might be detrimental to your health to go cold turkey and leave you more prone to relapses. 

After studying research from neuroscientist Wolfram Schultz, Charles Duhigg (2012) concluded that a reward is required after performing a new habit whether it be an elevated level of self esteem, a treat, a refreshing feeling after taking a shower etc in order to keep repeating the positive pattern. He continued on to add that this is because our brain cannot tell the difference between good habits nor bad habits so we need to train our brain to favour the good habits over the bad ones through a reward system. Furthermore habits never truly disappear therefore in order to stop bad old habits from returning we need to stay motivated to keep repeating new habits until they become an automatic way of being. This way when we are on autopilot mode we know that this habit is one that we initially consciously chose and one that will serve us in the long run. 

Recently I have come to learn that Jeff Bezos is heavily focused on the outcome of everything that he does as outlined by J.R MacGregor in ‘The Force Behind the Brand’. It is clear that he has a deep understanding of the importance of this reward system when forming new habits. 

Another tip from Duhigg that is worth noting when forming new habits is to ensure that you do not use all of your willpower on habits that are useless to your passion and life-purpose. He explains that this is because willpower replicates the strength of a muscle therefore it is not unconditional. So if you waste the first half of your day repeating habits such as replying to pointless emails for the sake of it, reading books you have no interest in just to complete the habit of reading a book a day, taking the stairs instead of the elevator when you have no fitness goals in mind etc then your amount of willpower will be maxed out by the time you get home to work on your passion-fueled side business. This is not to say that you cannot still complete the tasks upon arriving home however it might mean that you feel overly exhausted and as if every task is tedious. 

Wit et al., (2018) highlights in ‘Shifting The balance Between Goals and Habits’ that there have been various failed attempts at trying to overtrain test subjects to form new habits, ultimately resulting in them forming even less new habits than the average person who is not practicing excessive repetition. Therefore it can be concluded that another tip to form long lasting habits is not to push yourself too hard too soon as this will end up being counter-productive. 

When deciding to swap one repeated behaviour for another new repeated behaviour, a high level of self-awareness/reflection is necessary as stated previously by Lally & Gardner (2011). A part of this would mean being aware of the intensity of your goal setting process. Mikami (2020) highlights that according to goal-setting theory it is important to stay committed to specific, challenging and attainable goals in order to increase motivation and performance. So when setting the goal to swap an old bad behaviour such as drinking soft drinks for a new better behaviour its important to be specific for instance if you are going to aim for using an alternative such as freshly made juices ensure that you know what kind of juice and other finer details. She continues on to add that individuals motivation levels change dramatically due to factors like “enjoyment, perceived progress and self-regulation” (p29). A tip that can be concluded here could be to ensure that you are journaling your progress. 

These are just some methods but there are an endless amount of tips and tricks out there that will help you form new long-lasting habits. I hope that this article was able to help you identify what tips you will take with you and implement into your new years resolution plan for 2021!  

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