This is how you develop a new habit (in 4 easy steps)
- 4 Oct ‘23
- 4 min.
- Editorial OpenUp Medical
Eating healthily, exercising more, getting enough sleep… You want to, but you never get round to it. Creating a lasting change is one of the most challenging things to execute. How do you do it? And more importantly: How can you integrate these desired changes into your routine?
The gap between knowing and doing
Many of us assume that our behaviour is conscious. However, we make most of our decisions based on emotions and instincts. To help you understand this, we’re going to talk you through the structure of the brain(1) (2). We’ll offer a simplified overview of the brain to help explain things.
You can divide the functionality of your brain into two parts. The older part of your brain is made up of the “reptilian brain” and the “emotional brain”. And a newer part consists of your “cerebral cortex”.
The older brain
The older part, also known as “the primal brain”, works with instincts and emotions. It looks at what it stands to gain today. It prefers to make familiar, safe, and possibly unhealthy choices (as opposed to choosing things that are unfamiliar, but might make you healthier and happier). What’s more, it prefers to save energy wherever possible (in other words, it would rather be idle than tired). Finally, it places importance on being part of a group.
Can you see the pattern here? For centuries, the primal brain has been focused on one thing: surviving in the easiest and most enjoyable way possible. The primal brain’s behaviours make sense in an environment where food is scarce and danger lurks behind every corner. However, in our modern society, we don’t often encounter acute danger and we’re overloaded with temptations.
The newer brain
The cerebral cortex, on the other hand, works with knowledge and analysis. It can look beyond today and is able to delay rewards. Planning for the future and staying in control is what your cerebral cortex does best.
From here stems your ability to proactively make choices and change your behaviours. The cerebral cortex allows you to choose the unknown. As humans, we have the largest cerebral cortex in the animal kingdom. That’s why we’re in the position to tame the instincts and emotions that arise out of our primal brain.
A balance between two parts
The interplay of forces between these two parts of the brain explains why we find it so difficult to change our behaviour. It’s about finding a balance. Are you trying to make some plans and be analytical? Then your primal brain will often lure you into old habits. Do you not actually have a plan of action? Then it becomes harder to outsmart your primal brain in today’s living conditions.
Learning good habits , unlearning bad habits
A habit (whether good or bad) is a particular behaviour that you repeat so often that it becomes automatic. The ultimate goal of a good habit is to be able to solve problems in your life with as little energy and effort as possible. Sounds great, right?
Often, we think that massive changes are necessary to learn a good habit or unlearn a bad habit. This is because we underestimate the value of small behavioural improvements. In one year, you can become 37 times better at something if you improve by 1% each day.
James Clear, expert in habit formation, presents four simple principles for bringing about change in your life in his book Atomic Habits.
1. Make it obvious
If you want to learn a new behaviour, make sure it’s obvious what you’re going to do. There are two common triggers for inciting behaviour: time and location. By pairing your desired behaviour with a particular time and location, and doing this regularly enough, your brain registers these triggers and, after a while, it automatically launches into this desired behaviour:
- “I’m going to do [this behaviour] at [this time] and at [this location]” for example: “I’m going to do ten squats at 8:30 when I arrive at my office”.
- Make sure that you have a trigger at the relevant time and location, such as an alarm (time) at your chosen moment or a yoga mat lying in place where you want to do the squats (location).
- Then you can “stack” your habits: “After the first habit, I’ll do a second habit” 🡪 for example: “After the ten squats when I arrive at my office at 8:30, I’m going to drink a glass of water”.
On the other hand, you can make things you want to unlearn as difficult as possible. For your primal brain, it’s easier to avoid temptations than to resist them. Do you spend (too much) time scrolling through your phone before bed when you’d rather be asleep? Then simply make your bedroom into a phone-free zone.
2. Make it attractive
When trying to maintain a habit, it helps if you regularly get positive feedback. That’s great for your primal brain: The more attractive something is, the more likely you are to make it a habit. So, pair this new habit with behaviours you find appealing.
- Allow yourself to listen to your favourite podcast while you go for a walk. Treat yourself to a warm bath with a book if you want to go to bed earlier, instead of spending the evening scrolling through your phone.
- You could seek out a club or a group where your desired behaviour is the norm. Want to read more? Join a book club. The joy that you get from socialising will encourage you to read more.
- List the advantages of a good habit (or the disadvantages of not adopting this habit). This way, you’ll make the habit more attractive. The same is true in reverse: Write down the disadvantages of a bad habit (or the advantages of not following it). This way, you’ll make the habit much less attractive.
3. Make it easy
Our primal brain would rather be idle than tired. Secretly, our behaviour is all geared towards choosing the path of least resistance. This helps us to survive. Utilise this knowledge and remove all possible resistance.
- Do you want to do ten sit-ups next to your desk at three o’clock, but do you need to move your desk first? Make sure that the space is set up so that you can do your sit-ups right away. Want to work out more often? Then take out a membership to that gym on your route home from work.
- Start small and use the two-minute rule. To begin with, only spend two minutes on your new habit. Starting is essential, make the bar as low as possible.
- The same is true in reverse: Create as much friction as possible for bad habits. Want to kick your habit of hitting ‘snooze’ forever? Put your alarm clock on the other side of the room. Switching off your alarm = time to get up.
4. Make it satisfying
Some habits don’t produce the desired result right away. That makes it difficult for our primal brains to keep going. Joy teaches the primal brain that a particular behavior is worth repeating. So, put a reward system in place for yourself.
- Suppose you want to stop drinking alcohol. Then deposit a particular amount into your savings account each week when you haven’t drunk any alcohol.
- Make use of a “habit tracker“: a calendar or a journal where you can check off your new habits each day as you do them. Seeing all the check marks is very satisfying!
- Find an “accountability partner“: In other words, a friend who helps remind you of your goals. It might sound childish, but we’re essentially social creatures and we want to be part of a group. Use this to your advantage: Knowing that somebody is watching you can be a powerful incentive to keep going.
Habits are one of the keys to success. Create systems that help make your new behaviours as obvious, attractive, easy, and satisfying as possible. It will revolutionise your life! If you’d like to discuss your situation with one of our lifestyle doctors, book a consultation at this link.
- PhyloBrain atlas: a cortical brain MRI atlas following a phylogenetic approach | bioRxiv
- (PDF) The Triune Brain in Evolution. Role in Paleocerebral Functions. Paul D. MacLean. Plenum, New York, 1990. xxiv, 672 pp., illus. $75 (researchgate.net)
- Atomic Habits: Tiny Changes, Remarkable Results by James Clear
- Marginal Gains: This Coach Improved Every Tiny Thing by 1 Percent (jamesclear.com)