Old Dog, New Tricks: Understanding the Science of Changing Your Habits
Make your habits into a routine.
We can have the best of intentions when embarking on the path of creating new habits. But no matter how passionate we are when first getting started, it doesn’t guarantee that we’ll reach the outcome we want: an easy, automatic routine we repeat with minimal effort day after day.
The human brain is incredibly complex. If learning a new habit, such as flossing each night, was easy to make into a routine, more of the population would be regular flossers. But we aren’t.
Teach yourself new tricks, no matter your age, by understanding the science behind successfully changing your habits.
From the Encyclopedia Britannica, neuroplasticity is the “capacity of neurons and neural networks in the brain to change their connections and behavior in response to new information, sensory stimulation, development, damage, or dysfunction.”
In other words, neuroplasticity is the ability of the brain to restructure itself and create new connections as we learn new information, habits, and routines.
By the time we reach the age of 25, our brains start becoming “solidified” as our information pathways become well-established like a deeply grooved, travel-worn trail from frequent, routine use over the years.
The stronger these connections are, the more difficult it becomes to veer from the habits and thought patterns that created them—difficult but not impossible. Thanks to neuroplasticity, new connections can be made and strengthened over time to eventually override the original.
The trick to changing your habits, of course, is to get through the rocky development phase and create a well-established habit that is done without a second thought.
Using Science to Change Your Habits
You now know habit change is possible whether you’re 16 or 60. Now it’s just a matter of making it work in your favor.
On average, it takes 66 days to take a new action and turn it into a habit, though studies have found that, for some, it can take as long as 254 days. When embarking on your journey to create a new habit, plan to spend at least three to five months actively working at it.
There are tricks you can use throughout this time to make the habit formation process faster and easier. Perhaps most importantly is understanding the stages that define a habit loop.
These four stages to changing your habits are the cue, the craving, the response, and the reward.
The Cue: Make it obvious and specific.
The cue is what triggers you into taking action on your new habit. It can be a feeling, a sound, a time of day, a location, or even another habit. When choosing your cue, make it as obvious and specific as possible. For example:
- I will read a book 20 minutes before bed.
- After I brush my teeth at night, I will then floss my teeth.
- I will set an alarm on my phone as a reminder to go for a walk during my afternoon break.
The more detailed you can get when designing your cue, the better, as it eliminates any possible excuses to not follow through.
The Craving: Make it attractive.
The craving is what leads us to follow through on a habit after we receive the cue. It is our motivation for taking action. For example, we brush our teeth because we want that clean, minty feeling. We go for a run to get a rush of feel-good endorphins. We can either reach for a mid-afternoon soda or go out for a walk to get a burst of energy. Discovering the real reason for a craving can take some experimentation. To give your new habit sticking power, find a craving that is attractive and can be satisfied in that moment.
The response: Make it easy.
The response is the habit itself, the action you want to take. The key to success here is to make completing your habit as easy as possible. Create an incredibly low barrier to entry by designing your environment around your habit. Keep a container of floss to use by where you sit when watching TV. Buy pre-cut fruits and veggies for an easy, healthy snack, or find a coworker to walk with on breaks for added accountability.
The Reward: Make it gratifying.
Lastly, there is a reward. This is what satisfies your craving and gives your brain a rewarding hit of dopamine. It’s what convinces your brain to follow through on the habit loop again in the future. It can be receiving a boost of energy, a good conversation, a delicious meal, a clean mouth, or enjoying a great story. A good reward to a habit loop is unique to each of us, even if we are pursuing the same habit. No matter the reward, what matters is that it successfully fulfills the craving.