I don’t know about you, but I do struggle at times to feel in control when I’m trying to create real change by changing my habits.  One of my unhelpful habits is eating unhealthily. When I decide to start a new healthy eating regime, it only lasts a few days of getting focused and then old habits usually take over again.

The routine goes like this.  I draw up a plan which I prioritise and start taking action, like preparing meals and taking exercise. What usually happens is an emergency occurs. Or something unexpected becomes the day’s priority, and my carefully planned exercise routine goes out of the window. I spend a day or two veering between trying to stick to the plan and being acutely tempted by my old ways.  Then my resolve collapses, the old habits kick in, and the whole cycle starts again.

When my son started 6th form, for a lad who simply hated homework, at least 16 hours of it each week was a big stretch. It was a whole new paradigm shift for him and he had to develop new ways of working.  He had to build habits which were going to help him to have the discipline to get the work done. Habits which avoided stress. As I was giving him some advice about how to get focused, I realised it was about time to take my advice.

Pathways in the brain

To change old habits you have to change the wiring in your brain.  Imagine a good well-trod path you travel every day.  Each time you need to move forward you default to the path your brain recognises as familiar and easy to walk along.   Forming new habits means forging a new path.  You have to create a new path and sometimes the new path has unexpected obstacles, it’s unfamiliar and it’s easy to veer off it.

When you walk the new path again and again then a new groove in the earth appears and the obstacles become fewer and fewer.  Meanwhile, when you’re not using the old path it becomes overgrown and eventually feels uncomfortable walking on it.  However, whenever you veer back onto the old path it reinforces that old familiar habit.

Your job when changing ingrained habits is to keep getting back on to the new path every time you lapse. You must intend to walk the new path every day.  Eventually, the new habit becomes the default pathway in your brain.  However, the old pathway is always there and you have to guard against travelling it anymore.

Forming new habits can be uncomfortable and you have to maintain clarity about discerning when you might lapse and when you need to take action when your old programming is screaming at you to abandon your plans to create real change. Here is how the brain works when changing habits.

The Neuroscience of Habit Formation

Habit formation is a fundamental aspect of human behaviour and is closely tied to the workings of the brain. Habits are automatic, repetitive behaviours that occur with minimal conscious effort. Understanding the neuroscience behind changing habits can shed light on why habits are difficult to break and how they can be modified.

1. The Role of Neural Pathways

Habits are encoded in the brain through the establishment of neural pathways. When a behaviour is repeated consistently, the brain creates connections between neurons. These represent the sequence of actions involved in that behaviour. These connections form neural pathways. Those pathways become more robust and efficient with repetition. For example, if you have a habit of checking your phone first thing in the morning, the neural pathway associated with this behaviour becomes well-established over time. A cue triggers this habit, such as the sight of your phone. Then the brain automatically activates the associated neural pathway, leading to the behaviour.

2. Habit Modification and Neuroplasticity

Changing habits involves rewiring these established neural pathways, a process closely related to neuroplasticity. Neuroplasticity refers to the brain’s ability to reorganize its structure, functions, and connections in response to experience and learning. To change a habit, one must weaken the existing neural pathway associated with the unwanted behaviour and strengthen a new pathway that represents the desired behaviour. This requires conscious effort and repetition. By consistently choosing the new behaviour in response to the same cues that triggered the old habit, the brain gradually reshapes its neural connections, making the new behaviour more automatic and the old habit less dominant.

3. Dopamine and Reward Circuitry

Dopamine, a neurotransmitter associated with pleasure and reward, plays a critical role in habit formation. When a habit is initially formed or triggered, the brain’s reward system, including the release of dopamine, reinforces the behaviour, making it more likely to recur. This reward mechanism encourages the repetition of the habit. However, this same reward circuitry can be harnessed to change habits. By associating the new behaviour with a sense of reward or satisfaction, individuals can facilitate the formation of new, healthier habits. This involves finding ways to make the desired behaviour more enjoyable or fulfilling to activate the brain’s reward system and strengthen the new neural pathway.

The neuroscience of changing habits involves understanding how neural pathways are formed, modified through neuroplasticity, and influenced by the brain’s reward circuitry. It underscores the importance of consistent effort, repetition, and conscious decision-making in reshaping behaviours. By leveraging these insights, individuals can work towards breaking undesirable habits and cultivating positive ones for personal growth and well-being.

How to create real change

Clearing your mind and being organised is imperative to support your resolve when learning new ways of doing things. Here are some ways which can help you to maintain that focus.

1. Be mindful

We are hit with an array of information every second and our brain filters the information we don’t want and lets the information we believe in or are focusing on into our heads.   This information hits our brains and we are continuously reacting.  This impacts our focus unless we can harness some discipline in our minds.   Too much information or unwanted information can distract us and tempt us into repeating those familiar well-trodden pathways in our brains.

Being mindful helps us to break the pattern of our programming by helping us learn to detach from this array of information.  We can become mindful by meditating or contemplating rather than reacting immediately.

2. Be Intentional

Intent is imperative to create real change.  It’s not just wishful thinking, such as “I’d love to be slim”, and then feeling helpless to do anything about that wish.   Your intent needs to be a priority or a commitment for you.   You will prioritise and commit to materialising your intent when you have a solid reason for making the change.  When the change matters to you and your intent is strong, you will inevitably create the momentum for change to happen.

The way to strengthen you is to identify a good reason for the changes you need to make.  When I just wanted to feel better about myself by losing weight I was invariably flakey about my commitment.  I knew that I could feel better by changing my mind!  When I started experiencing health issues because of my weight, that was a game changer.

3. Take Action

Without action, every wish is simply a pipedream. Setting out a plan of action can be helpful, but if you’re not naturally a planner by personality then this can overwhelm you.  Small and regular steps are just as effective.   Results can be impactful when you stop focusing on the outcomes you want to achieve and just get good at taking small actions which in the long term will create the change you want to see.

When taking action you have to consider the effort it is going to take you to carry out.  Say for example you commit to going to the gym 3 times a week. Firstly you need to consider how much time this is going to take out of your day. Then identify what might deter you (overwhelm in other areas of your life for example). Finally, you must formulate strategies to mitigate the risk of abandoning those actions you have committed to.

So go on get started and create real change in your life, by following these tips!

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I help leaders develop self- mastery, helping them to become confident in their own inner guidance.

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