Did you know that strengthening your habits can strengthen your brain?
Our habits are the building blocks of our day-to-day lives. We open our eyes in the morning, get out of bed, brush our teeth, and wash up. We have routines for how we eat, engage with others, and deal with routine financial responsibilities.
Brain science is showing us that when we change our habits and engage in new experiences, we change the pathways in our brains. According to Daniel Siegel, MD, founder of the Mindful Awareness Research Center at UCLA medical school, this process, called neuroplasticity, produces new connections as we learn (2010; 2012).
Research shows that this brain development can continue throughout our lives as we acquire new skills and experiences. Even as we mature into midlife and elderhood, when we develop and expand our habits, our brains can grow new neural connections.
In addition to building new pathways in the brain, greater awareness of our habits – both the good and the bad – informs how we show up in our lives. With this awareness and a few strategic guideposts, we can make choices to maintain those habits that serve us well and change those that don’t.
When we want to build new habits, according to James Clear, author of Atomic Habits (2018), we can get remarkable results by making one tiny change at a time. In the beginning, creating a new habit is more critical than actually achieving a goal. He recommends getting just 1% better each day. According to Clear, accumulating habits involves deciding the kind of person you want to be and then empowering your vision with a process of small wins emerging from habits. One step at a time, we can create a personal system as these habits inform our way of learning, doing, and being in the world.
Here are a few ideas for building the habits you want and harnessing them to work for you:
- Start your habit change process by building awareness. Pay attention to your current habits and identify one that you want to change in some way. Notice your typical procedures step by step. It can help to simply make a list of your daily routines and steps.
- All change begins with making choices. What habits do you like? Which habits are you willing to take the steps to change?
- Attach a new habit or behavior to something you already do regularly. One strategy, called habit stacking (Clear, 2018), connects a new habit with a long-established habit. For example: if you want to begin walking daily, plan to take your walk right after lunch. To add a moment of mindfulness to your routine, you might create this time right after you brush your teeth each morning. After I brush my teeth, I will sit down and breathe mindfully for two minutes.
- Gain clarity about what you want to do and how you will do it. Be specific and bite off just a small chunk. Research suggests beginning with a specific implementation intention or if-then plan (Oettingen & Gollwitzer, 2010). If I’m in this situation, then I’ll do this. For example, if it’s 12 noon, then I’ll stop what I’m doing and walk for two minutes. If I want to eat between meals, then I will sit down to consume whatever I choose to eat.
- Start with a simple step. Let yourself know that one small step at a time can add up to powerful new habits and behaviors. James Clear recommends “the two-minute rule” as you begin a new habit (2018). Break the habit into a small enough chunk that it can be accomplished in two minutes or less. For example, if you want to begin exercising, start your practice with just a two-minute window – After my shower each morning, I’ll get on my yoga mat (or do stretching exercises) for two minutes.
- Remember the “why.” Keeping in mind why we’re doing something – the personal value, meaning, and importance of a behavior can be helpful. According to performance psychologist, Kate Hays, Ph.D., during practice and performance it’s pivotal to remember your purpose, returning to the very personal reasons why this is important to you. Dr. Hays notes the advantages of working toward being excellent rather than perfect (K. Hays, July, 2018). This can apply to simple and more complex behavioral changes.
*This post is for educational purposes and should not substitute for psychotherapy with a qualified professional.
Clear, J. (2018). Atomic habits: An easy and proven way to build good habits and break bad ones. New York, NY: Avery.
Hays, K. (July 11, 2018). Personal Communication – Interview with Ilene Berns-Zare.
Oettingen, G. & Gollwitzer, P.M. (2010). Strategies of setting and implementing goals: Mental contrasting and implementation intention. In J.E. Maddux & J.P. Tangney (Eds.). Social psychological foundations of clinical psychology (114-136). New York, NY: Guilford Press.
Siegel, D. (2010). Mindsight: The new science of personal transformation. New York, NY: Bantam Books Trade Paperbacks.
Siegel, D. (2012). Pocket guide to interpersonal neurobiology: An integrative handbook of the mind. New York: NY. WW Norton & Co.