Creating helpful habits: The neurons that fire together, wire together
Updated: Sep 1, 2020
I am potty training my little one at the moment and watching her this morning, reminded me of how habit formation develops. Once she did her business in her potty, she tore away to the fridge, as quick as her little legs could carry her, to get her 'choccy' reward.
Habits are automatic behaviours that we have embedded time and time again. Sometimes our habits are helpful to us. Sometimes they are less so.
In my hypnotherapy and mindset practice, I support people to change their habits. One of my favourite phrases in behaviour change is from my days listening to my lecturer in neuropsychology: The neurons that fire together, wire together.
What this means is, that when we do something differently or change our usual way of performing a task, lots of activity is going on in the brain. New pathways are being created. The more you interrupt the old pattern and embed a new (hopefully more helpful pattern) the more you are developing these pathways and therefore strengthening a new habit.
So for the first couple of times, my little one didn't understand why she was getting a choccy after doing her business on her potty.... now however, to say she is milking the system is an understatement! She knows that full potty = choccy.
So how can you change your habits towards more helpful ones. Well there are a few steps. Let's look at these one by one.
A cue is a trigger or signal that tells you to act in a certain way. Creating a new habit, involves creating a new cue. Working on this will help to break an unhelpful habit.
So for instance, for my little one, the cue was the need to go to the toilet. Find a cue that works for you. Maybe you want to create a new fitness habit. Well in this situation, your cue might be putting on your workout clothes first thing in the morning having left them laid out at night time. Do a little bit of experimentation to see what works for you. Make it easy for yourself to start embedding the behaviour change.
2. Routine 💡
Think about the steps that you will take to formalist the new habit. Sticking with the fitness habit, perhaps the steps involve identifying what days and times you are going to go for your walk/ run/ cycle etc. Writing the steps down is also helpful as it engages our logical brain.
By doing this, you are building your habit around a routine which gives you greater chance of success. Essentially, you are building it into your life. You are creating a more powerful intention. Notice the difference between the two phrases:
'I'm intending to do more exercise to help me feel better'
'I exercise three times a week to help me feel better'
Which phrase do you think will be more helpful to embed behaviour?
3. Reward 💡
Like my little girl with her choccy, reward can be helpful to continue to embed the behaviour. It is good to link the cue with a reward. If we stick with the exercise example, your reward may be the endorphin rush you get after a workout.
Think about that post exercise high. Think about how those 'feel good' hormones make you feel. Human beings crave reward. This is a powerful way to embed behaviour. If we do things that make us feel good, well, we are going to repeat them aren't we? If your cue, in addition to triggering your routine, also trigger a craving for the reward, it is going to embed the behaviour further.
** It is worth noting that, even with the best intentions, lapses can happen. We have all started new year's resolutions that haven't stuck. If this happens, why don't you think about taking a look at your plan. Examine where things went off track. What were the small things that changed your cue or routine? What could you different to get this behaviour back on track?
And remember that a habit is a formula your brain automatically follows: See the cue, follow the routine, get the reward.