Give Your Brain a Break by Creating Effectual Habits

Photo courtesy of *CQ*

One day my psychologist looked at me and told me I needed to change my habits. I was confused. I don’t smoke, I don’t drink alcohol, I eat well, I go to bed at a reasonable time, I don’t use drugs (illegal ones anyway), and I’m trying really hard to stop cracking my knuckles. I told her I didn’t really have any bad habits to break other than biting my nails and plucking my eyebrows too much. She seemed bemused by my naïveté. Oh my dear, sweet patient, ye who has so much to learn. She then shared with me yet another one of her almighty wisdoms that would help me succeed in life.

It turns out that more than 40% of our actions are actually habits rather than real decisions that we put thought and effort into. Understanding how habits begin is the key to being able to break the bad ones and replace them with habits that can help improve our lives. Habits actually form in a three-step process which is known as a ‘habit loop’ – a cue is followed by a behavior which is followed by a reward. The behavior is what we all associate with the habit, but what we need to recognize is that the entire process is important if we want to make significant changes.

Habits and decisions are carried out by entirely different parts of the brain, therefore, as soon as a behavior becomes habitual, our brains slip into ‘automatic’ mode, which allows us to focus mental energy on other things. Studies show that we typically perform behaviors the same way if we are in a familiar environment. Simple acts like the order we put on our shoes or the way we brush our teeth remain habitual as long as we are ensconced in our daily routines receiving subtle cues. By changing our routines slightly, habits are easier to change and create. Breaking or starting a habit is usually extremely effective on vacation for this reason.

By changing some of your decision making acts into habits, you can free up some of your brain power to do other things, like achieve success professionally or be more present while parenting. Regardless of the act that you want to automate, create a cue for yourself that will spark the desired behavior at the same time and place every day. Force yourself to perform the action or behavior routinely, and give yourself a pre-planned reward every time until it becomes habitual. Save decision making for the most important aspects of your life, and leave the rest to HABIT.

For further reading and information about creating new habits and how they are formed, check out The Power of Habit by Charles Duhigg.

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