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The science behind what keeps us stuck in unhelpful habits

25th Apr 2019
Keeping stuck in bad habits
Vasyl Dolmatov/iStock
Keeping stuck in bad habits

Breaking bad habits is hard. But why is this the case? Here we explore the neuroscience behind  getting stuck in unhealthy routines and guidance on how to embed lasting change for the better.

How often do we get caught up in unhelpful habits, whether it’s getting so busy with our workload that we don’t allow time for bigger picture thinking, or overlooking new ways of working as we prefer the comfort of how we’ve always done it?

To unlock the capacity to make lasting changes to daily habits it’s vital we understand the neuroscience behind it.

The path of least resistance

Our brains are designed to find patterns to allow us to learn, become more efficient and bring information to our fingertips.

The intricate web of neural pathways within our brains become so pronounced through habit that it requires a sustained effort to build new pathways to align with our rapidly evolving world. The brain seeks to create the path of least resistance, so developing and embedding new habits takes a good deal of energy and determination.

Emotional and physiological drivers

We have emotional and physical drivers behind habits that keep them rooted in place. Often we feel that intention is the sole catalyst behind forming new habits, but it’s not sufficient on its own.

How many times have you embarked on a quest to turn over a new leaf and be a regular gym-goer in January, only to find in mid-February that you are still paying a direct debit but not showing up?

As human beings, we are emotional creatures who respond to rewards. These rewards may be obvious and highly visible or they may be unconscious and therefore a lot more subtle. We create something called habit loops through repetition, which are triggered by specific cues, such as time of day, location, or coming into contact with a particular person.

The desire to change a habit plays a big part, but we must also recognise the physiological aspects of creating new pathways in the brain and how this works.

We might believe that we can’t function properly at work without our morning coffee – indeed global coffee brands have established a huge tranche of the market on the back of this habit.

The cue is the time of day when we dash past the coffee shop on the commute to work and the reward is that it feels good as it has become an accepted ritual of modern society, and we have convinced ourselves that the caffeine hit is enabling us to be more energised.

Identify the reward and change the cue

Once you notice you have a particular habit, the challenge lies in identifying the current reward and then exploring possible alternatives. One of the other angles to pursue is to eliminate the cue, so we might consider changing the route to work to swerve the caffeine cue, and instead eat some fruit or a healthy alternative, which gives us a sense of wellbeing.

The rewards may be less easy to spot when it comes to letting go of unhelpful habits in the workplace and learning new skills. The busy manager who is promoted to look after a larger team might habitually choose not to delegate work. The subtle reward comes from a job done ‘properly’ as this was how they were measured before they became a manager.

To maintain this habit might seem like a good plan, as of course it is faster (another reward), however, as a manager this is no longer the measure of success.

Ultimately the habit is unhelpful as it ring-fences work, stops others from learning and developing and soon enough burnout will be calling. The opportunity comes in seeing that a new reward lies in helping the team to develop and learn.

Once we understand and respect the neuroscience behind habit creation, it allows us greater perspective and patience to free ourselves from unhelpful behaviours.

The self-justification pitfall

Sometimes we are resistant to learning new ways of working and we give up before we recognise that the new reward can be just as fulfilling. Here’s how we justify not changing the old habit:

1. We try the new habit but it feels unnatural and takes more time and energy as the brain is creating alternative pathways.

2. We experience resistance as the new way feels uncomfortable. The reward is less obvious to us initially and, in facing challenges, we create a narrative that justifies the old way of working.

3. We don’t see the benefit straight away. It requires tenacity to turn a new habit into a shorter neurological pathway (which takes time, effort and practice).

4. We justify our inability to change the habit and revert to default. We might even back this up by saying ‘This way is better anyway’.

Embedding change

The desire to change a habit plays a big part, but we must also recognise the physiological aspects of creating new pathways in the brain and how this works. The following steps are vital in order to embed lasting habit changes:

  1. Notice your routines and be open to the possibility of changing them. Bring a vigilant alertness to your behaviour patterns.

  2. Look for the reward that is underpinning your habits and keeping them in place.

  3. Identify the cue that is prompting the routine – there is usually a time or spatial context to daily habits.

  4. Explore other potential rewards and/or consider changing the cue.

  5. Keep at it. Remember that developing new habits is initially a challenge but recognise that the reward will be worth it and the new habit will replace the old one.

Our brains have a natural, built-in intelligence. Once we understand and respect the neuroscience behind habit creation, it allows us greater perspective and patience to free ourselves from unhelpful behaviours. In doing so, we experience first-hand how incremental habit changes can have a transformational impact.

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