Harness these unconscious brain circuits to change your life
Habits are automatic behaviors below conscious awareness
Habits can either bring us health and happiness or keep us locked into destructive patterns of action
Key brain pathways linked to habits are the basal ganglia and dopamine
You can't just delete bad habits, but you can create healthier habits that take their place
When you think about the choices you make each day, what comes to mind? Maybe you think about what you ate in your last meal, or the TV show you decided to watch or the airline flight you just booked. It’s less likely you’ll be thinking about how many times you brushed each tooth, or how you drove to work or the way you combed your hair. That’s because these types of choices are below the level of your conscious awareness. They are driven by habits—powerful automatic behaviors. When it comes to our quality of life, our habits can be incredibly damaging or incredibly helpful.
Research shows that up to 40% of our daily behaviors may be driven by habits. That's an awful lot. It means that if our habits are healthy (like exercising or eating a healthy breakfast), we're getting a big boost to our daily routine. But if our habits are unhealthy (like late-night snacking, smoking, or buying things you don't need), you're going to find a lot of your choices taking you away from your health and other goals.
Habits have been the subject of a number of popular books in the last decades, both because they're powerful tools for behavior change and because they tend to be pretty interesting to talk about. But many conversations about habits miss the most important parts. In this article, we'll cover some of the key brain science of habits as well as strategies to help you create new and better habits for long term health benefits.
The brain science of habits
Habits are said to be “automatic” or unconscious. But what does that really mean? It doesn’t mean that we are completely oblivious to them, just that we’re not paying much attention. For example, when you’re brushing your teeth, you’re probably not paying attention to every brush stroke, or even the brushing much at all. That’s because those actions have been put into your brains habit circuits. So, if you weren’t thinking about your teeth, what were you thinking about instead? Maybe your plans for tomorrow? Your bank account? When you do something repeatedly, in the same way, in the same context, your habit circuits in your brain take over the process, and in doing so they offload your conscious brain to think about other things.
When it comes to the brain circuitry of habits, it’s been shown that a part of the brain called the basal ganglia seems to be the most involved. This is a part of the brain involved in motor function, and multiple types of learning, as well as cognition and emotion. Dopamine is a major neurotransmitter involved in the habit process.
How does this work exactly? It’s thought that as we repeat the same motor plan time and time again (like driving to work the same way, grabbing a bag of chips and sitting on the couch at the end of the day, or taking out and checking our phones for emails at a traffic light), our brains move the action pattern from our prefrontal cortex (that drives conscious decision-making) to the basal ganglia.
How to create better habits
In the modern world, it’s all too easy to create unhealthy habits. That’s because the things that are easiest to do and that activate dopamine circuits in the brain (like eating fast food, checking social media and binge-watching bad TV) are all around us. To properly create healthy habits, we have to first, be aware that the deck is stacked against us. Then we can start to consciously take steps to place healthy habits back in our own hands.
3 tips to create healthier habits:
Find an activity that brings you enjoyment that you look forward to doing daily. Remember, habit circuits in your brain are looking for things that you do repeatedly, and if you enjoy something, you’re far more likely to keep doing it
Try to do the activity in the same way, at the same time, in the same place every or almost every day. This means it’s more important to find something simple that you can stick to than something complicated for which you’ll quickly find excuses (for example, doing 5 minutes of daily meditation on your couch in the morning right after you wake up versus running a daily 5k at 5:30 AM)
Build your habits into an existing routine. When we tether new habits to exisiting habits, we are more likely to see them through. This concept is sometimes called “habit stacking,” and it’s pretty simple to apply. For example, if you want to create a new habit of doing that 5 minutes of meditation each day, do it right after your morning tooth brushing, so that finishing up brushing your teeth will start triggering your brain that the next step is to get on the couch to do the meditation.
2 popular habit myths:
Habits don’t take 21 days to change. That number was based on an opinion, rather than science. Research shows it takes on average about 66 days of doing something repeatedly for it to become a stable habit, but this number may be higher for complex habits and lower for easier ones.
You can’t just “get rid of” a bad habit. Instead, you can create new habits that take priority over old ones.
There’s lots more fascinating science around habits and how to create healthier habits. If you’re interested to learn more, check out episode 7 of the Get the STUCK Out podcast I did with Dr. Wendy Wood (one of the world’s habit experts). You can also check out this free lecture I did back in 2020 on the subject.
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