‘For the first thirty years of your life you make your habits. For the last thirty years of your life, your habits make you’ – an old Hindu saying
As we learn more about the human brain and gain ongoing insights from Neuroscience research, the wisdom contained in this old Hindu saying is reinforced. Our habits definitely play a significant role in determining how we live our lives and what kind of person we become.
Neuroscience is showing us that for much of the time (around 70% or more), we are on autopilot and our habits are running the show. What is interesting about this fact is that we are not even aware that we are actually operating from habit during these times, as the routines we have put in place have just become part of ‘who we are’. So if our habits play such a major role in our lives, then shouldn’t we be paying more attention to them? If we are going to develop our habits, should we not be more intentional in deciding what habits we will create and which ones we will maintain?
What can we do to be more intentional in how we use, and form, our habits? Well, we can begin by understanding our brain and how habits are created. Habits are formed through repeated actions. Our actions activate a specific pattern in a part of our brain called the dorsal striatum and each time we perform the same action, we wire these pattern into our brain. As this pattern becomes wired in, it gets easier for us to activate it the next time. Our brain likes to conserve energy, and by following these tracks we have set down, it does just that. This means we don’t have to waste our precious thinking resources on routine tasks such as brushing our teeth or putting on our shoes every morning. These just become built in neural routines allowing us to preserve our precious thinking capacity to concentrate on the tasks which require more of our conscious attention and focus.
Our brains follow the tracks we have wired in, but if we are not conscious of what these are, how do we really know whether we are practicing good habits or bad ones? Well, we can use our self-awareness to start noticing what we are doing and when. For example:
- what do we do when we arrive at our desks first thing in the morning? Do we reach for a coffee and start answering emails?
- how often do we check our phones or our Facebook feeds?
- what do we do when we get home in the evening? Do we always reach for the remote and choose the same programs to watch (by the way, just how many cooking and home renovation shows can our brains cope with?)?
- what habits show up when we open the fridge?
When we have a sense of what habits we have in place, we can begin to see if these engrained routines are serving us or sabotaging us. If our habits are not working for us, then we can bring our conscious attention to choose and to decide to intentionally change or replace these.
Changing a habit is not easy, and we will fail many times before we are successful, but if we can see what we will gain from making the change, we are more likely to persist. We are often asked how long it takes to change a habit. There is no easy answer to this, but we refer to the 1000 times rule developed by Dr Evian Gordon who has over 20 years of experience in brain research. He suggests the following timings as a guide:
1 = critical first step to set up the habit
5 = most rapid learning
25 = habit forming
100 = habit consolidation
1000 = habit fully formed for life
Yes, the 1000 figure is daunting, but we can take comfort in another old saying that reminds us that ‘a journey of thousand miles begins with a single step’. Taking the first step is movement in the right direction.
Let’s begin this journey by developing the habit of noticing our habits and being intentional about choosing what routines we want to run our lives.