Making and Breaking Habits in Brain and Behavior

It’s late December, which means many of us have started thinking about resolutions. Those new year resolutions are notorious for failing us, though. If you read last week’s post about habits to learn and burn, you’re probably motivated to break that cycle. Fortunately, there are some research-backed methods to help. Breaking old habits and making new ones can be less challenging if you use the strategies I’m about to share.

How Habits Get Wired In

First, it’s important to understand the science of how habits form and stick. There are brain systems responsible for the behavior loops you observe. Wouldn’t it be great if we could figure those out? It seems that with some time, you can. Maybe that’s why this international study of productivity habits found that older professionals have better habits than their younger peers. You have to get to know yourself to see the chance for change.

This Scientific American article breaks down the major brain systems involved in making habits stick. By observing mice running the same maze over and over, researchers discovered some patterns. As their runs became habitual, brain activity in the mice changed. Specifically, activity in a brain region called the striatum dropped. In layman’s terms, the mice’s brains stopped monitoring their behavior actively. The mice began to run the study’s mazes by relying on habit, not active thought.

The same thing happens in humans. When we do something over and over, and it works, our brains recognize habits. They don’t care if what we do is healthy, productive, or right. Instead, our brains focus on finding the easiest way to deal with the same situations over and over. That’s how our reliance on habits starts. Moreover, this study found that stress can trigger a shutdown in the prefrontal cortex. That’s the brain region responsible for goal-oriented, thoughtful behavior. In other words, stress triggers us to stop acting intentionally and rely on habits instead. Now that we know this is happening, what can we do about it?

Establishing Positive Habits

First and foremost, it’s worthwhile to take advantage of this system and form some positive new habits. In this podcast, James Clear, author of Atomic Habits: Tiny Changes, Remarkable Results, shares a bunch of strategies for building new habits. For instance, he suggests scaling big goals down to small steps. That accords with the advice shared in this article about “micro habits.” The author, Sabrina Nawaz, suggests choosing steps so small that you find them literally ridiculous. For instance, if your big goal is to work out before work each morning, a micro habit can include dressing in workout clothes when you get out of bed.

Another critical step advocated by both Clear and Nawaz involves providing yourself with regular feedback and encouragement. Nawaz, a coach for company executives, encourages her clients to try a “Yes List.” This simple method lets you track progress with minimal extra time investment. More importantly, it also helps you identify patterns in your behavior.

That’s where Clear’s advice about friction comes in. He describes all habits as coming with some amount of friction, or resistance. For instance, your new goal of eating apples for snacks instead of candy might involve a lot of friction. After all, to get to the apple, you have to go to the kitchen, open the fridge, and wash the apple. But what if you had a bowl of apples, ready to go, on your desk? You can imagine the difference. So, if you’re struggling to get going with a new micro habit, set your environment up for success.

Lastly, Nawaz and Clear agree that increasing your accountability will help you stick with new habits. Dr. Ron Friedman, psychologist and author, shares the same advice in this article about making exercise a habit. He suggests involving others around you to help keep you on track. More on how leaders can be those “others” in a bit.

Breaking Away from Bad Habits

At the same time that you’re trying to make new habits, you’ve got some old ones hanging one. You may be wishing to get rid of them. Fortunately, there are tested strategies for that too. Going back to that same idea of friction, James Clear discusses how to increase friction for bad habits in this podcast. For example, if you tend to sleep through the time you’d like to spend working out in the morning, make that more challenging. Text a neighbor ahead of time and make plans to go for a safe, socially distanced walk together. That way, you’ll feel some pressure to get up, even if your habit has been to sleep in.

This technique dovetails well with the advice in this article to anticipate obstacles. That means, you should understand what kind of triggers and temptations lead into your bad habit behaviors. In this short video, Dr. Judson Brewer, an addiction psychiatrist and neuroscientist, describes these patterns as habit loops. Brewer has spent years studying and developing treatment for various types of addiction. He views many different kinds of addiction as supported by the same structure of habit loops. That’s why, in this article, he focuses on understanding habit loops as the key to breaking them.

In his words, mindfulness is a powerful tool to break out of old bad habits. Once you know what obstacles trip you up, you know where to increase friction. Dr. Brewer explains more about how he coaches clients to use mindfulness in his TED talk. He also offers a lot of resources online and in his apps to help people move on from the habits that hold them back.

Leading the Way

As with many of the topics I cover, leadership has a big role to play in supporting change. In my post on digital transformation, for instance, I highlighted the responsibility of workplace leaders to support positive development for their employees. Certainly, encouraging better habits in the workplace is part of that.

This article about a recent study on workplace wellness makes several suggestions for leaders to encourage their employees towards good habits. In the big picture, leaders can advocate for workplace programs to fund and support wellness. However, there are smaller scale changes that matter too. A team leader can take time with each of his employees one-on-one for this. In those chats, help people identify personally relevant goals. Then, encourage them to ask a coworker to be their accountability buddy. Especially during the pandemic, it’s also critical for leadership to model healthy habits. This article urges leaders to model work-life balance themselves, and also remind employees to practice self-care and take time off when they need it.

Lastly, this thorough article has a series of suggestions for how leaders can encourage their employees to do away with bad habits. The authors suggest providing feedback right after observing damaging behaviors, like getting defensive in a meeting. That’s the time to ask for some time to chat. Leaders can start the conversation by expressing appreciation for all the positives this person brings to the table. Also, show empathy for the challenges that trigger bad habits. However, also discuss the costs of hanging onto to poor habits, as well as the benefits of pursuing change! Investing in your employees’ and coworkers’ personal development can show how much you care and want to see them shine.

As Mark Twain said, (according to this article), “Habit is habit, and not to be flung out the window by any man, but coaxed downstairs one step at a time.” Changing our ways takes time. But there are ways to do it. I hope this article helps you make the first step towards a new year of new, healthy habits.