The Scientific Way To Develop Better Habits

There are plenty of books, documentaries, podcasts and blog posts dedicated to building better habits. All of these have their own ways of developing these habits.

We all know that developing better habits is the key to a more successful and fulfilling life. The most well-known book about this subject is probably The Power of Habit by Charles Duhigg, if you haven’t read it, I highly recommend you do!

In the book, Duhigg explains the science behind both destructive and pervasive behaviours. This book doesn’t only provide a ton of helpful information, it’s also motivating. It’s totally possible to break bad habits! Yes, even bad habits that you’ve been trying to break for years.

How habits are formed

Your brain cannot understand the difference between good and bad habits, in the sense that we process them the same way. In his book, Duhigg explains a particular neurological process that is called the habit loop. This is the force that powers all of our mindless (subconscious) behaviours.

The habit loop is made up of three components: a cue, a routine and a reward.

  • The cue signals to the brain that certain behaviour or a certain action should take place. It’s that urge you feel to do something.
  • The routine is the action you perform in response to the cue. If you feel the urge coming up of something you consider a bad habit, the routine will make the cue stronger next time.
  • The reward is a positive feeling associated with the task performed (it sometimes feels like ‘giving in’ when you’re trying to break a bad habit).

If you keep performing this cycle over and over again, habits will get so ingrained in your brain that you perform them almost without realizing. Like biting your nails, mindlessly snacking in front of the tv or putting off paying your bills.

On the other hands, it means good habits can get just as ingrained in the mind as bad habits, but how can you use this to your advantage?

Develop a routine

Ask yourself: what is it that I want to change? Some habits that I’ve been working on recently: exercising more. Writing more (and longer) blog posts. Developing a daily cleaning routine. Go for walks. Etcetera, etcetera.

Whatever it is, make sure you make clear for yourself what the goal is. For example ‘run at least 30 minutes 3 times a week’ is a lot clearer than ‘run more often’. The clearer the goal, the easier it is to stick to it. This way, it becomes much easier to attach corresponding cues and awards to the routine.

Reward yourself

Treating yourself works, science tells us :-). After working on your good habit, give yourself a reward. It can be anything: an episode of your favourite TV show, a piece of candy, reading a novel or singing one of your favourite songs out loud. Get creative! As long as it is something you truly want, a reward is a reward.

Create cues for positive habits

Do you ever drive past your favourite fast food joint and immediately start craving a hamburger? That’s a cue for a bad habit.

In his book, Duhigg describes that you can also create cues for good habits. He explains this by using a morning exercise routine as an example. You can set a cue by simply leaving your workout clothes by your bed, so you immediately see them when you wake up. After a while, the sight of your clothes will trigger a cue in your brain. Not for the workout, but for the endorphin rush that comes afterwards.

Restructure your preexisting bad habits

It is true that once a habit is formed, it will exist in your brain forever. But according to Duhigg, you can restructure your preexisting habits by keeping your cues and rewards the same. You simply have to change your routine. For example, instead of snacking while watching TV at night, take a walk. The cue stays the same (boredom at night) and the reward also stays the same (not being bored and looking at the clock). But instead of the unhealthy routine, you’re actually getting in some exercise!

It can be tough to figure out ways you can change your routine, but when you do, it is going to be a reward in itself. Duhigg suggests joining a community to help you stay motivated when you feel like giving up. This can be an online community or a local one. It allows you to meet likeminded people and be motivated by what they are doing.

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