The Science of Successful Habits

By Azzy Aslam

Performance & Change Coach. Helping you create new habits and turning them into your superpower!

7 Feb, 2018

One of the biggest challenges we all face when we want to change our lives is modifying and changing behaviour – which requires creating new habits. Habits that will contribute to our success in reaching our goals. I take a great interest in neuroscience (science of what goes on in our brains) and over the last few decades the advances in neuroscience has dramatically increased our understanding of how our brains work. I usually go through some of the key findings with my clients at some relevant point in our coaching relationship and it helps them understand the resources and the approach they need to take to make lasting changes.

There is still some way to go before we can answer a host of questions we have about our brain, our mind, and even our consciousness. For now, let’s focus on habits and what we currently know goes on in the majority of brains. We all have habits. Some good, some we wish we could change or stop, and ones we wish we had.

 

What is a Habit

What exactly is a habit when it comes to what is happening in the brain? As we already know when you repeat an activity or action over a period this will turn into a habit. What happens in the brain is a series of neurons fire when we carry out an action. Depending on the activity will determine the number of neurons that connect and the sequence that they will fire. When you repeat the activity the number and the sequence of neurons will fire again. So it continues, over and over, until the connections and the sequence become stronger and stronger. The electrical signal that runs the neurons also becomes faster and the best path and sequence of the firing neurons over time is optimised. The habit is formed and now starts to be one you can perform immediately and in most cases unconsciously.

Neurons Firing in the Brain

Neurons Firing in The Brain

Think of something you have learned, perhaps riding a bike, swimming and of course, reading. At the start it probably took a lot of conscious effort because it was an unfamiliar activity. The brain realises it is something new and neurons are firing to get to grips with the co-ordination and/or the thought process you must go through to start learning the unfamiliar activity. Over time, with continued practice the activity becomes easier as the neurons have established stronger connections. They will then be optimised so the activity becomes automatic or virtually automatic.

Over the weeks, months and years we will build an entire range of habits. Even the habits when come home, put your coat on the same hook, put your keys in the same place, go to the kitchen and get or make a drink, then sit down to take 5 minutes to relax. And many times, that 5 minutes turns in 30 minutes, an hour, and even all evening! There are many habits that we create without even knowing it and over time they become stronger and stronger. Which explains why it can be a real effort or struggle to get up from the sofa and get to gym or go for that run/walk you committed to after that 5 minute you took to relax…

 

Creating Successful Habits

Many habits where the neurons have been streamlined and optimised are useful to us. Once we have learned to read it is great that we can pick up a book and start reading, and the same applies to many things we have learned over the years. Clearly some habits have become troublesome and need to be addressed.

The first thing we need to appreciate is that we must create new habits rather than change or break current habits.

Remember how a habit is formed, strengthened, and optimised. It is now part of your brain “infrastructure” and cannot be removed. What is needed is to create a new habit that will become optimised and strengthened by repetition over time. When you perform the new habit, and do not revert to the old one, the neurons of the old habit start to weaken. Over time they will become weaker and weaker but there is no guarantee that they will disappear. For example, if you learned to ride a bike and then did not get on a bike for many years. The time you get back on a bike it may be a little awkward, but within a short space of time you will be riding the bike reasonably well. Or that language you learned at school and can only remember a few choice words, but if you went back to learning it won’t be a surprise how quickly it starts to come back.

Steps to creating your new habit

  1. Preparation:
    • Decide exactly what you want to do.
    • Do this by giving yourself as much details as possible of the habit
    • Think of all the benefits the new habit will bring to you
    • State exactly what you are going to do from start to finish
    • Be clear when you are going to perform the new habit – set days, times, or situations – be as specific as you can
    • Write it all down!
  2. Visualise it
    • As you read through what you have written see yourself carrying out the habit
    • Notice the feelings when you are performing the habits
    • Listen for any sounds and words when you start, perform or finish performing the habit
    • Really get in the moment as though you are performing the activities of the new habit
  3. Ensure your mind is rested and calm
    • Creating a new habit works best when you and your mind are fresh, rested and calm. If you want to, then take some time out, relax and perform some brain and body calming exercises. For instance:
      • Breathing – Breathe in slowly for to the count of 4, and then breathe out slowly to the count of 6 – minor pause and then repeat. The key is to have a controlled rhythmic breathing. You can choose the count that works for youm but keep it the same for every breath. Do this for 5-10 minutes.
      • Meditate – Meditate for 5 -15 minutes or what timeframe works for you. Again, rhythmic slow breathing will help.
      • Sleep – A short nap of between 20 -30 minutes will help in restoring calm. Avoid sleeping for longer as you may drift in to the night sleep pattern and may feel groggy if you go much over 30 minutes.
      • Hydrate – The body and the brain need water. Ensure you drink plenty of water (not coffee, tea, fizzy drinks etc.).
      • You have your own way of calming and refreshing. Just be sure it will not stop you from getting started with your habit
  4. Take ACTION
    • Stick to the plan and what you wrote down and take action. Start the activity
  5. Persist and Maintain

    • It will take time. Keep repeating the activities and over time it will become a habit. How long it takes really varies on the complexity of the habit or change you are trying to make. As a rough guide it can be from 4 weeks from a small habit/change to over 3 months for something more complex.
    • Even after the time to set the habit, it must be continued and maintained to make it stronger and stronger so it will be stronger that the one you are replacing.
  6. One Habit at a time
    • Focus on one habit at a time for higher chance of success. Otherwise, you will be fighting on several fronts and against entrenched habits who will gang up on you!

Everybody is different and every mind/brain is different. Some activities and actions will work for most of us when we want to create new habits and change our lives. But there are tweaks that need to be made to any process for it to work specifically for you. Try the approach, tweak it, and I hope it works for you.

If you need more assistance, then feel free to get in touch. Let me know how I can help you.  You can reach me on coach@comentra.com or add a comment below.

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