What is a Habit?

By Azzy Aslam

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

23 Jul, 2018

What exactly is a habit?

When I wanted to change a habit or create a new one it was always a challenge – it still is in some instances – but now I am little more more prepared when I want to make changes. There are several parts that make up a habit. The one part I just didn’t understand was what goes on in the brain when habits start to form and become established. Like many people I was told (or read somehwere) that it was just a matter doing something new and having a great deal of will power. Turns out that isn’t strictly true!
The biggest success in creating new productive habits came when I took the time to really understand what was going on in my head. I realised (well, I was told by a neuroscientist) that I had to physically change my brain to create new positive and productive habits. This was the only way to make lasting changes! So, in this particular blog I am going go through what I learned on how the brain physically changes when creating a habit. For you, like me, I am hoping it will be the eye-opener and the beginning in helping you tackle your habits and great the positive ones you want. Thankfully, it isn’t rocket science! I have broken it down to the three parts/phases that go to create and embed a habit in our brain and our lives.

The Spark Of A Habit

Let’s start from the beginning. In the brain we have things called neurons – literally billions of them. They “light up” when do or think things. Current estimates suggest we have around 85 Billion of them. That’s 85,000,000,000 (using the American version of billion). A new habit starts to form when you do something different or something completely new. The new activity is really a neuron that “sparks” into life. Usually, it’s more than one neuron and can involve tens, hundreds, or more depending on the activity. This connects and creates a new sequence of neurons which “spark” whenever you do the same activity. However, if you only do the activity a few times and then don’t do it again the connections of the neurons fade away as they are no longer needed. The brain aims to be efficient in it’s use of neurons and energy (the brain uses around 20% of the body’s energy each day!). So if an activity isn’t carried out regularly then the neuron connections are not needed. As mentioned earlier, this is the beginning point that makes a real physical change to the brain – the firing and new connections of neurons.

The Connected Habit

Starting to do something different or new is the kick start to creating a new habit and making the physical changes within the brain. The first few times you carry out the new activity it fires up and connects neurons in a broad way. By this I mean the brain will fire up and connect more neurons and connections than it probably needs, as it is not certain as to exactly what makes up the core of the activity. (See the examples below). To make the habit “stick” you have to repeat it regularly. Ideally, every day. If you miss a day this is not a major issue, however, missing two days in a row can reduce your chances of creating a habit by 55%. If missed for 3 days or more you reduce your chances by 90%. Which puts you back to the beginning! The key is to carry out the habit each day and if you a miss a day then ensure you get back to carrying out the habit the very next day. The more regular the activity the more the neurons fire and connect. When you do this over and over the connections and the sequence of neurons become stronger and stronger and clear pathways are formed.

The Habit - Fine Tuned

Think of a stream of water running over some open ground. When more and more water runs over the same ground (in one particular place), the ground is “cut” by the water and even more waters choosing that path that has been “cut”. This eventually becomes a river as more and more water cuts deeper and deeper into the ground – even into stone. In a similar way, when you perform the habit over and over the connections between the neurons become stronger and the “spark” that “fires” through the neurons becomes faster. Once the neurons are firmly connected for the habit, the brain goes into efficiency mode and disconnects neurons that are not central to the habit. Think of all the things you learned to do over the years. At first you had to make a conscious effort and concentrate on many different things to make the habit work – such as riding a bicycle, learning to use spreadsheets etc. As you got better at performing the habit, it become less effort. Until finally it becomes automatic. The brain trims the path the neurons initially set up to make it faster and more efficient!

Key Points To Note When Creating New Habits

There are a few key points that need to be remembered and repeated here when it comes to creating new habits

A really important point is that you cannot change a habit. We talk about changing and even breaking habits but this isn’t strictly true when it comes to the connections and pathways in the brain. Once a habit is formed, the neural pathways and neuron connections that have been built and stengthened are unlikely to be altered or removed – if at all.

What you do is create new neural pathways, new connections which build into a new habit which you strengthen by consciously repeating the habit or the steps that form the new habit.

NOTE: The old habit will remain, as do the connections and the pathways. However, by not repeating the undesired habit, over time its connections will weaken as will the neural pathways. Earlier I said that the brain wants to keep things efficient and it does this by weakening and loosening the connections to habits that are not carried out, but they don’t quite disappear completely.

You’ll see this when it comes to riding a bicycle. If you learned to ride one many years ago and not ridden one for a few years, it doesn’t take too long to jump on the saddle and “things start to come back”.  This is because the habit isn’t completely lost.

Or perhaps you have a habit of hitting the snooze button 3 times before you get up. You manage to create a new habit of hitting the off button first time and sitting up immediately. Until this new habit is really strong and becomes the norm for you, you may well find your old “3 snooze hits” comes back on a morning when you perhaps didn’t sleep well!

Creating new habits and weakening current ones takes real conscious effort. It also take anything from 2 -3 months and more to “bed-in” a new habit. This doesn’t mean its all OK after 2-3 months, it just means that you have now create good the connections and neural pathways that your brain recognises.  You must keep performing the habit beyond the 2-3 months to really create strong connections and pathways in the brain!

 

you are physically changing your brain to change your ways!

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