On the Mind: Make Your Habits Work for You

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On the Mind: Make Your Habits Work for You

This column, On the Mind, is a series about the latest in cognitive science and neuroscience-related research that applies to our everyday lives. This biweekly series is for those interested in cutting-edge findings about the practical side of habits, memories, multitasking and the human-brain interface. What are the recent studies, and what is the context? See what science says and how you can apply it to your life.


Habits seem synonymous with the New Year. A fresh start gives us the opportunity to slough the holiday chaos, see another year in a new light and pledge to do better again this time. It’s a great way to set a lofty goal or simply remind yourself to start flossing again. Our brains are plastic, moldable and easy to please—despite sayings to the contrary, you can, in fact, teach an old dog new tricks. But you have to give your brain a reason to get started.

Studies Say

In the past year, neuroscientists and psychologists have teamed up to study habit learning and how the brain reacts to new behaviors. They’ve found that some neurons, the cells that fire information across our brain and tell us what to do, are linked to motivation, reward association and habit learning. Importantly, this could help us change our behaviors and figure out neuropsychiatric disorders such as addiction and obsessive compulsive disorder, University of California at San Francisco researchers said in March.

Overall, recent brain scans show that certain areas of the brain light up when a new behavior is started, and the most effective way to keep the areas lit and happy is through rewards. Otherwise, we’re programmed to be lazy and efficient. When we like a new action, our brain pumps out feel-good chemicals such as dopamine and serotonin, and we’re more likely to repeat the action to get the same pleasurable response. Just like Pavlov’s dog, if we can motivate ourselves to repeat an action with a reward several times, we can potentially make it stick. And if we lump two or three of those habits together, they can cascade in the brain and lead to the likelihood of sticking with several good habits at once. Hey, even monkeys can learn how to build habits through repetition without much instruction, Brown University and Massachusetts Institute of Technology researchers reported.

Key Takeaways

Although new brain scans in 2017 will show us more about brain pathways and how the mind works, the practical aspects remain largely unchanged. Build a new habit in January by following this common sense advice:

Make a Plan

Look for and write down cues such as location, time, emotional state, other people, and preceding actions that may help you make or break a new habit. Do you get that snacky feeling around 3 p.m. at work every day? Maybe you’re actually bored or tired. Try standing up and walking around the building instead.

Create a plan that will get your new habit started. Put running shoes and clothes by the door so you can’t ignore them, or set your floss next to your contacts and a glass of water so you can tackle all three as soon as you wake up in the morning.

Most importantly, figure out what works for you, and don’t get discouraged by what seems to be common knowledge. Pop culture has promulgated the idea that it only takes 21 days, or 3 weeks, to form a new habit, but research shows that, depending on the person and habit, changes can take two months or longer.

“To figure out which cravings are driving particular habits, it’s useful to experiment with different rewards,” which may take days or weeks, Charles Duhigg writes in The Power of Habit. “During that period, you shouldn’t feel any pressure to make a real change … think of yourself as a scientist in the data collection stage.”

Be Realistic

You know yourself better than any hip 30-day program. Are you a morning person, and do you want to create a morning routine, or do you struggle to get ready in the morning, no matter what? Don’t set yourself up for failure or place your expectations too high.

“Don’t decide you’re going to work out for an hour each day at the gym across town if you already only have a small amount of time for life outside of work,” blogger Colin Wright recently wrote in a post about habits. “This isn’t to say you couldn’t accomplish this, but it’s common for people to set their sights cripplingly high in a moment of ambition, only to feel crushed when they fail to live up to those unrealistic goals.”

That crushed feeling sends negative pulses rushing through your neurons, which destroys good associations with the habits you’re building. Try the smallest steps possible, such as one push-up on Monday, two push-ups on Tuesday, and three push-ups on Wednesday, to feel happy about the smallest success you can accomplish. Before you know it, you’ll be at 10. Apps such as Couch to 5K or Ease into 5K can guide you slowly toward a goal.

Reward Yourself

Our brains like treats, MRI scans are clear about that. The reward pathway involves several parts of the brain, including areas such as the prefrontal cortex. Food, water, sex and pleasurable activity light up these areas and travel around the brain. If you want to build a habit, make it fun. Play doesn’t only apply to children. Want more exercise? Set a play date with a friend to toss a Frisbee outside. Want to cook more at home? Add a small treat to your basket along with the healthy items while you buy groceries.

“Exercise programs designed for adults often aren’t interesting, and we wonder why adults don’t hold to them,” said Bryan McCullick, a physical education professor at the University of Georgia who studies motivation and after-school programs at elementary schools. He teaches kids how to get exercise by playing tag, catch and dodgeball. His research tracks how an hour of physical activity games, followed by an hour of math or reading homework, can improve other areas of kids’ lives, such as test scores, social skills and confidence.

“They’re learning how to play and exercise in ways that help their brains,” McCullick said. “If you want to be motivated, you have to do something you enjoy and feel comfortable doing.”

Top image: Morgan, CC-BY

Carolyn Crist is the assistant editor of Paste Science. She is a freelance health and science journalist for regional and national publications and writes the Escape Artist column for Paste Travel.