Hack your Brain to Improve Your Habits
“We are what we repeatedly do. Excellence, then, is not an act, but a habit. ” – Aristotle
A habit, by my own contention, is the unconscious performance of a set of actions. Habits such as nail-biting, nose-picking, and social isolation are just some examples of what we would like to minimize in our lives. But habits aren’t always bad for us. For example, we can habituate reading, exercise, meditation, and other activities that can make for a better lifestyle. In that sense, we can hack our brain to build habits that improve our lives.
As you may or may not know, being in the midst of a habitual action is easy. We don’t even need to think about it, we just do it. It’s part of our nature and starts when we are children. The true difficulty lies in forming or giving up habits.
Think of the typical college freshman. His or her environment is in a constant state of flux. And in those situations, that student can easily revert back to old habits he or she had at home. But a new environment calls for new habits and a new lifestyle.
Hacking your Brain
But why do we revert back to our old habits? Kyle S. Smith and Ann Graybiel are two researchers from the McGovern Institute for Brain Research at MIT who studied how the brain how the brain sticks to its old ways. They used optogenetics to observe the brain in the study of habits and what they found was curious. The prefrontal cortex of the brain, it’s major control center, never loses its structural functionality for a habit. Though we may consciously attempt to lose habits, our brain retains the “control settings” for said habit. This is why addicts relapse at the very instance of anything that reminds them of their old state.
How can we improve our habits? Be aware of what is causing you to perform your habits. Usually cues (as in sights, smells, or any other sensual reminders) push us to react in unconscious ways and perform habits. To eliminate a habit or start a habit, manage what cues it. It is important to recognize cues in your daily life so that you can manage your thought process behind a habit. We can use this method in two ways:
Break a Habit
If you recognize a cue in your environment, ask yourself questions about why you feel the need to perform a habit. An example is late-night snacking. When you are craving a decadent piece of cake around 12 AM, realize that you’re undergoing a typical drop in blood sugar. Just knowing this information allows you to consciously think through your decisions and only act after your thoughts have passed. By being aware, we break the cycle before it can go too far.
Make a Habit
If you need to go study or do work, cue yourself to push your brain to use its habit circuitry. You can do this by packing your backpack or suitcase before you go lay back down on your bed and watch Netflix. Or you can wear the clothing that reminds you of the office or library you are headed to. These are constant cues for the unconscious brain to perceive. By kick-starting the brain, you are activating the habit circuitry to start working. By doing this enough, you will start building the stronger brain circuitry needed to make more difficult tasks a habit.
Habits can make or break the quality of your life. If you want to change or improve, you can start by amending some of your habits. This is a surefire way to allow your brain to make your life easier and make success an unconscious process for your brain.