To develop better habits, you must understand how your brain reacts to your behavior. Neurosurgeon Mark McLaughlin explains a simple 4-step method to maintain good habits. The key is to automate behaviors.
It’s that time of year when we put the empty Champagne bottles in the recycling bin and take out the New Year’s resolutions. Unfortunately, these plans drawn with our best intentions often become difficult and in a short time we say to ourselves: “Well, maybe next year.”
As a neurosurgeon, I know very well the role the brain plays in whether the goals succeed or not.
The resolutions are usually about habits, and the formation of habits involves a part of the brain called the basal ganglia. The signal patterns between the neurons in the basal ganglia change as we perform a new behavior. When we are satisfied with the results, we are eating a cake or playing tennis, there is a release of dopamine, a neurotransmitter that makes us feel good.
“Over time, this association with feeling good can make a behavior almost automatic.”
Unfortunately, we often do not establish the proper basis to allow new and more desirable habits to become automatic. Taking an “all or nothing” position can derail our efforts and can result in discouragement when we do not live up to our high expectations.
We can also ignore the signals that trigger our behavior. Neuroscientists at Johns Hopkins University demonstrate the power of these signals in a study, in which 20 participants were given $ 1.50 for each red object and 25 cents for each green object they saw on a computer screen.
The next day, while scanning their brains, these same subjects were asked to see certain shapes on a screen, regardless of color. The participants automatically focused on the red objects, although this time no reward was given. While this was happening, dopamine was released in the part of the brain involved in the attention; The good feeling of the previous day had been withheld.
Knowing the signs of our behavior can help guide us to better habits. When trying to lose weight, for example, it may be a good idea to bypass the dessert aisle in a supermarket.
The conclusion: you should think about your behavior and your context differently if you really want to get a change. Here are four recommendations to get a new habit.
1. Build from failure
The bumps in the road are normal when changing behavior, so do not worry if things do not go exactly as planned. As Stephen Covey, the best-selling author of ‘The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People’ tells us, a plane in flight is off course at least 90% of the time. This does not matter, since the computers of the continually make adjustments to comply with the general flight plan and reach the destination on time.
The same principle applies to other objectives.
Instead of telling yourself that you should meditate every day, try five of the seven days of the week. If you are starting a new exercise regime, start twice a week and then increase from there.
2. Focus on activities based on time, rather than on tasks
I often say to myself: “I’m going to read this chapter”, “I’m going to clean my office” or “I’m going to clean the car”. Invariably, I run out of time because I underestimate the amount of work needed to complete the task and, instead, I must continue with my next commitment. Instead of feeling good because I was being productive, I feel unsuccessful because I did not complete the task.
I discovered that instead of saying “I am going to read this chapter”, I tell myself that I will read for 30 minutes. So, even if I do not finish the chapter, I can feel good when I complete my homework. Getting rid of a big task ultimately leads to success
By setting a time and completing that commitment, I discover that I am more successful on my way in the right direction.
3. Find moments that you are not taking advantage of
Do not have time for your usual training?
If your resolution is to exercise 30 minutes a day, you can accumulate those minutes in many ways, such as taking a walk during lunch time. A friend of mine who works in a tall building goes up and down 15 floors several times when he knows he must work late and he will not go to the gym. The opportunities are always to be creative.
4. Control your progress
Smartphones and smart watches can be excellent “assistants” to track your progress. And some new applications help you recognize where you waste your time. I found that the Moment application has been revealing: it allows me to see how much time I have spent on social networks.
You can also use an alarm to activate the action at a desired time or a stopwatch to schedule your activity, so that you feel more control over your efforts. If you are not using your smartphone for these activities, you can also follow up with a daily planner that allows you to compare, at a glance, your evolution from one week to the next.
Of course, there is nothing magical in January to make resolutions. You can start a new habit at any time.