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Creating New Habits - Mind Hacks

In our continuing quest to support your #journey as we start the new decade, today we’re going to talk about how to develop habits you want and break those you don’t. I call this #mindhacking. When I talk about mind-hacking I am talking about using current neuroscience research and research on habits to find ways to break our patterns and redirect them towards the habits we want.

Hacking, because of its implication that humans should or can be comparable to machines, can sometimes have a negative connotation. I don’t intend it used in that way. I’m using it to refer to a shortcut and a tangible way to catch and retrain your brain to get the results you want. What I talk about in this post are things I’ve used to train myself to react and approach things in different ways. This may not be applicable to everyone and it’s certainly not intended to be a blanket approach. However, we often find ourselves falling into old habits and while it is harder to change those habits it seems like a big part of the challenge is knowing how to change the habit.

Much of what I learned and applied to help create new habits to supersede old ones comes from the book “The Power of Habit: Why We Do What We Do in Life and Business” by Charles Duhigg. I read this book several years ago and learned that there is a psychological feedback loop that helps train our brains to run down the same neural pathways fastest. Duhigg actually talks about how to create new habits in an accessible format on his website, a post we’re going to digest in this blog.

To start: What does the habit loop look like?

The habit loop has three parts – the trigger, whatever cues you to start the action; the action – the thing you do that you either want to continue or stop; and most importantly the feedback – the hit of dopamine that tells you to continue. Our brains crave that responsive/reactive hormone hit, regardless of whether we want that specific hormone release. To develop better habits we have to take two actions:

1. Identify the cues that trigger an action we wish to change and map out how we wish the action to change the next time the trigger occurs.

This can be the hardest part – identifying what’s driving your behavior. This is not license to berate yourself over an action, it’s an opportunity to experiment with learning what your body is trying to tell you.

Duhigg suggests that almost all habits fall into one of five categories: Location, Time, Emotional State, Other People, Preceding Action. If you can identify each of these for a habit right before it occurs for several instances, you are likely to see the pattern of

your cue emerge. If, for example, like many people you want a snack just before 4pm but always delay it to get home, you may find yourself snacking on less healthy things. Identifying the cue – time – and replacing it with things that are a healthier fit for your goals and pre-empting the time might help to satisfy the cue without going down the last resort action.

This part of changing a habit is definitely the hardest because you will have to try several things to identify the cue and then upon identification of the cue determine a course of action that allows you to satisfy the trigger in a preferred way. But, this is only the first half of the challenge – the second half is institutionalizing the new action as a routine so that it becomes a habit. This is part two.

2. Every single time we get it right, mentally congratulate ourselves for a job well done!

Humans crave positive feedback and the dopamine hit that comes with a job well done is part of this. One way to consciously trigger that and help create routines is to notice your feedback loop and feed it – in my experience part of the reason it takes so long to create a new habit is because it doesn’t ingrain fast enough for us to do that instead of the old habit. Mentally congratulating yourself on a job well done for either thinking a different way or doing something in a different way for every little part of it helps to create the routine of a different action faster because it primes your body to release the dopamine. In wanting that positive feedback, you’re more likely to take the route that might not be as well myelinated but is going to result in a #hurraymoment for your brain, helping to develop and institutionalize the habit faster.

Not every habit is going to be easy to identify and change, but some are and can help build confidence to tackle the harder ones. A physical activity like biting your nails,

where you have a visual cue to change something might be easier to recognize. But mental ones, such as catastrophizing can be a lot harder. Catastrophizing is a way of expanding a bubble of bad - so instead of feeling like something didn’t break your way you let that spread into every sector of your life. So if a proposal at work was rejected it wasn’t because the proposal could have better merit, but I’d also start thinking that things personally could be better if I lost weight or #Nextpat would do better if I’d give it

more time and ultimately this would lead down a spiral of deciding that I was a failure. This one was hard – I actually had someone help me identify what I was doing mentally. I used that to mentally isolate events that didn’t go my way at work. I’d then stop myself from thinking beyond that and congratulate myself for doing it. Eventually this became much easier. And it allowed me to recognize and attribute challenges to specific events that weren’t always internal in both my personal and work life. Not all is perfect, but we’re all works in progress 😊

What habits have you picked up or dropped off in the course of your travels? Which do you want to retain or change? What habits have you fallen back into since returning – is it because of time and place, the people you are around? How do those make you feel? What are you seeking in your new normal this year? How can Nextpat help?

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