Wednesday, June 17, 2020

Train Your Brain to Break Habits and Boost Productivity

We all have habits, routines, and patterns that don’t work in our best interests: it could be smoking, over-eating, procrastinating, or snacking. On the reverse side, there might be things we’d like to get into more, like healthy eating, exercise, or being more productive, but we never seem to get around to it. 

If this sounds like you, you're not alone! According to New York Times business writer Charles Duhigg, whose book The Power Of Habit explores the science behind habit-forming - our brains are hard-wired to fall into patterns. There is the habit-loop, he says, which is a three part process. First, there is a trigger that tells your brain to go into automatic mode. Next, there’s the routine, the unfolding of the automatic behaviour; then there’s the reward - that little hit your brain gets that reinforces the loop. 

According to neuroscience habit patterns are located in an area of the brain called the Basal Ganglia. This part of the brain is responsible for emotions, memory, and pattern recognition. Meanwhile, decisions are made in the prefrontal cortex, which effectively goes to sleep during part two of the habit-loop - following the trigger. 

This is one reason a change to our environment can help us change our habits. When we go on holiday, for instance, none of the usual triggers is there, so we find ourselves craving things less, feeling different, and making new promises to ourselves.  

The good news is we don’t have to go on holiday to break the cycle of bad habits or get into productive patterns. We can train our brains to pull in the direction we want them to. 

Brain re-training 

The body learns as well as the brain. Actually, it’s an intelligent machine with signals and feedback loops communicating regularly with our brains, and therefore us.

What we put into our body has an effect on how we feel and what we crave. If we eat a lot of salty-sweet food, our bodies quickly learn that this is what to expect. It distributes the energy and nutrients it has available as best it can. In the case of ice-cream and popcorn, much of it is stored as fat. 

Since the reward centre of our brain is triggered by those foods we crave them all the more and it becomes a self-perpetuating cycle. Luckily our bodies learn quickly, and if we swap ice-cream and popcorn for smoothies and healthy snacks, we will soon notice the benefits of healthy juices.

Wake-up your muscle memory

Exercise works in the same sort of way. The basal-ganglia is relatively instimulated in an environment that is routine and predictable. If we see the same things day-in, day-out, then we feel the same things too.

If there is nothing new in our environment to stimulate a new mood, feeling, or emotion, we will be destined to repeat the same old habits ad Infinitum. But we don’t need to book a flight to Tenerife to free-up an ingrained habit or routine. It’s easier than you might think.

Use your prefrontal cortex to make a decision. Decide to do something new and different, something you’ve never done before. It could be as simple as walking instead of driving, jogging instead of walking; or doing some yoga to wake up your muscle memory.


Do you think you aren’t a creative person because you could never draw anything decent in art class? Chances are you are creative and express it everyday in the way you communicate, in the choices you make, and in the routines you choose to follow. 

You don’t have to be a gifted artist to get the rewards of a creative life. Reading, writing, painting, photography, meditation, walking, are all creative pursuits that can help tell your basal ganglia that you're into something new. 

Journaling is an excellent habit to start. Writing just 500 words a week, that’s three pages of a small notebook, is a wonderful way to reflect on the previous few days. Any worries you have are sure to come up as you write and you will get a clearer picture of where you’re at and what you need. After you’ve written through your worries, keep on writing and enjoy the process. 

Remember the basal-ganglia is a powerful emotional centre, but it’s not your enemy. It will only respond to any stimulus that comes its way. The more joy you discover in your creative life the more your brain will enjoy it to, and start to crave it.

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