Habits play a crucial role in our lives, forming a large part of who we are and what we do. Studies suggest that up to 70% of our waking behavior is made up of habitual behavior. It is a common misconception that if someone cannot form one habit easily, they cannot form other habits easily. However, people are highly variable, and forming a new habit can take anywhere from 18 days to as many as 254 days, depending on the individual and the complexity of the habit.
Neuroplasticity is the nervous system’s ability to adapt and change as a result of experience. It is crucial in habit formation and maintenance. As we repeat a habit, or even think about doing it (more on that below), small changes occur in the cognitive and neural pathways associated with procedural memory. Procedural memory is the ability to hold in mind the specific sequence of things that need to happen in order for a particular outcome to occur. It is essential to overcome “limbic friction,” the initial resistance to adopting new habits, thanks to our brain’s limbic system, which is a more emotional and less logical part of the brain.
A simple visualization exercise, where we think about the specific sequence of steps required to execute a habit, can help us shift toward a much higher likelihood of performing that habit regularly. Yes, just imagining doing a new habit, in the steps required, and then how it makes you feel better at the end, is almost like doing the habit itself, so if the doing part is too hard, start with the imagining part and that will begin to train those neural pathways that will create your success.
Task bracketing is another powerful tool for acquiring and sticking to new habits. It involves a particular set of neural circuits within the basal ganglia, which are involved in action execution and suppression. Task bracketing acts as a sort of marker for habit execution and is what underlies whether or not a habit will be context-dependent, strong, and likely to occur, even if we are distracted or emotionally overwhelmed.
Task bracketing helps us overcome the resistance to starting a new habit by allowing us to break it down into smaller, manageable tasks. For example, if someone wants to form the habit of running in the morning, task bracketing would involve breaking it down into smaller tasks, such as waking up at a certain time, putting on running clothes, and stepping out the door. Breaking down the habit into smaller tasks makes it more achievable and helps to build momentum. Again, as mentioned above, this can be done in the brain only, by simply imagining your way through all the steps as an easy start toward new habit development.
Building habits is not always easy, and it requires time, effort, and patience. However, the benefits of forming good habits are immense. Good habits lead to a better quality of life, improved productivity, and increased happiness. The key is to start small, be consistent, and stay motivated. With time and effort, anyone can form new habits and make positive changes in their lives.