Humans are creatures of habit. Nearly everything you think, say, and do is a result of habits deeply rooted into your body and mind through years of repetitive behavior. The habits you develop can either help you move forward or hinder you. In fact, the state and quality of your life are direct reflections of your daily habits.
For example, do you bite your nails, check Facebook frequently, or mindlessly snack? These are just a few of the bad habits people generally try to stop. It may not be your intention to form bad habits, but your brain’s wiring makes it difficult to avoid them. Your brain releases the neurotransmitter dopamine each time you eat chocolate or when someone ‘likes’ your Facebook post, and that dopamine makes you feel good. In fact, it feels so good that you repeat the behavior, hence the addiction to social media, ice cream, and TV shows.
But what about behaviors that you want to cultivate? Is it just as easy to form good habits? Scientists have discovered that habits are housed in a different part of the brain than reason and memory, and habits are vital for our functionality and survival.
In his book, The Power of Habit, author Charles Duhigg shares a story of a man who suffered brain damage that wiped out his short-term memory and reason. Surprisingly, the man could still function because of the habits he had created. For example, the man couldn’t tell a person how to get to the kitchen, but when you asked him to make eggs for breakfast, he knew where to go and what to do.
Now that we know habits are good for us, let’s discuss how to create them.
The Cue-Action-Reward System
According to Duhigg, there are three components to habits:
- Cues: The cue is something you notice that prompts you to act. It could be something like a commercial for hot, cheesy, melt-in-your-mouth pizza.
- Actions: The action is what you do. In this example, you pick up the phone and order from your local pizzeria.
- Rewards: Lastly, you get rewarded. That bite of delicious pizza is a reward for your action.
Your brain’s reward system kicks in by emitting dopamine when it recognizes pleasure. In fact, that part of the brain has been deemed “the pleasure center” by neuroscientists. Your brain encourages you to repeat certain actions by emitting the feel-good dopamine. After enough repetition, a habit is formed and you don’t even need the reward anymore.
Using Mindfulness to Form Positive Habits
One way to form a habit is to build on the cue-action-reward system by adding mindfulness to the process. Let’s use the habit of building compassion as an example.
- What’s the cue? When you notice suffering.
- What’s the action? You offer compassion.
- What’s the reward? The internal warm, fuzzy feelings you get from acting with compassion.
Some habits may require you to take it a step further. Author of The Willpower Instinct, Kelly McGonigal, Ph.D., explains that complicated behaviors, like compassion, aren’t easily formed into habits. In fact, it’s often more helpful if you focus on paying attention to what you’re doing—mindfulness—instead of just trying to create a knee-jerk, mindless habit.
McGonigal explains that to create certain behaviors and make them second nature, you should remember the underlying purpose or your values. For example, if you are at a restaurant and are faced with choosing between a salad and a burger, you can remind yourself that you want to be healthy in order to continue your active lifestyle, despite your aging body. Perhaps your past habit was to choose the burger, but by bringing mindfulness to the moment and remembering why you are trying to be healthy, you can make a different, healthier choice.
Using a Program to Form Healthy Habits
Following a structured program for a set number of days can help you make your goal of forming a new habit a top priority.
One study indicates that habits can take anywhere from 18 to 254 days, and the average was 66 days. Challenge yourself to 21, 30, 60, or 90 days of consistent behavior and watch the habits form in your life. Take a look at a challenge like my non-profit’s 30-Day Compassion It Challenge as an example. In this challenge, you are making compassion a priority by setting an intention each day, and the challenge can remind you to make compassion a priority. The program uses a step-by-step approach to cultivating compassion over the span of one month, and it’s free to sign up.
As a new volunteer at Richard J. Donovan Correctional Facility, I recently met an inmate who began a self-imposed, 40-day anti-music challenge. Before his challenge, he walked around the yard wearing headphones and listening to tunes non-stop. For years in prison, this is how the man had lived each day. He realized, however, that he was missing out on connecting with his fellow inmates. After one week of ditching his headphones, he realized how much he had been using music to block his reality. A fellow man in blue said to him, joyfully, “Now I know why you were talking to me so much the other day!”
Perhaps the inmate’s story can inspire you to consider what habit you can break or what habit you can start in order to cultivate more connection in your own life.