Building habits (part 2): key steps

In the first article I explained how habits support the executive functions of the brain. It is estimated that 40% of our actions rely on habits, this is why building habits that serve your goals is essential. Here are a few tips for that.

Tip 1: Identify the habit

The new habit or routine is the behaviour you want to start or change. This can be exercising, stop adding salt, walking more. I will take the example of my Saturday 8.30am yoga class.

Tip 2: Set reminders

One of the key aspects to forming a new habit is remembering everything you need to remember in order to follow through on your aspiration. Forgetting is easy, as our brains always take the easy way, the way of current habits 😉

In my case, I have 2 reminders for this yoga class: one to remember to book the class, and one popping on my phone 30mins before the class.

Tip 3: Start small

This means being specific, and to think of the when, where, how. My aim was not to go to yoga everyday, but to commit to this one, every Saturday. If you can’t proceed to your chosen habit (class cancelled, preferred food not available etc) , have an alternative so that your brain does not associate the reminder to nothing. My alternative to yoga is running. Anything is better than nothing.

Small actions are the seeds for the habit to grow, they activate your neuronal networks.

Tip 4: Reward yourself

We are wired to seek pleasure. Our brain releases « happiness » chemicals during reward, which help the remodelling of neuronal circuits and new habits to stick. We usually think of extrinsic rewards (money, food, objects) but intrinsic rewards work just as well: this feeling once you finish your run, the calm after yoga, learning a new skill, being more energised etc. Remember that the reward comes from the smallest action towards your goal, so the smallest step towards changing or building a habit is rewarding.

After my yoga class, I feel both relaxed and energised, I am (usually!) satisfied with the progress made, and seeing my teacher is a pleasure in itself.

Tip 5: Repetition

As you repeat an action, the new neuronal circuits reinforce and it starts to require less effort. With time, the action is transferred from executive brain, that requires a lot of mental energy, to the autopilot brain and it becomes easier and almost automatic.

And you, what habit would you like to build to achieve your goals?

My current challenge is to eat less salted butter to decrease my overall salt consumption 🙂