New Year, New Habits: The Science of Creating Lasting Change
Habits are an important part of our lives, shaping everything from our daily routines to our long-term goals. Creating lasting habits means understanding how they work and using that knowledge to your advantage. Let’s learn about the Habit Loop and how to succeed in creating powerful new habits and sticking to them – Your New Year Resolutions will thank you.
Habits and Your Brain
One of the key components to creating habits that last is understanding how they work. Physically, there are areas inside your brain that become hard-wired with consistent behavior. The brain converts these series of actions by chunking them to the primitive basal ganglia, reserving the cerebral cortex for more intensive functions (1). This means that when you do something enough times, over time, it can become automatic. That's why habits are so powerful - they allow us to operate on autopilot and free up our mental energy.
The Habit Loop
Now, what about creating habits in the first place? This process is what Charles Duhigg, the author of The Power of Habit (2), calls "The Habit Loop":
"This process within our brains is a three-step loop. First, there is a cue, a trigger that tells your brain to go into automatic mode and which habit to use. Then there is the routine, which can be physical or mental or emotional. Finally, there is a reward, which helps your brain figure out if this particular loop is worth remembering for the future."
The Habit Loop is the key to creating habits that will stick. By identifying your cues and rewards, you can develop a routine to replace an old habit or create a new one that's more beneficial. As you repeat the loop over time, it becomes increasingly ingrained in your brain, making it easier for you to remember and harder to break.
Avoiding Habit Hurdles
Creating new habits and breaking old ones is hard work. It's no wonder many people give up before seeing meaningful results. We often fail to form lasting habits because of unrealistic expectations, lack of motivation, or a negative mindset. We might expect too much too soon and become discouraged when the transformation we're looking for takes time. We can also fall into an all-or-nothing mindset where any slip-up makes us feel like we have failed entirely. It doesn't help that we live in a world of instant gratification, which goes against the very essence of forming good habits.
Proven Strategies for Success
So how can you succeed in creating new habits that stick? Here are some key strategies for the new year:
- Create the right environment: Look for ways to set yourself up for success, whether that means finding a quiet place to study, removing temptations from your environment, or enlisting the help of a friend or family member.
- Build your willpower and self-control: Willpower and self-control are like muscles that can be strengthened over time. Practice making small, difficult choices to help build your mental muscles and improve your ability to stick to your habits.
- Build a support and accountability system: Having someone to support and encourage you can make a big difference in your success. Consider finding a friend or accountability partner to help you stay on track.
- Don't dwell on setbacks: Setbacks are a normal part of the process, so don't let them discourage you. Instead, use them as an opportunity to learn and adjust your approach.
- Celebrate successes: Recognize and celebrate your accomplishments to keep yourself motivated and on track, no matter how small.
- The importance of marginal gains: Aiming for small, incremental daily improvements can add up over time. Rather than expecting to be 50% better in one week, strive for a 1% improvement each day and watch the progress add up.
Forming lasting habits is crucial to achieving your goals. As James Clear, author of Atomic Habits (3), says, "You do not rise to the level of your goals. You fall to the level of your systems." This year, follow the science and keep your New Year's resolution going well into the summer. By understanding how habits work and implementing strategies such as creating the right environment, building self-control, and seeking support, you can successfully create and maintain habits that stick. Next week we'll go deeper into how you can create the proper mental and physical environment for your habits to thrive.
"There's nothing you can't do if you get the habits right."
-Charles Duhigg, The Power of Habits
Want to learn more about habits? Check out The Science of Making & Breaking Habits presented by Momentous partner, Dr. Andrew Huberman on the Huberman Lab podcast below.
- Yin, H., Knowlton, B. The role of the basal ganglia in habit formation. Nat Rev Neurosci 7, 464–476 (2006). https://doi.org/10.1038/nrn1919
- Duhigg, C. (2012). The power of habit: Why we do what we do, and how to change. William Heinemann.
- Clear, J. (2018). Atomic habits: An easy & proven way to build good habits & break bad ones. Avery Publishing Group.