Neuroscience (and a Tiny Dose of Emotional Intelligence) Reveals the Simple Trick to Break Nearly Any Bad Habit

Nice piece of grilled salmon. Brown rice. Salad with no dressing. I felt full: Not stuffed, but satisfied. Better yet, I felt good about having eaten a healthy meal. Then the ice cream called me. 

Think you make a lot of decisions? You do, but not as many as you think. Research shows that approximately 40 percent of the things we do on a daily basis aren’t decision-based.  They’re habits.

And some are bad habits.

Which doesn’t, at first glance, make sense. “We find patterns of behavior that allow us to reach goals,” says Dr. Wendy Wood, the author of Good Habits, Bad Habits. “We repeat what works, and when actions are repeated in a stable context, we form associations between cues and response.”

So why do we form habits that don’t help us reach our goals? My goal is to maintain a healthy weight, and eating ice cream is a far from supportive pattern of behavior.

Because neuroscience — the way our brains are made — often works against us. (H/t to Eric Barker for the underlying science.)

Say I ask myself, “Should I have some ice cream?” My prefrontal cortex — the brain region responsible for planning, decision making, and supporting goal-oriented behaviors — would answer, “Nope. Your goal is to eat healthy.” 

Except my orbitofrontal cortex — the brain region responsible for emotion and reward in decision-making — would answer, “Dude, you absolutely should! Ice cream is awesome. You love it. It makes you happy. Besides, you can always burn the calories off by working out a little extra tomorrow…”

Because while my prefrontal cortex is a logical and rational kind of guy, he’s fairly quiet and subdued. My orbitofrontal cortex? He’s a yeller. He’s insistent. He loves to get his way.

And he loves to create bad habits. 

Or, as Dr. Wood explains in neuroscientific terms, “When our intentional mind is engaged, we act in ways that meet an outcome we desire — and typically we’re aware of our intentions. However, when the habitual mind is engaged, our habits function largely outside of awareness. We can’t easily articulate how we do our habits or why we do them… our minds don’t always integrate in the best way possible.”

In short, give my orbitofrontal cortex a chance and I’ll quickly establish some bad habits. I’ll do things reflexively, almost without thinking.

If I do manage to think, “Wait, should I really have ice cream…?” that little voice in my head gets drowned out by my orbitofrontal cortex and the force of habit.

And yep, I’m screwed. Now my goal isn’t to achieve something positive by repeating what works. My goal is just to satisfy my habit of eating ice cream. So I do. Without really thinking.

Because if I thought about it, I wouldn’t be likely to do it.

As Dr. Wood says, “Habits allow us to focus on other things. Willpower is a limited resource, and when it runs out, you fall back on habits.” (If you’re like me, you can almost feel a switch flipping in your mind that instantly shuts off any rational thoughts.)

So how do you break that cycle? 

The answer is simple, yet difficult: You have to force yourself to think: Not before, but during.

Not, in my case, not before I eat the ice cream — because that requires willpower I clearly don’t have — but while I’m eating the ice cream.

The key is to reflect upon the actual benefits derived from a habit. For me? Ice cream tastes good. Ice cream… well, that’s pretty much the list. It don’t feel healthier. I don’t feel better when I’m finished. In fact, I feel worse; maybe not physically, but definitely emotionally. 

One upside, lots of downsides. 

And then repeat the process, because one period of reflection and introspection won’t be enough. I’ll probably have to do it several times before it sinks in — before my orbitofrontal cortex adopts the rewards and emotions involved in not feeling bad about eating ice cream and not feeling like I’m sabotaging my health and fitness goals.

Then those two voices will speak in unison. My prefrontal cortex will share all the long-term benefits of eating healthy. My orbitofrontal cortex will chime in with reasons why skipping the ice cream will make me feel better in the moment. In emotional intelligence terms, my emotions will work for me, not against me.

And that’s how the habit gets broken.

Try it. Say, like my Inc. colleague Justin Bariso, you want to stop watching YouTube videos when you know you should be working. The next time the urge strikes, don’t fight it. Watch a video.

But don’t do it mindlessly: Think about what you’re watching. Is it entertaining? Do you gain any value from it? Is it more fun — or more rewarding or fulfilling or satisfying — than doing something else? 

What do you really get out of it?

Do that enough times, reflect on the actual feelings and benefits that result from a habit, and in time you’ll start to make a different choice.

Because then your intentional and habitual minds won’t have to work against each other. 

They’ll be able to work together.

The opinions expressed here by Inc.com columnists are their own, not those of Inc.com.



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