Did you know that more than half the decisions we make each day happen on “auto-pilot”? It’s true! Studies conducted by neurobiologists, cognitive psychologists and others have shown that anywhere between 40% to a whopping 90% of human behavior is habitual.
What we think, feel, and do each day is directed by our subconscious far more often than we realize.
From brushing our teeth to driving to the grocery store, we’re often not “all there”... and that's by design. Through repetition, our brain creates shortcuts - automatic responses developed over time as a result of associated learning. This is what allows us to move through many activities of daily life without having to really think about them.
The good news is that this is a very efficient system designed to save brainpower for what really matters. But when it comes to making a habit change, this energy-saving trick of the mind is often what trips us up.
Why We Get Stuck In Old Habits
To reach our goals, it’s often necessary to examine and change our habits. But for most of us, changing an established behavior can be incredibly difficult.
But WHY is it so hard to swap out a bad habit for a better one? That’s what MIT professor Ann M. Graybiel wanted to know, so she studied it.
“I have become fascinated with habits and rituals — and with trying to understand the neurobiology that underlies these behaviors of ours. Our habits are so familiar to us, so common in our lives, that for many of the little habits and mannerisms that we have, we almost are unaware that we are doing them — from morning routines to evening routines.” - Ann Graybiel
What Graybiel and her team of MIT researchers found has helped to shape our understanding of how the human brain works. Our behaviors really do get wired in, like well worn trails inside our brain. This is why it can take a lot of effort to implement behavioral changes!
To change, we have to mentally resist the impulse to follow a familiar route. Instead, our brain is bushwacking a new trail through the grey matter!
Change a Habit, Change Your Life
In his book The Power of Habit, author Charles Duhigg explains the Habit Loop that was discovered by the folks at MIT, and how to disrupt it step by step. Let's take a brief look at how the science of habit change works.
How to Rewire A Habit Loop:
- Identify: What lifestyle changes would you like to make?
- Cue: What sets the behavior/pattern in motion?
- Reward: What are you getting out of it?
- Experiment: What else might satisfy that craving/desire?
- Isolate: What’s going on that leads to the cue/craving/impulse?
- Plan: Disrupt the pattern with a new response
This change model is just one among many. But whichever you use, they all require the same essential ingredient: AWARENESS. This is the foundation for all conscious decision making.
As coaches, this is precisely what we’re here to help people with. To that end, an important aspect of our work is understanding how to identify the unconscious habits and patterns that may be getting in the client’s way. From there, we’re better able to guide clients in developing new habits (or breaking old ones!) by bringing research-based tools, structure, and accountability to the table… core ingredients that drive meaningful lifestyle changes.
Let’s take weight loss as just one example of how Duhigg's 5-Step process works. Using motivational interviewing, we can walk the client through it.
Invite your client to find just one habit that isn’t supporting their goal. Maybe they routinely eat Doritos at lunch. Or snooze through the alarm and skip their morning workout more days than they’d like to admit.
No self judgement here! At this point, it can be helpful to reassure the client that we all have habits that don’t serve us. The important thing is to simply begin with an awareness of what they would like to change, and why.
We get something out of our behaviors, even the ones we consider “bad”. Taking the time to figure out what the reward is before attempting to disrupt a habit can be useful. In the case of the snooze alarm, the reward might be that snuggly feeling they get nestled under the covers half awake… which may feel a lot more rewarding in the moment than the long-term payoff of getting up and putting your gym clothes on!
Try to pinpoint what catalyzes the default decision to follow a particular habit loop. Where does that choice get made, and why? Usually it can be traced to one of the following:
- Current emotional state
- People around you
- Your last action
This is where the client can begin to come up with ideas about how they might like to respond to the cue in a new way going forward. As a coach, you could ask:
- How can you interrupt just one habit and replace it with a new one?
- What new behavior will better support your goal?
- What will it take for you to consciously implement it?
This is where you and your client get to play detective, looking more deeply at the context surrounding the habit. This can help them to arrive at a better understanding of what’s making it so darn sticky.
- For the Dorito-lover, perhaps they don’t eat breakfast and arrive at lunchtime feeling too ravenous to make healthier choices.
- If the snooze alarm is a problem, it could be that they routinely go to bed too late (yet another habit loop!) and don’t feel rested when the alarm goes off.
Here’s where the rubber meets the road. You’ve taken a look at what needs to change, what makes the habit sticky, and how your client might like to do things differently. Now it’s time to turn insight into action, which is what life coaching is all about!
It can be helpful for some people in the initial stages of change to divide things up into bite sized chunks. Consider setting up a series of small wins that can help disrupt the old pattern while laying a foundation for the desired new habit.
Let’s take the snooze alarm artist as an example.
If their real goal is to get to the gym in the morning, here’s one way habit change can happen as a series of smaller steps:
- Adjust the bedtime routine. Decide how many hours of sleep are optimal, and work backwards. If they need 7 hours of sleep to feel rested, and they want to be up by 6:30 am to hit the gym, the first experiment is to build a new habit: be in bed by 11 pm.
- Build in the “reward”. If part of the snooze alarm appeal is resting inside that cozy half-awake space for a little while before getting up, consider building one snooze into the wakeup time. If they need to be out of bed by 6:30, the next new habit is to set the alarm for 6:15.
- Hit the gym… once. If the ultimate goal is to be at the gym 3 mornings each week, but that’s not happened in months, perhaps a goal of doing it once or twice a week in the initial stages could be the victory. Remember: to build a new habit, we're aiming for progress over perfection.
One way we help our clients achieve greater levels of self efficacy is by setting them up to achieve small wins as they make their way toward a larger goal. When we break down a project into bite-sized chunks, we’re building momentum. And as the client logs a series of positive experiences over time, it strengthens the belief that they can take on even bigger challenges.
Want to Be A Coach?
One of our values at JRNI is that we dare to be different. Our coaches ignore the expectations society tries to impose on them, and seek to live from their own truth instead. If you are ready to step into your power and you’d like some partners in the process, come check out JRNI Life Coach Training. Grounded in the science of positive psychology, our ICF accredited program features authentic instructors, a robust curriculum, and business instruction to prepare you for liftoff.