Research Paper By Ram Levin
(Success Coach, Leadership Coach, THAILAND)
Coaching is the catalyst for achieving goals. To of a goal, one must create a change in approach or behavior. Even though each person reacts differently to change, there is a common denominator that takes us back 200,000 years to the Homo Sapiens. Our primal brain has a built-in mechanism that resists change due to the survival skills needed at that time.
This paper tries to explore the reasons it is hard to change a habit and find a “formula” to make a new habit stick faster than ever before. Buckle up as we are going to fire up some neurons.
Behind the Habits
It does not make any sense when we know we have a bad habit that hurts us, but we just can’t get rid of it.
Nora Volkow, the director of the American National Institute on Drug Abuse who has spent the last fifteen years studying the reason why our habits are so difficult to change, reveals the answer she discovered: Dopamine.
Dopamine is a neurotransmitter in our brains, responsible for our feelings of desire. When we “feel good,” the level of Dopamine increases regardless of the reason is good or bad for us. The release of Dopamine causes us to crave more of what caused it. This is a key factor in understanding how habits form.
When you feel pleasure, your brain associates this feeling with the action that caused it (i.e., eating chocolate, smoking a cigarette, hitting the snooze button). This behavior becomes the cue or trigger that reminds the brain about the Dopamine increased previously, and we desire more of it.
Every time we return to that same action, we strengthen the connection between the cue and the reward, so it becomes a habit. Ivan Pavlov was researching salivation in dogs in response to being fed. He later discovered that a bell sound before serving the food to the dog caused it to salivate, that’s the cue that increased Dopamine levels in the dog’s brain, even if the food was not served.
Fighting this urge means going against your brain’s chemistry, and this is why making changes mostly ends with defeat. However, many people manage to live a life of empowerment, health, and fulfillment by overcoming this chemistry battle.
Charles Duhing, in his book “The Power of Habit,” explains the cycle of habit creation, as shown below.
For example, you get a notification sound on your phone (Cue). You check your phone, and before you know it, you are scrolling endlessly on Facebook (Routine). The Reward is the posts you see that give you a glimpse of the life of others.
A routine such as in this example causes distraction and wastes time. The benefits of changing this habit are sensible, yet most people became addicted to the notification sounds.
One way to change a habit is to identify the cue that triggers the routine. However, identifying the cue is not enough because habits deliver rewards, which are very powerful. So the coach needs to help the client to identify the reward as well as the cue, which triggered the routine. After identifying the cue, it is advised to replace the reward with something else to break the routine. In the example above, identifying that the notification is the cue and the reward is posts, we can replace the reward of jumping three times, or whatever makes the client happy. This way, the endless scrolling routine to look for posts has broken.
The coach will need to follow up on the client and check if he/she follows the new routine to get the new reward. If not, the client will need to find another reward to make the habit stick. Shockingly, some people won’t find jumping three times as rewarding as viewing posts.
A step further will be to anticipate the temptation. If notifications cause you to fall into the trap, turn them off, put your phone in another room, or decide on a specific time during the day to check messages.
Researchers have found that habits stick when people write them down as a formula:
WHEN I SEE THE CUE, I WILL DO A ROUTINE TO GET A REWARD.
Dr. Judson Brewer, a thought leader in the ‘science of self-mastery, having nearly 20 years of experience with mindfulness training in his scientific research. He emphasizes the aspect of awareness. You need to look at your habit and ask yourself, “What do I get from this?” What is the real reward?
He used the RAIN acronym:
- Recognize the habit
- Accept that there is a bad habit
- Investigate the craving in your body that drives you to keep this habit
- Note your feelings about this craving
By being aware of your craving and feelings, you are likely to give up a bad habit almost instantly. Now you should take action to change the habit while being curious about how your body and mind react to the changes.
Another way to win the brain is by helping clients visualizing themselves as they would LIKE to be. The process works because they can DISSOCIATE and see themselves in their imagination in a new and compelling way from an observer’s point of view.
Richard Bandler, one of the founders of NLP, explains that your unconscious mind does not know what is real and what is imaginary, a new habit can be formed by mental rehearsal and repetition.
The cue could be a door, sound, smell, specific time, etc. By repeatedly associating the cue with a new feeling or behavior, we create a habitual response that will be triggered whenever the cue is present. For example, when I pass the door to my bedroom, I ignore any notification sounds/ put my phone on silence/ leave the phone outside/ turn the phone off.
Marisa Peer, a best-selling author, therapist, and pioneering hypnotherapist, confirms this approach by saying that imagination is more powerful than knowledge when dealing with the mind. Your mind always does what it thinks you want it to do, so if you imagine yourself making a new habit, it tends to realize. Additionally, your mind does not care if what you say is good, bad, true, false, healthy, unhealthy, right, or wrong; it acts on the words and pictures you create in your mind regardless; our thoughts translate to physical reactions.
Our mind learns best by repetition; therefore, repeating the visual image of making the new habit is very helpful. By repeating the images in the head, you make the cue and the response to it, familiar. Hence the subconscious mind becomes less resistant to the change.
Marisa explains that your mind wants to return to what is familiar and avoid what is unfamiliar. Unfamiliarity is the reason we find it so hard to create NEW habits. Numerous studies show that imagining something like playing the piano, activates the same parts of the brain with the same intensity as actually playing the piano. OMG, we can trick our brains with our own thoughts.
According to John Assaraf, founder of NeuroGym, a company dedicated to brain training methods, the brain is in charge of millions of daily actions, things such as blinking, breathing, regulating temperature, etc. The only way to manage all of these tasks is by being energy efficient.
Changes require energy; there is a “switch cost.” Since the brain doesn’t like to waste energy, it resists the change. Think of the first time you drove a car; you paid attention to so many things around you. When it became “natural” for you, after a lot of practice, you get in the car and do everything automatically. When things are done out of habit, they require less attention; hence, the brain uses less energy.
As a coach, you may look for signs of struggle within the client’s brain:
Lack of organization
Overwhelm and Confusion
Lack of energy and focus
Worry and stress
Lack of confidence
Feeling organized and comfortable
Clear, focused thinking
Reduced stress and a feeling of calmness
A sense of being emotionally grounded
Enhanced happiness and well-being
Increased confidence and certainty
This explains why trying harder and working longer doesn’t seem to help to create transformation in people’s life.
Affirmation goes a long way in adjusting the brain to new realities before they are real. It helps to transform the brain’s perspective by telling yourself what you want to happen, what kind of person would you like to be. Here is some example:
Old belief: I’m lazy, I will never be fit by going to the gym.
New belief: I can do this. I’m going to the gym consistently. It’s who I am.
Old belief: I can’t do it if it’s too hard.
New belief: I’ve done hard things before. I can do this if it’s hard. I’ll take it as a personal challenge.
The clients need to pay attention to what they are telling themselves, examine their beliefs, and hold them lightly. They aren’t necessarily true.
Dr. Bruce Lipton, an internationally recognized leader in bridging science and spirit, stem cell biologist, and a bestselling author, is an advocate of reprogramming your subconscious mind.
He explains that self-talk doesn’t work because there is nobody in the subconscious to listen. However, you can download a new program through visualization and repetition. Another crucial factor is to add meaning to your new program, meanings that trigger emotions. Humans are emotional creatures who respond to emotions more than logic. Help the client to embrace the power of emotions to create a new habit.
Dr. Joe Dispenza, an international lecturer, researcher, corporate consultant, author, and educator, explains that when you decide to take a look into your mind, it feels uncomfortable. So it’s easier to turn on the TV or to play with the cell phone to distract yourself from those feelings. Any change requires becoming uncomfortable to a certain degree, and that’s normal that you are leaving the known, and you’re stepping into the unknown. You need, however, to feel comfortable being uncomfortable. Otherwise, if you keep doing what you are doing, you will stay exactly the way you are right now.
People memorizing their emotions, feel in a certain way about something that happened in the past. When it keeps happening for long periods, it’s called a personality trait. Research on memory says that 50% of what we talk about in our past isn’t even the truth. So we make stuff up about the past. In other words, people are reliving a life that they didn’t even have just to reaffirm that they can’t change it now.
Dr. Dispenza suggests to focus the client’s energy on the future and how the client would like it to be, rather than live in the past and get stuck there with habits based on lies. The energy can change by making a decision.
Gratitude helps to convince the mind that the change is possible. Gratitude changes the energy, and no one can change until they change their energy.
Being disappointed with a bad habit robs the energy from the body. There is no energy to allow the change. And as discovered earlier, the brain is energy efficient, hence resist change to conserve energy.
Mini Habits – Kaizen
KAIZEN™ is a Japanese term meaning change for the better by continuous improvement. The term KAIZEN introduced in the western world 30 years ago by the groundbreaking book written by Masaaki Imai. KAIZEN is the key to Japan’s Competitive Success.
The idea behind it is to start with baby steps to get to the desired goal. For example, if you to start exercising as a daily routine but cannot seem to get the habit to stick (due to countless reasons). You should make the task ridiculously small, so there are no excuses.
Start with 1 Push-up, 1 Sit-up, 1 Pull-up. It takes a minute, and, if done daily, will start to form a habit. The progress will grow naturally to harder and longer exercises.
Brian Tracey, in his book, Eat that Frog, explains how we procrastinate because we give a task too much meaning or importance, so we leave it to later and never start it. Doing something easy and for short periods, eliminates the resistance and allow the subconscious brain to ease into it. Hence, forming a new habit.
It can be concluded that changing a habit is difficult but not impossible. The following components can help to accelerate the process of changing a habit.
To change a habit you need:
- Awareness - identify the Cues that trigger the behavior
- Visualization - see yourself acting on the new habit
- Reward yourself to enforce the new habit
- Energy - make it as effortless as possible at the beginning
- Self-talk - what kind of person do you want to be
- Meaning - reprogram your brain to what you want it to think/ do
- Emotions – emotional thought have the power to drive us better
- Uncomfortable - be comfortable with the uncomfortable process
- Kaizen - start with mini habits
- Consistency - just keep doing it
The Power of Habit: Why We Do What We Do in Life and Business by Charles Duhigg
Eat That Frog: 21 Great Ways to Stop Procrastinating and Get More Done in Less Time by Brian Tracy
Innercise: The New Science to Unlock Your Brain’s Hidden Power by John Assaraf
Mindset: The New Psychology of Success by Carol Dweck
Making Habits, Breaking Habits: Why We Do Things, Why We Don’t, and How to Make Any Change Stick by Jeremy Dean
The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People by Stephen Covey
High-Performance Habits: How Extraordinary People Become That Way by Brendon Burchard
Willpower Doesn’t Work: Discover the Hidden Keys to Success by Benjamin Hardy
Immunity to Change: How to Overcome It and Unlock the Potential in Yourself and Your Organization by Robert Kegan
A simple way to break a bad habit | Judson Brewer (https://youtu.be/-moW9jvvMr4)