Changing habits can be a challenge. Why can some people do it and not others? I always thought that in order to quit something it had to be replaced with something else. To quit drinking coffee, for instance, one must start drinking tea. Right? While this holds some truth, science shows it’s incomplete.
Habits are complex and once established, they never really disappear. Our brains match behaviors with rewards so we develop habits around these things. To change the habit we must figure out why the behavior is rewarding. Researchers at MIT observed that rats were initially excited to go through a T-shaped maze to find a piece of chocolate, always in the same place. After going through the maze hundreds of times, the rats no longer had to figure out where to find the chocolate. The more repetitions, the more the rats brain activity decreased. They no longer had to think where to go—it became automatic and internalized thereby making the reward less exciting. This makes me curious why they kept doing it? Rats are simple I guess. This process of automation is efficient for the brain but it doesn’t help rats make good decisions.
Cues tell the brain when to go into automatic mode. In the case of rats, the cue was the click sound of the door opening into the maze. Brains have something called a habit loop where a cue initiates a routine and leads to a reward. Whether you're a rat or human, a reward indicates that a particular habit loop is worth remembering. So when we do things over and over (like drinking coffee every morning) we reinforce the loop. Loop reinforcement is great for taking your medicine or keeping to a sleep routine. These are good habits...and for people with RA and the feedback loop is less pain. Another blog post could be about why good habits are hard to keep. Anyhow, o break a "BAD" habit, it helps to understand that this is a numero-chemical process not so easily untangled.
Adding to the complexity of habits is craving. We crave the pleasure of the reward. Anticipating the reward magnifies the craving. This neuro-chemical fact can work for or against us. If we want to replace a bad habit with a new one we have to repeat it and genuinely feel rewarded. It’s not enough to try something just once— it won’t stick as in drinking tea just once. We have to do it enough to notice if the new behavior actually has a reward for us. Our brain doesn’t want to do something blah over and over again so we have to convince ourselves that it is worth it. A little 'fake it till you make it' can help. In theory, if the brain recognizes the new habit brings an equivalent or better reward, and we repeatedly remind the brain of this, we might begin to anticipate it and succeed at changing the habit because we crave it.
The magic formula is to KEEP THE CUE and KEEP THE REWARD (& if it’s not as rewarding we have to keep telling ourselves it is). It's necessary to CHANGE THE ROUTINE around the cue and reward and then REPEAT. REPEAT. REPEAT.
Even when we nail this formula...we can expect new habits to fail when life gets demanding. It's human nature and the brain defaults to easy mode. New habits will endure rough times, more often than not, when belief is involved. For a habit to permanently change, one has to BELIEVE that CHANGE IS POSSIBLE. Often, this belief emerges and is sustained when SHARED. It helps to have a supportive community like a family, a friend group, or a PROGRAM to believe you can do it. By understanding how habits work and finding a community that shares your values & beliefs, you increase the odds of succeeding at change.
Unlike rats, we aren’t trapped in a maze. We are complex creatures unwinding our specific desires and making choices all the time. We can gain awareness. We can believe in possibilities. WE CAN CHANGE. When perplexed about why some habits are hard to break, I suggest applying the magic formula and/or trying a things that may open new doors to success. 'Click.'