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Why Making and Breaking Habits Is So Hard

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Why Making and Breaking Habits Is So Hard

Have you ever wondered why it is we need to practise? Why it is that we cannot simply master a new skill or behaviour instantly? Why we can fall out of excelling at a skill we previously mastered?

Well, that my friend, has to do with the incredible organ that is our brain. Whether it is learning a new language, becoming a public speaker or knitting a tea cosy it takes repetition, repetition, repetition before it feels like we have a degree of mastery. Conversely breaking old habits can be frustrating and difficult.

No doubt you have heard the ‘practise makes perfect’ mantra from teachers or mentors when at school, or any other learning environment. In fact, you may even have used that exact phrase or some other variation when speaking to others.

What is the actual benefit of repetition of a task or new behaviour within the brain? What does repetition actually achieve?

For that information, we go to one of my all-time favourite areas of light chit chat; Neuroscience. I am not a Neuroscientist but I am a Neuroplastician and so are you (more on that later). Neuroscience does give us an explanation, and I have broken it up into three separate processes. These processes all occur concurrently because that’s just the way the brain rolls.

1. Build it with a thought … Or two.

When we are building a habit/skill/capacity, we first need to spend time thinking about it. We need to set the brain to it. Because we are all Neuroplasticians (that is, we have the ability to influence the connections within the brain), our ability to focus our thoughts to a specific goal fires and therefore wires our brains towards that outcome. That’s right, think it, and you build it. Our brain responds to our thoughts with the chemical and neurological building blocks of thought and emotions and literally builds anatomical structures (in the way of increased neurological connections) towards our desired outcome.

You will have heard of the immense impact of visualisation on outcomes (and if not let me know, and I will do a specific article on it). Using visualisation, you are pre-programming or instructing the brain on what you need to be capable of to achieve mastery. Add in a strong emotion to the focused thinking, and you speed up this process significantly.

So in this part of the ‘build a new habit through repetition’ process, we need time to create the neurological structures to support and enable our new habit. All the neurological hardware required along with all the new anatomical structures required. For example, you cannot go from never doing a day’s exercise in your life to being able to hold a plank for five minutes. You need stronger muscles, this takes time and focus to build. Your sense of control and balance needs to be developed; you need to be committed to the sweat, blood and tears … Or is that just me? We also need to maintain a level of conscious awareness which might include committing to timed repetitions of the behaviour, visualisation, revision etc. This then consolidates the new structures, and they can begin to operate regardless of our full conscious awareness. At this stage, we could then say a habit or skill has been mastered both because the structures are consolidated to support it, and our thinking and attitude towards it have also had time to sink in.

2. Break up with me baby.

To create a new habit often means we need to be breaking an old one. If this is the case what needs to occur? Our awareness of the unconscious thinking we give to the old habit is crucial for this part of the process. And yes this does pose a real problem. It is particularly difficult to maintain awareness around something that has slipped into the ‘mastered’ file of our habits. This is one of the reasons old habits can be so difficult to change. We respond automatically to familiar triggers, and the habit follows. Increasing our commitment to being aware of triggers and not responding means the neurological structures previously created to support that habit will slowly start to wither.

“Don’t use it, so you can lose it!” Further and prolonged lack of use will ensure our thoughts and emotions (as chemicals) will no longer travel these pathways automatically. When we catch ourselves and stop the thought or behaviour, we are well on the way of it being gone and our new behaviour consolidating.

3. Waste not, want not.

As this withering process continues many of the building blocks used to cement in the neurological structures for the old habit will be repurposed to build the new structures and connections needed to master something new. The more we focus and practise the new habit either with visualisation or by actually performing any actions or behaviours required, the faster this repurposing process occurs. The brain recognises we are serious about our goal and acts accordingly by speeding up its repurpose and reuse abilities. Isn’t the body grand?

So, there you go. A lay person’s description of why repetition is important and what it actually achieves in the brain. I hope this has given you some insight into why habits can be hard to break and hard to cement in.

You are literally practising your incredible ability to be a neuroplastician … And yes, I think you should add that to your business card.

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