Breaking bad (habits)

by febfast 12 Jan 2015

To break a bad habit, first you must understand it. So, let's look at the science.


There is a neurobiological reason that habits are so powerful. In your brain and body, every action triggers a pattern of neuronal activity. And every time a neuron fires, a little myelin is added to the outside of the neuron. Myelin is a fatty sheath that covers a bundle of nerve fibres, much like the plastic insulating coating on an electrical cable. It speeds up the transmission of nerve impulses.

This myelin coating basically forces the message the neuron is carrying to stay on target and move directly to the next neuron in the chain rather than bouncing around on its journey to the recipient neuron. The more myelin, the more the message delivery system stays on target, the faster the message gets there.

At some point in the habit-forming process, the myelin is thick enough that the neuron carries its message too fast for conscious thought to notice.

The power of habits is in their speed, your body takes action so fast you can't think about it.

Imagine you are in the habit of hitting the snooze button, your body responds to the sound of the alarm by rolling you over and lifting your arm to press the button before your conscious mind has time to process the sound. You are asleep again without having noticed the alarm.

The unconscious nature of habits is what makes them powerful. Which is why moving the alarm clock works. It gives your conscious mind time to recognise the sound and choose how to respond rather simple react. And, because mental habits work the same way as movement habits, you can prime your mind for certain activities.

Neuroscience shows us that our brains work by addition and not subtraction. It is easier to build a new habit than to break an existing one. Building a new habit where there is no habitual behaviour requires only repetition of the new pattern, which can be done consciously until suddenly it is so fast it is no longer conscious.

To break a habit, you must do two physical things. You must interrupt the neuronal messaging system so it doesn't deliver the old message (ie. reach for an alcoholic drink) and you must create a new habitual messaging system that delivers a different message as a result of the same stimulation (a non-alcoholic beverage). The old habitual message is still there, but due to the brain's plasticity (based on the principle of 'if you don't use it … you lose it'), when you change a behaviour that builds a new neuronal pathway; eventually the old pathway gets pruned back due to disuse.

Behavioural experts say that it takes 28 days to break any habit! Now there's a happy coincidence!

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