Hack Your Brain & Upgrade Your Habits

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Everyone has at least one habit they’d rather do without. But how can you make changes to your diet, lifestyle, and workout schedule that stick? How can you make your budding motivation last throughout the year (and your lifetime)?

how to hack your brain and upgrade your habits

Habits are notoriously difficult to change, which can be both a good and bad thing. Once you change your habits for the better and maintain the change for long enough, the “upgrade” will become easier, and easier to uphold.

So, let’s get started with the hard stuff.

How to Upgrade Your Habits: A Step-by-step Guide

1) Identify the item you want to “upgrade”

Do you want to spend less time on social media? Eat a bit more healthfully? Exercise more regularly?

Because forming new habits takes more mental energy at first, it’ll be easiest to focus on one particular behavior that you’d like to change. Start with that behavior, as sort of a bite-sized challenge.

2) Identify the associated routine, reward, and cue (based off of Charles Duhigg‘s theories on habit)

Do you keep reaching for another Christmas cookie? Are you opening Instagram or Facebook repeatedly (sometimes even right after you’ve just closed it)?

These activities are both examples of routines, and they’re generally the habit you want to change. In the cookie case, the reward is a sweet treat that gives you a small rush of happy chemicals (endorphins, serotonin, dopamine). The cookie reward could come from the texture and warmth of the cookie, the crunchy sugar on the outside, the chocolate pieces. In the Facebook case, you might get little rewards with every “like”, funny meme, or friend update.

the habit loop cue routine reward

Be as specific as you can, and explore. Really dig to figure out exactly what it is you’re getting from your routine, and jot down a note. Understanding the reward will make it much easier to replace or “upgrade” the routine.

Cues, then, are whatever triggers the routine. This might mean seeing the tray of cookies, feeling bored. Every time a craving or urge hits, make a note about where you are, who you’re with, when it is, how or what you’refeeling, and what action you took right before the urge.

Over a couple of days, you’ll start to notice common threads.

3) Finally, establish the upgraded habit (instead of just trying to “stop” doing something)

Then, it’s about “upgrading” the routine. When you feel the urge (cue), choose to do your new upgraded version of your behavior (new routine), and reap the rewards (new or similar rewards).

Path Analogy

While it’s a bit oversimplified, think of it this way: every cue, routine, and reward has it’s usual “path” of neurological activity. The path is made up of connections between neurons in the brain (nerve cells). Think of the signal that goes from one neuron to the next as a runner on a path. The more times this runner starts at the cue, runs through the routine, and gets a reward, the more worn the trail becomes, and the easier it is to run down it again and again.

You can “hack” your brain by manipulating this path.

Avoid or minimize the cues
  • Look at the who, where, when, and preceding feelings and actions that you’ve noted.
  • See what you can do to make those cues happen less frequently, or to weaken their strength, like making the entrance to the path you usually run harder to find.
    • Example: If just seeing junk food is a cue for you, ensure it’s out of sight. The harder to get to, the better. If it’s seeing a notification pop up on your phone that leads you to unproductive social media time, try keeping your phone flipped over or farther away from you, and change your notification settings.
Switch out the routine

If you’ve done all you can to minimize the cookie-craving cue, chances are you’ll still occasionally experience the craving.

  • Replace the action, or in other words, let the other action’s path get overgrown, and wear in a new one that starts in the same place (cue) and ends in a similar place (reward).
  • The easiest switches will still offer you a similar reward.
    • Example: Switch eating the cookie out for eating a piece of fruit. This way, you’ll still get some sweet sugary substance, but you’ll be working towards your “upgraded” habit.

4) Create brand new habits for yourself by manufacturing cues, routines, and rewards

Want to workout in the morning? Set your workout clothes and pack your gym bag the night before. Place them in an obvious location, and when you get up and see them (your new cue), launch into your new routine (working out), and get your reward (endorphins, satisfaction, ultimately better health). If the exercise itself isn’t enough of a reward for you, pair it with something you love. Watch your favorite show on the treadmill. Get your sweat on with a good friend. Treat yourself to a sauna session or relaxing bath afterwards.

And, know that it’s a choice you’re making, not something you have to do.

Having trouble figuring out how to upgrade a habit of yours? Feel free to comment the routine you’re trying to change below, and we’ll comment back an idea or two.

Know someone who could benefit from this habit-upgrading approach? Send this article their way.

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