Installing New Habits

It took me quite a long time to realise how without discipline I won’t get the results I’m aiming for. However, to successfully implement discipline we need to form the routine we will keep using. Why routine? Because we want to save our prefrontal cortex resources for our goals and activities that will fulfil them eventually. If we are using its resources for a constant struggle with willpower, it just won’t work long-term. When we have an established routine, our prefrontal cortex is free, because we are using a different brain area (in the hippocampus) to keep it going automatically.
 WHY it works like this?
It’s all about “synaptic pruning”.

What is Synaptic Pruning?

Our brain can only handle a limited number of abilities and skills at once. (Yep, we simply can’t be good at everything ? Sorry for my bad cooking ? ) The brain focus on the things it needs the most, hence, it develops stronger connections to the neurons responsible for what we are doing more frequently. It also creates MORE connections to allow for a faster pace of information for that particular activity, skill, a habit. The neurons that don’t get used often are then PRUNED AWAY, thus allowing the energy to be allocated where it’s needed the most.
If we take babies as an example. We know that newborn have a greater learning capacity than adults. It’s because baby has more neurons than we do! However, these neurons are using less strong connections. They are yet to create connections to support acquiring new skills etc. We, on the other hand, lack the neurons to support activities outside our interest. You can imagine these connections as pathways through the meadow. The more you use certain path, it’s becoming embedded in the ground, it’s easier to find, easier to use. When you only start, it seems that it’s disappearing quite fast if you don’t use it often.

So, how do we INSTALL new habits?

And what synaptic pruning has to do with it?
First, think about some daily habits you have that you don’t even think about. Having breakfast, jump in the shower, grab a cup of coffee, wash your teeth, put on your clothes, check your facebook notifications :P,  right? There is no effort, nor resistance for these activities. The brain doesn’t want to waste energy to question these, so it just runs through those connections without stopping. That’s what makes them “habits”.
So, now that we know we don’t have new slots of neurons available and we already have strong daily habits, how do we install a new one?
We do that by using strong pre-existing neuron connections! We take advantage of the created pathway and thus bypassing all the weaker areas where the new habit would be stored!

Why do we do it in this way?

To give less opportunity for the brain to evaluate the habit and resist! (Brain usually resists towards anything that it can’t perceive as real you…any “new” you is not “real” you to it…so it resists, but that’s another important ? topic! ) Instead facing with the resistance, you use old habit that is slightly modified to include something different before going from one to the other already formed habit. It’s good to start small, while ridding on the back of much stronger habit, without trying to introduce an entirely new habit.
Practically that would mean this:
1) Write down your auto-pilot habits (in the morning or at any time of the day), something you do each day without even thinking about it. Schedule the possible, realistic time for the new habit. (5 minutes of it!)
2) Start small with a new habit – stacking it with the old one. USE trigger and the reward. For instance, when I decided to incorporate meditation each morning, my trigger was brushing teeth. Brushing teeth and going to meditate for 5 minutes only, first week. Next week 10 min. etc. And the reward was coffee.
3) Repetition
You need to repeat it many times. Even 7 days might be enough to start feeling as a habit. But some say min of 66 days are needed to really make a neuron connection.
4) Don’t break the chain ? I’ve made myself a spreadsheet so each time I do it, I write it down and it feels soooo good. That little X is a bit of dopamine ?And we all love dopamine.
5) When you are done and completely familiar with this habit, “install” a new one on the same principle. Not too soon, since we are working here on permanent results. And to get the permanent results we need to lessen the possibility of the resistance.
So, that’s it. I tried to write this as concise as possible. I hope it’s easily understandable.
p.s. If you break the chain for one day and continue the next one, it’s ok. The real struggle starts when you break it for 2 days or more.

Authors I was reading a lot at the time of my experiment with daily habits “installation”:

  • Martin Meadows (I read all of his books, so I am not sure which one influenced on information in this article, the most. I recommend them all.)
  • Mike Monday
  • James Clear

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