Back in my original post outlining My Positive Difference Making Fundamentals, I wrote in the section introducing habits that "It's very simple; bad habits equal bad outcomes and good habits equal good outcomes (or as good as you can be). Almost everything we do is habitual including how our brain works. If we change our habits we transform how our brain works and therefore our lives."
I also said regarding habits in that piece; "But it takes work and this work is not easy because habits, as we all know, are NOT easy to break" and we're now going to finally take a fairly in depth look at why it is difficult to break old habits or create new ones that we specifically desire.
Now, in previous posts I've talked about a few important things about the brain and how it works that we're going to bring to the fore now in furthering our understanding of habits and change.
The Stress Response System
Consciousness, Thoughts and Meditation
Also of great importance, but for which I have yet to write a dedicated post, is what we're going to think of as the brain's "energy economy".
Briefly again, "zombie programs" is a fun term for the vast array of autonomously running brain systems, networks and programs that account for the great majority of your mental processes, thoughts, and actions and reactions throughout any given day. They are what make up your routines, the "way" you naturally do things and behave and even how you think and what you think about. As you can easily see, these subconscious systems are greatly related to what we think of as "habits".
Neuroplasticity is how the brain responds to life around you and rearranges its own circuitry in response to what it must do to guide you through life. As a simple example, take the way you drive to work every day. If you're in a big city and the route unfamiliar, the first time was difficult, then with each time it got easier and finally you could do it with hardly any conscious effort at all. It started out hard but became progressively more effortless because at first you had little memory of all the important points along the way you needed to know - there was no internal "map" in your head - and with each time you drove the route and got to know all the important roads and turning points, etc, your brain filed all these away in a process that is, in fact, a form of neuroplasticity; tiny new circuits were created, old circuits disabled (to a degree) and soon you had a new little "circuit" in your brain specifically dedicated to getting you to work without having to put so much energy and conscious effort into it. Or we could also think of it as a new "zombie program" labeled "get to work". The concept of neuroplasticy and how your brain must rearrange itself in small ways to adapt to each new task you give it is also not hard to imagine being very relevant to habits and habit change.
And the stress response system is very critical to understand, for it is this deep and very powerful system and set of programs that will greatly shape your behaviours and reactions and - ta-da! - your abilities to break an old habit and create a new one. As this system is one of our oldest in evolutionary terms, it operates for the most part very, very deeply subconsciously. In other words, it's having great effects on your behaviour, actions and choices without you at all being consciously aware (except, probably, when it's already too late and you're beating yourself up about doing the habit you're trying so hard to break).
Consciousness and thought also comes into play because each new habit we want to create or each old habit we want to break involves a certain degree of conscious awareness, effort and thought.
Conscious effort and thought ties into the brain's energy economy because it takes - as you've no doubt noticed - more energy to make conscious efforts and thought towards new tasks, which is also related to maintaining conscious attention on the new task. As well, often when we fall back into an old habit, it's that we've "forgotten" to be consciously aware of it (something that's very common, by the way).
Let's now take a broader and deeper look at what we think of as "habits" but which I think of as part of the deep autonomously running brain programs that make up the vast majority (if not all) of our behaviours and reactions and actions all of which for the most part operate subconsciously.
For the sake of simplicity, we're going to refer to any behaviour, emotional reaction or thought pattern that we realize is not good for us or is impeding our lives in some way or that for whatever reason we don't want or want to change as a "bad habit".
We may be aware of - or conscious of - these "bad habits" but we generally have little understanding of why that behaviour or emotional reaction or thought pattern, etc is there and even if we do and we try to change it, we discover that we have little or limited conscious control over it.
This is what creates anger and frustration within ourselves and then a repeated pattern will take place that goes something like: become or be made aware of a bad habit, feel the pain of the consequence of the bad habit, vow to change the bad habit, work to change it, find that we fall back into the bad habit (or pattern) again, feel even more pain of the consequences, become angry with ourselves and beat ourselves up. Rinse, repeat, you know the drill.
Or we may not only become angry with ourselves, we project blame and anger on others, or even on inanimate objects - blaming and getting angry at someone close to us for our bad habit, or the car for the consequences of a bad driving habit, for example. Thus we see patterns of anger and frustration in ourselves and then among others in our lives (for the most part without knowing why), things spiral out of control and we descend into some sort of low mood or if we're prone to strong depressive episodes, we plunge into the pits of darkness.
And then while we're down there in that pit of darkness we'll just have a jolly good time beating and thrashing the absolute shit out of ourselves about how "weak" we are, how little "willpower" we have, how "pathetic" we are, how we'll never amount to anything and worse and worse and for a good number of us there's a good probability that we'll reach a point where we just want to give up on life altogether and ... well, end it all. Again, many of you will deeply know the drill.
So we've all read no shortage of articles and books on habit change. We set resolutions. And we try and and we try.
And never quite get there.
Which is why, when I came across The Willpower Instinct by Kelly McGonigal, and she explained habit change through the neuroscience of habit and willpower and brain energy and why it was all so hard, that I finally began to understand why change is so hard.
And it's not simply because we, dear mental health peeps, have trouble changing. Change is hard because it's a fundamental human difficulty and it's hard because that's just the way brains are. Now, it's true that some people seem to manage change more easily but they are the exception and not the norm. As well, many people who seem to change easier only imagine that they do or they don't try to change the things that are most difficult or they simply grew up in blessed ways where change for them may not be as necessary.
Since reading McGonigal's book early in 2013 (which inspired and kicked off a great deal of what now makes up the content of this blog and coming book), I have of course learned much, much more about the brain and human behaviour and can now add some key additional insights into why the brain - and thus we and our habits - is so difficult to change.
So here's the thing with habits or habitual behaviours (good and bad) - they didn't just drop out of the sky and plop themselves into us. No, no, we picked them all up at various points of our lives, most probably without a whole lot of conscious input or awareness. We pick them from our parents, from our siblings, from our peers, coworkers or because at some point in our past we thought that a given behaviour was cool or it got there as part of a simple stimulus-response mechanism that played itself out over very long periods of our lives and which goes something like this; something happens (an outside or internal stimulus of some kind), various brain regions create a response to the stimulus, yet other brain regions go "okay, this seems to bring desirable results", the response gets repeated, also seeming to create favourable results and this stimulus-response pattern gets built into our general grab bag of behaviours and habits. They become, in actuality, part of our automatic "zombie programs".
Additionally, there are some fundamental brain systems that can create certain impulses and cravings that have very deep evolutionary roots and thus are a deep and powerful part of how brains work (sugar cravings would be one; there are some very key neurological reasons why most (though not necessarily all) brains create sugar cravings (or what is colloquially known as a “sweet tooth”).
Not only that, in hearing what the people I coach go through as they try to change certain behaviour or thought or emotional patterns is that even though rationally we know the new pattern is better and that we have to let go of the old pattern, on deep levels the new pattern feels weird. There are brain systems that monitor everything going on in there and if these detect something different, they'll go "that's weird, that shouldn't be there". These systems aren't the brightest bulbs on the brain tree. They just detect "this is not normal" and default us back to the more comfortable "normal" even though the new thing is better. So this is something we have to be aware of; sometimes the new habit feels weird to our brain and we kind of have to try mentally overrule that deep zombie program that's sensing "weird".
Now, some of these habits we'll naturally leave behind as we age and mature. Your brain is very good at this as well (all appearances aside) but for a variety of reasons that can generally be covered in the post Genetic and Environmental Factors in Individual Brain Development, some habits, behaviours and responses really get ... well, "hard wired" in there or the various brain regions involved don't work as well as they should.
There are other more psychological reasons that habits, behaviours and responses can be hard to change, the biggest, in my estimation, is that good or bad, all of these become and are a part of Who We Are; they are - for better or worse - part of our identity and on some level or even in conscious thought we think, "screw it, this is just who I am, damn it". There becomes a level of acceptance - or even defiant pride! - to all our less glamorous or desirable aspects. After all, we tell ourselves, nobody's perfect (which is of course true). We create a handy narrative that goes something like "anyone who wants to be around me must accept me warts and all".
Until, of course, that point when the poor behaviour or habit or response really screws up something we deeply want and then boom, down the rabbit hole we go and we just get so bloody fed up with ourselves that we want to ... you know.
So we play out this dance, this back and forth between acceptance and even pride in our worse aspects - or wanting to shoot ourselves we're so sick and tired with ourselves. Many will recognize and understand this cycle.
Or, worse, because of our bad habits or impulsive behaviour, so much of the better parts of life - maybe a better job or career, a better life partner relationship or better general relationships with friends and family, or travel and adventure - all slowly begin to pass us by, we begin to give up and say to hell with it and then we fall into deep morose sad states about that.
However, here we are, we've discovered this blog - or just this post - we feel intrigued and a flower of promise and hope has blossomed and have begun to think "hey, maybe it is just possible".
And yes, it absolutely is possible to change and create better habits while leaving old ones behind. Even for you, no matter how hard change has been in the past.
But first, I need you to pause, take a deep breath, and say to yourself (I'm serious about this), "Okay, this guy is right. I can see that it's hard, that's it's human, and that it's not my fault that I haven't been successful at change in the past" and forgive yourself. Regular readers will by now know how important self-compassion and self-forgiveness is for change and making ourselves better people so you have to start there. Okay?
Alright then, let's start looking at the what to do part.
First, we have to take a very brief look at a little more brain stuff to remind us of a few things.
Most of those lobes and regions are not of interest to us here today and you can completely forget about needing to remember most of those region names. What we're basically looking at there is the cerebral cortex, the complex outer layer of the brain with all those weird little folds in it where most higher functions are housed. Of primary interest to us here today is the part in blue called the "frontal lobe".
It is in that area of the brain - right behind your eyes and forehead - where all the stuff that make us "human" (hopefully) is located. There are all kinds of critical brain "systems" located there, and I will touch on some of them in other posts, but what we're specifically interested in today are all kinds of small sub-regions in the frontal lobe - particularly in the pre-frontal cortex - that have to do with key functions like impulse control, behavioural regulation, delay of gratification, morality; in other words, the self control functions in human brains that set us apart (again, hopefully) from our less impulse controlled primate cousins (I suspect a good number of readers may disdainfully think that most humans have less control than primates. And while the daily news may give this impression, I can assure you that all humans by and large have at least the capacity for far greater impulse and behavioural control than primates, except in cases of lesions, neurodegeneration or other forms of brain damage in this region).
Let's briefly look at the concept of that seemingly all important brain power necessary for habit change - willpower. Willpower can be thought of as either a directed and sustained drive towards a goal or desired outcome or the ability to control a negative action or impulse or craving. In other words, it can be a number of things and as such there's no exact willpower "centre" in the brain. It is instead a number of networked regions in those frontal lobes.
Now, let's have a quick look where many impulses and habits originate:
That's a rather simple image but that's okay, we just need to quickly look again at our old friend the limbic region. That's a "cut away" look. In your brain, it's all tucked inside the outer cortex, roughly in the middle of your head. This area does a good deal of initiating behaviour while your frontal lobes do all the regulating of behaviours. If you ever feel like there are two "yous" battling for control, that's actually quite correct and what you are experiencing is to a large degree the battle for control between the impulsive limbic region and the control centres in the prefrontal cortex. I talked a little about this in the post The Why of the Emotional You, explaining that because the limbic region evolved first and is designed for "fast reaction" for dealing with immediate threats, it gets first and higher priority over your energy reserves and that the control centre in the PFC tends to get less energy while at the same time consuming more energy, which is why emotional control and things like impulse and behavioural control are more difficult and tiring.
As well, there are enormously complicated circuits of "wiring" (long distance axons) that run between the two regions, not to mention among smaller specific regions. There's no way we could begin to cover briefly how intricately complex the connections are between all the dozens of smaller regions in both the frontal lobes and various parts of the limbic region, but if we were to look, you would immediately grasp how unrealistic it is to expect all those operations to go perfectly swimmingly all the time. If you had a better conscious idea of the dozens and dozens of second by second, minute by minute, hour by hour and day by day work that the control centre in the pre-frontal cortex does perform to keep you going through your day to day world in a relatively well behaved and morally and socially acceptable manner (the vast majority below your conscious awareness), you'd understand that to do all those with one hundred percent perfection is just really not all the reasonable to expect. So again, cut yourself some slack when you can't resist that doughnut you swore you would avoid or you lost your temper or any of the other things we try so hard not to do.
As Robert Saposkly has argued, the pre-frontal cortex (the most advanced “human” part of the frontal lobes) developed to bias the brain (IE: “you”) towards doing the “hard thing”. This is where all the stuff is that makes us able to plan for the future and set aside or save things accordingly. It's here that makes us do the “right thing” when other parts of the brain are tempting us with foods, stopping work when we shouldn't, saying something inadvisable and so on.
Of significant note is that age is a critical factor to consider. All that fancy regulatory equipment in the frontal lobes? The entire frontal lobe region does not fully form and mature until the age of approximately twenty-five. As well, starting in the mid-teens, the brain undergoes a large "reconstruction" project where all kinds of behavioural regions that were fine for pre-teen and post-puberty years get "torn down" and all the regions necessary for the adult world get formed and "wired in". So expect behavioural regulation to be particularly difficult in late teens to early twenties. The enormity of this brain change (known by some in neuroscience as the second "critical period") almost defies description. This deserves a whole post on its own, but for now please try to bear this in mind.
Okay, now that I've blown through almost an entire post trying to give a sense of how and why change of any kind is difficult, let's start to set the table for how you are going to begin implementing the changes you'd like.
Firstly, I'd love you to think of change not so much in the sense of stopping a bad behaviour but of cultivating a better behaviour or habit.
Secondly, and for regular readers I hope this idea is beginning to take root, I'd love for you to think of this as just one aspect of personal growth (there's a whole "growth mindset" movement that I think is very interesting and beneficial that I'd love to get to one day). In other words, it's not just a single habit we want to focus on, but it's part of creating a new and improved version of ourselves.
Thirdly, whatever we are going to do, it's going to take time. Please revisit the post on neuroplascticity. It is there where we learn that in changing any habit or old way of doing things, we must break down the old brain "circuits" and build new ones. I also go into some detail on this in my post on my brain training exercises. In some cases and circumstances it can happen quite quickly but it is generally not reasonable to expect this.
Fourthly, for now, I think it is unwise to start with a real difficult habit like smoking or dieting. Again, it can be done but generally these are two of the hardest and we may be setting ourselves up for failure if we try to tackle these first.
Okay, now I'm going to more or less steal wholesale from McGonigal's book, The Willpower Instinct. (which is quite alright, I can assure, because I know for a fact that at least four readers of my blog have purchased her book due to my recommendations, so it is in effect free advertising for her).
What is thought of as “willpower” is in fact a collection of several functions of the pre-frontal cortex (the very front part of the frontal lobes) and McGonigal breaks these down into three simple concepts for us – I will, I won't, and I want.
“I will” is the part of the PFC that helps us stick to boring, difficult or boring tasks, things that are important for self-motivation (there are other very key brain systems that drive us towards goals, in particular the dopamine reward system), but for today we want to focus on this specific task master in the PFC (upper left side, to be more precise).
“I won't” is the part that helps us resist temptations or impulses. If we are tempted to do something unwise or against our better judgment – like have Cap'n Crunch for breakfast (speaking of that "sweet tooth") rather than something more substantial and healthy – it is this part of the PFC (upper ride side) that plays an important role in the decision not to.
“I want” is the part in the very most forward and advanced (and last to develop evolutionary wise) part of the PFC that keeps track of our long term and important goals and desires. If you are saving for a new car or home and are tempted to blow a wad of money on some short term gratification – like an expensive ski vacation – it is this part that tracks and remembers what you really want and – hopefully – reminds you.
Now, motivation and goals and all of that is rather more complicated in the brain, of course, but these are the three key regions in which we're going to start building some “neuronal muscle” so that we can begin to better build improved habits and leave undesired ones behind.
So here's a brief little exercise to help us get started practicing the will, won't, and want steps. And remember, we're only getting started. It is here I must invoke the time honoured (and often rather trite, I'm afraid) maxim of “this is a journey, not the destination”, or in other words, this is just the first few steps towards rebuilding ourselves. This is something I'll get to in more detail when we examine staying in the present and living one day at a time.
Okay, first we have to decide on a want.
Let me tell a personal anecdote as an example. I am, I will confess, a compulsive snacker. Often I just need to have something to steadily nibble on. Most of us will be afflicted to varying degrees with this habit, which is what drives the multi-billion dollar snack industry. In the years I fell apart, I'd developed many bad eating habits and was becoming rather “bloated”, we shall say, but there was one habit that infuriated my daughter – I'd pilfer all her gummy bears. Bad dad. A really double whammy of badness. And I was baaaad. I'd demolish a large tub of them in days.
Then I had my big breakthrough for wanting to beat mental illness, I learned that better nutrition and eating habits were crucial and thus I created a strong “want” - I wanted to give up bad snacks and eat healthier snacks.
Then, having already read this chapter in McGonigal's book, I employed her “will” and “won't” steps, simply following her instructions. It went like this; each time I walked by the tempting tub of gummy bears and could just imagine those sour and sweet little sugary blobs of gummy goodness, I'd remember my “want” (healthier eating) and stop myself. That's the “won't” little brain region exercised. Then I made a “will” choice – I will snack on something healthier. I got baby carrots and snacked on those instead, or later I got yummy peanuts or almonds and snacked on those. That's the will part of the brain exercised.
Then over the course of a week or two, voila – I'd stopped snacking not only on my daughter's gummy bears, but all kinds of bad stuff (Dorito's was another real bad snacking choice that I had been overindulging on). It was not always easy, of course – the freaking gummy bears were right there on the kitchen table and I'd have to walk by them a dozen or more times a day – and I naturally slipped now and again, but each time I'd just remind myself of the “want”, “won't” and “will” formula and do better the next time.
This simple habit change then led to me completely restructuring my diet towards better nutrition and away from harmful processed foods, all designed to create a healthier brain and body and then helping to change many other habits.
So create a little “willpower” challenge for yourself and try employing the want, will and won't steps. I'd just advise, again, to keep it simple and doable. For example, I didn't try to tackle my whole diet at the outset, I just started with one bad habit of my eating patterns, then worked up from there.
And as we saw at the end of the post on my brain training exercises (which are great to use to help train our brains to change), one change often cascades into other changes as we "wake up" our brain's natural neuroplastic ability to rearrange itself in response to new tasks and demands, something for which there is volumes of evidence that music therapy can also help.
Now that we have a better understanding of the neuronal basis for "willpower", it is time for me to remind you of the importance and power of meditation. For it is practicing very simple methods of meditation that actually helps to build better control and build up "neuronal muscle" in the areas of the pre-frontal cortex that we looked at here today. My introductory post on meditation has some very simple steps to learning the kinds of meditation that will work just fine for our beginner purposes.
There is more to come to further understand habit change and willpower, but our goal here today was just a primer on a) why it's difficult and b) give some simple steps to start with.
To recap why change is hard:
Remember that when we are trying to create different mental or physical habits or reactions we in fact need to "rewire" small and/or large brain circuits. This takes both time and repeating new steps. This is important to understand when we set expectations for changing ourselves in any way. We must go into it knowing that it's going to take time and patience.
Changing of habits or habitual behaviours draws heavily on energy reserves and is tiring. This is another factor in why we may "give up" trying to change; our own brains sort of guide us away from change because they detect too much energy drainage. Again, we just have to be aware of this aspect of the challenge and if we are trying to change make sure we a) start off small so as not to overtax our energy reserves and b) take steps to make sure our brains are getting as much oxygen, hydration and nutrition as possible.
Stressful situations will tend to activate our stress response system and this will tend to activate older circuits and habits. This is quite natural and nothing at all to blame ourselves for; it is merely something we have to be aware of. Thus, if we look at our missteps and slips, I think we'll see that we were probably stressed at the time and this is why.
Understand that we're going to make missteps and perhaps fall backwards. This is perfectly normal and okay. We must remember self-compassion and forgiveness, allow for these stumbles and try again.
Understand that we're going to make missteps and perhaps fall backwards. This is perfectly normal and okay. We must remember self-compassion and forgiveness, allow for these stumbles and try again.