Brain Science – Episode #3

Humans and habits

The habit loop, behavior change, willpower & social influences

All Episodes

Mireille and Adam explore the habit loop, the role of environment as a cue, behavior change, the role of dopamine, willpower as a finite resource, and the impact of social influences on habits.

As with any change, we need to collect data. Instead of trying to change a habit right away, treat yourself like a scientist in a data gathering stage and experiment with different rewards to better understand your habit loops. Making and breaking a habit is different for everyone.


Notes & Links

📝 Edit Notes

Key takeaways:

  • Take stock of your resources
  • Look at the context of your own life
  • How does this benefit myself and my team/my board?
  • Accountability — who’s on your team?


Book recommendations:


📝 Edit Transcript


Play the audio to listen along while you enjoy the transcript. 🎧

Mireille, habits are something we all deal with, right? We all have good and bad habits, and these habits allow us to do things like behavior change when we are doing something we like, or dislike we just wanna change that… Sometimes it enables or inhibits burnout if you don’t do life well and you can’t bend your habits, or break them, or make them etc. And at the core of all that is this life balance that happens, because of this core thing that is really scientific - a habit. So let’s open up with habits, how they affect us, and maybe even deeper into what they actually are.

[01:39] So habits, i mean from a science perspective, just a neural network that’s been built repeatedly over time. I don’t know if you’re familiar with the neurochemicals, but what I mean by that is sort of like the messengers that are specific to the brain. There’s a key neurochemical that we call dopamine, that is really at the heart of habit formation. So habits are this embedded neural network, wherein this neurotransmitter says “That feels really good. Let’s do that again.”

“That’s a positive thing.”

Yeah, it’s a payout. So we are apt to repeat things that pay, very simply.

So how it pays for you, and how it pays for me, and how it pays for anybody else is going to differ, because who has the same brain?

So we are going to be more prone to repeat things, to do things over and over again that feel good to us, for one reason or another. And those things that we do usually have a cue; that cue is highly tethered to an environment. There’s also a significant role of social, community as a part of whatever habit we do, that also is going to make us more apt to repeat a certain behavior.

So habits, fundamentally, are - there’s a cue, then there is some anticipated response that goes with it, and then a reward that comes from that. This is why they’re hard to break. Because remember that - and I think we’ve mentioned this in other episodes, but we are electrochemical beings… And that means that we have this energy, and so there’s chemical processes, and there’s electrical processes. So where I’ve mentioned about how neurons either fire or they don’t, it’s an all-or-nothing sort of gig that when our brains are cued to respond, the neuron fires, and then it connects to all these other neurons, which together we call a network… And that, when I have that same cue, it’s like, the current just runs; it runs the same play.

[04:02] There’s a lot more research around this, even within the field of sports psychology, in terms of training… Because you want to practice training the way you wanna play, because your brain doesn’t know the difference, whether it’s a game or it’s practice.

Michael Phelps is a famous example of that recently in the Olympics, with his training methodology… How he wanted to execute his run, his swim, whatever it was, his meet or whatever term they use for that… So his daily routine was as if it was a winning day every single day.

Exactly, and there’s been athlete upon athlete… I’m totally blanking, for whatever reason, but there’s also a football player who always trained the exact same way. He was a running back and he would catch it, and run it to the goal as though it were an actual game… Because what you’re doing is building that firing system to respond a certain way. Ironically, it was Tony Dungy. Are you familiar with him?

He was the coach for the Indianapolis Colts for a number of years, but his whole methodology of coaching was based on this habituation, wherein he would train the player to respond or react without actually thinking; they would simply be faster in running a reaction, repeated over time, over time, over time, because that’s going to be more effective than actually thinking through “What do I need to do now?” in that moment.

Yeah, this idea of “Don’t make me think”, or having to put that – I mean, if you even just think about it in terms of latency, in terms of executing something…

…if there’s a measure of time in there, this latency buffer of a decision, if you can remove that, the timeline between cue-routine-reward is faster if you remove the thinking part. If you remove that buffered time for a thought pattern, or a new change, or a new choice. That might even be why it’s so addictive, because they’re so fast to do. It just happens before you even know it really even.

Exactly. So if you can even think of the acronym, CAR - Cue, Anticipated response, and reward. It’s like, you’re just getting in your car and running, all the time.

So the more that you cue yourself up in order to do a certain behavior, you’re just going to repeat that over and over and over again, which is exactly why it’s so hard to change them.

Yes. Gosh…

Right? So even thinking like “Why do I continue to do the things that I don’t want to do…?!”

Let me ask you potentially an Inception-level question - can a habit be a habit, so to speak? Are my bad habits actually habits as well? Am I prone to execute bad habits because that’s my habit?

Precisely, yeah. We all are. It’s not an Adam thing or a Mireille thing. It’s a fundamental human thing, because we just practice them over and over again. You’ve heard of even muscle memory…

Which is very interesting. Muscle memory is super-interesting to me.

Yeah, your brain is running a play according to what’s practiced. There ironically was a research study done around building thumb strength, and what they did is actually had people just practice moving their thumb or visualize moving their thumb, and whether or not it actually built strength in their thumb.

Is that right…?

Researcher - they’re crazy, right?

They’re just curious. The curiosity is endless.

So what they discovered was actually that even though just visualizing didn’t build the same amount of strength in the thumb without doing the actual thing, it still did. It still did…!

[08:06] I’m so hopeful…

There’s something I’m doing right now; if I’m doing it, I am gonna be amazing. I’ll tell you why in a second or two. Continue…

[laughs] Well, that’s the beauty of habits, and being able to change them… Because if you can identify the certain cue that’s going to make you default into running that play, welcome to the payout. So whatever we do, muscles will be built; we’re going to repeat the things that we practice.

I’ve heard a story once about some guy who went over to his neighbors and he was fixing his lawnmower, or something… And he was like “Oh, better you than me. I’m just not very good.” And just without any hesitation, the guy is like “That’s just because you don’t practice. You just don’t wanna do it.”

Oh, dang…! Burn!! [laughter]

We all make these choices around how much dividends it’s going to pay, and dopamine is at the heart of that. So imagine you’re gonna get a kickback. Your brain is gonna be like “Ooo, that feels good every time I do that behavior, because it feels good to me. It doesn’t have to feel good to anybody else, but if feels good to me, so I’m going to then go redo it.”

So we have to learn – everybody has a habit they don’t like, right? How do I then change it? How do I modify bad habits I don’t want? I have to repeal and replace. I have to acknowledge that there’s a habit that isn’t working well for me, and then look at how I’m going to rope in, how do I tether in a feel-good? Because that’s why I’m gonna do the old bad habit. It still feels good…

Right. It’s what you know, it’s what you trust, it’s easy, you’ve done it 1,000 or more, whatever… So it’s what you know. It’s comfortable.

And the familiarity. It is, and this is comfort. You’ve got it. Because I’m gonna repeat, even if intellectually I can be like “That’s not good for me. I really shouldn’t do that”, but my brain is still gonna be like “But remember…?! Remember that time you felt good? Here, I will give you a preview of what that felt like.”

Yes… My gosh, that is actually my inner dialogue..

What you’ve just said there is literally my inner dialogue. It’s kind of funny, because we will choose that comfort, and we’ll even rationalize to ourselves in the moment. Like you’ve just said, you don’t wanna do this for all these reasons, however it’s okay because we’ve done it before, or it’s okay because we haven’t been hurt yet, or this expected or anticipated result hasn’t happened yet, so we still have time to correct things… “For now I’ll just do it the old way, because it’s comfortable.”

Yeah. A lot of people will look at this in terms of healthy habits. Be it exercise, eating habits, but also relationships. It’s hard to break relationships. I always give the visual picture of the energy ball at the science museum; when you put your hand on it, all of the electricity goes to that area.

Yeah, I love that thing.

And so in all of our life, we’re going to repeat things… It’s like, whenever the energy is, no matter what. So if I can acknowledge that in some way, whatever I’m doing pays, then I can go “Alright, how do I hack it? How do I create an interrupt?” And interestingly, the way in which we hack it has to do with leaving the cue the same, and leaving the reward the same, but I’m going to run interference with that anticipated response, the middle.

[12:07] So if it’s in relationship, I’m always reacting, or I tend to yell when I don’t want to yell. Or procrastination; I tend to put off, like “I know, I know it’s not gonna pay to put this off, but it feels better right now to not do it.”

I have to go “Alright, how else might I imagine still getting some hit of dopamine, some feel-good from doing the less desirable behavior?” And the key is I have to look at what’s literally going to pay for me.

That could be as easy as just making a list and the initial interference is the list, and the reward is completing the list. If you wanna change a habit, sometimes just making yourself a list and completing a list is enough of an accomplishment, right? Because you wanna have some sort of positive thing that you can reflect on and examine as like, okay, when I hit this boundary again, I can remind myself of this successful thing I can do to start to create these large emotional states that begin to change and shape our neurons that fire etc.

Yeah, some of it is. Whatever we’re putting off, it feels - because feelings also play a role in this - more aversive to us in the moment, so that’s why always looking at what you don’t wanna look at. I am going to just start by looking at that thing that feels overwhelming. So be it laundry, a work project, a bank account, our eating habits… Looking at the data that I don’t wanna look at is a step. And then you’ll be like “I didn’t want to do it, and guess what I did…?” So now I get the emotional payout of like “I did the aversive thing, so… Yay, look at me! I can be proud of myself, because while that might not have been hard for anybody else, it was hard for me, and I know I did it when I didn’t wanna do it.”

So now I’m building strength. I wanna talk about some caveats to this, because I wish it were that easy and simple…

But it’s not.

No. Well, one thing I wanna talk about - there’s a social component to habits. This is also why they’re harder to break. If I’m hanging around with a group of people who do things, do behaviors that I don’t wanna practice, guess what I’m more likely to do?

You’re gonna be influenced by them.

Correct. Not because of desire… But if we take this whole sense of habit formation and put it way to the extreme, this would look like addiction. Be it I’m addicted to cigarettes, or I am addicted to alcohol, or any other more benign thing… But it’s harder to quit when our friend group - or it’s harder to change when our habits are embedded in our network, because who wants to lose out on that?

I mean, I live in a predominant military community, and I don’t think it’s this way anymore, but once upon a time you got more breaks if you smoked when you were working on a ship.

That’s true. Yeah.

Right? And so not only do you get a break from your job, but guess what you’re doing? You’re hanging out with other people.

Right. You’re mingling… It’s the watercooler.

Yeah! And we don’t wanna lose out on that, because that too pays.

Yeah, why would you wanna quit smoking whenever that’s your buddy time, that’s your hangout time…?

[16:06] Exactly. So looking at going “Okay, in what way am I getting a hit of social connection when I do this habit?” I can talk about it from a more aversive standpoint, like looking at it from people who are fearful of or overwhelmed by going into the weight room in a gym.

I bet you about several thousand hands went up just now.

Yeah. Well, if you 1) are going for the first time, you don’t hang out in the gym often, and 2) you’re not where you want to be from a health standpoint, and then you add in “I’m unfamiliar, so I’m going to look less than intelligent, or less than competent in that setting”, I’ve already got three hits before I’ve even imagined going in there. That’s just in the imagination part; that’s not in the actual doing.

So I’m not going to then be prone to be like “Yeah, I think I’ll go work out in a gym where everyone can watch me. I’m on display, I don’t know what I’m doing, and hi, you can see too I’m not where I wanna be health-wise.”

Yeah, so much discomfort there, a lot of assumptions too about what other people are thinking… Because they’re probably thinking the same thing. “Is he/she looking at me, judging me?” And then you’ve got this shame involved… How you feel about yourself is on reflection, big time…

But this is why if you’re like “Okay, so then would it pay more for me to adopt some other healthier habits, like exercise, in the comfort of my home, where I run interference with that obstacle? …or what if I join a training group that’s looking at doing a triathlon, or a 10k? Or I enlist another friend to engage in walking or running or swimming or Zumba, or you name it?”

Right. That’s why I like your idea of embedding the routine portion of it. You’ve got your cue… So to recap the mechanics of a habit - you’ve got your cue, you have this playbook that plays, this routine, and then as a result of all that you have a reward. So that’s the ongoing system of a habit. But you mentioned embedding this behavior change into the execution, the middle part of it, so the routine that you play out.

Embedding this change you wanna do into something else. On the note of health and fitness, one thing I’ve done to be more – because my hand went up when you mentioned hitting gyms; I don’t really care for gyms. And it’s not because I don’t like them, it’s just I feel on display, uncomfortable etc. What you’ve just mentioned. So what I’ve done is I’ve embedded my fitness into something I actually enjoy, which is mountain biking.

So now I’m far more fit today that I had been in the last several years because I’m habitually motivated by going out and mountain biking, and that’s a very high-fitness – you know, sometimes group activity, too. But it’s not the gym. But I’m getting very similar physical activity. So that’s one habit I’ve changed with physical fitness and health - by embedding this desirable thing into my routine.

Right, but you hacked it. And I would say the social component for you might be other people outside of your family, but also your family.

So you’re just loading on that dopamine, the rewards system, that’s like “I’m doing something that’s good for me, that’s good for my family. It has far-reaching implications.” So in that case, you don’t have to have this whole jury trial about whether or not you’re gonna exercise today…

Right, yeah.

…when you’re trying to do the rationalization to say “Let’s convince you that this is important, you know it’ll pay out”, wherein the other side of you is like “Oh, no wayyyy…!”

“No way!” Well, let me tell you the extended version of this.

[20:06] So my initial hack to getting to where I’m at is “Let me find something that’s fun to do as fitness, rather than feeling like a drone having to go to the gym, and being a robot etc.” Not that that’s bad. If it’s for you, it’s for you, whatever; it’s not for me. So one layer to this is actually now that I really enjoy mountain biking and I realize that I’m less physically fit than I wanna be, while I do get my fitness from mountain biking, it doesn’t mean I get stronger because of it. Over time I might, but it’s not like lifting weights, or strength training, or even particular training you might wanna do to be better at mountain biking, which is a lot of upper-body movement, a lot of legs, a lot of back, a lot of core…

So now I’m motivated by my initial motivation to hack my routine, to go to the gym! Oh my gosh, right?!

So I’m still executing on this y’all, but I’m so much closer to actually getting to the gym, because now I wanna be a better mountain biker, and I realized my limitations, and what I’m gonna have to do to get there.

Yeah, but do you see how you braided in, you moved it on over, so that your brain can see the payout? As opposed to it being a rational, ethereal “I know this in a non-relatable way”, your brain has real-time data that goes “Yeah…!!” So you just got rid of that whole internal conflict around whether or not I go, but rather you’ve found out that it’s going to help you both now and later in a myriad of ways. So your whole system just exploded.

I also wanna talk about the other aspect that is an obstacle, and that is willpower. Because you hacked over that, too.

Yeah. I’m still working on the willpower part. That’s a daily thing. So if you study willpower further – which I’m sure you have, Mireille; I’m mostly speaking to the general audience… Studying willpower is pretty intensive, because it’s a resource that does have limits.

We’ve talked about this ourselves, either on some sort of episode, or in a side-conversation, but basically you only have so much to go around.

Yeah, that’s the thing. Willpower is definitely a muscle. We have to consider that when we’re looking at building new habits or new neural networks, because I know that what can be commonplace is ending up more frustrated with ourselves or with others, like “Why? Why can’t I just fix this? I know better, but I can’t sustain it.” So it very much is rooted in this idea of willpower. I only have a limited supply. This is why it’s always easier to adhere to a new behavior or new regimen earlier in the day, when that’s bigger.

I don’t know if we’ve talked about this research study about the radishes and the cookies… Have I mentioned this?

We’ve definitely talked about it; I’m not sure if it made it on tape, so retell it.

Okay, so there was this research study done by psychologists wherein they recruited a bunch of college students (I believe it was) and had them not eat for some hours (I think it was four hours) before they arrived for the testing.

Come hungry, basically.

Basically. And then they had plates of radishes and cookies in three different rooms. One group, they said “Hey, we just need you guys to sit here, and you can eat as many radishes or cookies as you want. Just wait, we’ll be back in a little while.”

[23:50] The next group, they said “Hey, you guys can eat as many radishes as you want, but no cookies. You need to stay away from those.” And the last group, they were like “I know you see this plates of radishes and cookies, but you need to just totally abstain, alright? We’ll be back in a little while.”

So after some time passed, they came in and gave the different groups puzzles to solve. The only problem was that these puzzles weren’t actually solvable. Right, always psychologists, I’ll tell you.

Right… Pulling some sort of game.

Uh-huh… So what they found out is that the group who couldn’t eat anything, who had to abstain from radishes and cookies, gave up nearly immediately. They had spent all of their willpower to not eat that which was in front of them, when they were in fact hungry.

So they then didn’t have it to spend, so to speak, over in this other lane. So the results went down successively from that. The next group then worked on the puzzles for a longer period of time, and the final group, who was able to eat freely, just continued to work, continued to work, and continued to work, because they weren’t out of a supply.

So if you can, even in this process of modifying habits, be gracious with yourself, in recognizing that as there are other stressors, challenges, your resources internally are going to other things in your life, that you’re considerate of those.

I don’t know if you’ve ever heard of the acronym HALT.

I think it rings a bell, but refresh my memory.

HALT stands for Hungry, Angry, Lonely or Tired.

So I haven’t heard of this one…

It doesn’t matter whether you’re three, 23, 53 or 73. If you are hungry, angry, lonely or tired, you will inevitably make different decisions than if you’re not any of those. I’d say willpower is sort of fitting in some of these. Because it’s physiological. Your body is sending signals, “I am hungry. Feed me.” “I need more energy. I need nourishment. I’m lonely, so my emotions are frontrunner.” So there’s all of these different things that contribute to our personalized experience of stress, which will then affect our willpower, which then in turn affects how we run our habits.

So how do we then hack these and change our habits, considering these other factors? I would say one of the things is to take a minute to reflect on your resources. If you are in a certain season of life, so to speak, or psychosocial stressor that’s taking more of an energy draw from you - that’s probably not the wisest time to imagine creating a major hack in one of your habits.

Wow… Yeah. Timing has gotta be key then, right? Because you’ve gotta get through that time period to eventually be in a good place to do some change. So it seems like maybe even change can’t happen as often as we might like, because we’re often in stressful environments.

Right, and at least identifying that as a component. What I want people to do is consider ways in which they can set more successful or attainable goals. If I’m trying to change a significant habit, what are sort of many wins that are gonna give me that hit of dopamine, that maybe it’s not taking all of my willpower, but some of it. So then when during the day am I going to do that? I exercise first thing in the morning, and part of that is because I’m a mom, I work outside of the home, and my kids are in activities, my husband has other things… I have different roles and responsibilities. So if I don’t do it first–

You won’t.

[28:09] Yeah. So then it’s easy. It’s not really a decision, because either I do it right now, or I don’t. Period.

Yeah. Well, you have to think about your time, too. You might be able to put some time in in the evening time, but that would take away from other things you’re optimizing for.

Sure. And I might go “Well, okay, so if I wanna hack that, I could look at other things I could do in the evening with my family.” Or because seasons of my life have changed, and my kids are involved in activities that have access to a track that I could run in the evening, when I know my kids are cared for, they’re involved in some activity, I could also run the track. That wasn’t something that was accessible to me when my kids were under the age of five.

So look at the context of your own life, and think about “Okay, where am I?” And let’s start there. Because where you are, versus where your friend is, versus where a sibling might be… It’s all varied.

What’s interesting is habits seem so simple… You mentioned before how we can shame ourselves because we just can’t get it - relating to willpower - and we just can’t seem to get over X (whatever it might be) because we feel like we just can’t will ourselves over it. What’s interesting is that to really examine habits, and as a human try to establish good habits or change bad habits, is that it really takes a lot of self-awareness. A lot of key ingredients that are required to even be aware of a bad habit or good habit, and then to establish things - like you said, take stock of your resources, look at the context of your own life etc. to be able to have the right kind of tooling to do the job.

Yeah, most certainly. And interestingly enough - and I look forward to talking more about this in upcoming episodes - remember that our frontal lobe is responsible for a lot of planning and organizing information, but also self-awareness. I don’t know if I’ve shared this, but that is often impaired in people with brain injury, especially frontal lobe injuries. You could tell them something about what they do and they would be like “No, I don’t. No, I didn’t”, because they literally lack that capacity in their brain.

So self-awareness, aside from brain injury, is pliable. So you can grow, you can change your ability to be aware of yourself, and therefore what you’re doing, so that you have access to different options and recognizing what is going to be the buy-in for me then, in light of these stressors; what am I willing to give up so that I can get this other habit or aspect of my life to feel the way in which I want it to feel?

I really think that is a key part, because as we talked about initially too, feelings being fundamental to being human, not only are habits paying us dopamine, but other feelings, too. There’s other emotions that it’s like “I feel better. I feel more alive, energized, and even I like myself more when I don’t yell at my family, or when I don’t lose my temper, or when I’m simply more considerate and calm. I can enjoy myself, generally speaking.”

I would also say that – or at least that’s the question, whether or not control is a piece of that, too. Because when we’re vulnerable - which is a lack of control, right?

[32:04] …a bad habit may induce vulnerability, and a good habit may induce the opposite of vulnerability. Strength. So when we’re in bad habit zone - if that’s a figurative place to be - we feel vulnerable, and therefore we just feel less in control of our life.

Sure, and I would offer that part of that is really your experience, physiologically and emotionally, would be one wherein your locus of control lies outside of you. So I am only able to manage myself to the degree that I can manage everything in my world that I actually don’t have a charge over… Which doesn’t work.

So what we’re talking about, even with habits, is recognizing ways in which you actually have this internal toolbox, you have access to resources, strategies, skills, tools that help you do you to the best way that you can.

Yeah. Let’s equip people then with some particular tooling that they can use to recognize good and bad habits, and the necessary components to actually being able to change a habit.

Well, one of the things I wanna – because I tend to want to be specific and helpful… I don’t like to put things in good or bad, simply because things aren’t good or bad. But I would say habits as sort of preferable or not preferable.

Okay, I like that.

Or adaptive and maladaptive. Like it works well, or it works, but just not very well.

Right, right. So we have to throw away the nomenclature of good and bad habits then, is that what you’re saying?

Well, good and bad, because unless it’s really aspects of morality, I don’t want people to get stuck in more of a binary mode of thinking…

…like it’s either, or.

We need more shades of grey in this scenario.

Right. As really functional adults, we should do our best to live more abstractly, in the sense like everybody has a different sense of strengths and weaknesses, or what they’re more prone to practice versus not. But everybody – I want everybody to be literally their best version of who they are. Because we all work together, because we are social creatures, we’re all gonna do better when we are our best self.

I’m glad you said it that way, because I would even put that in the toolset to recognize the more shades between white and black, not just binary one or two, when it comes to understanding your personal habits, whether they’re (as I said) good or bad… But in your case, you’re suggesting that we be more flexible, and I agree with that, because – I would actually see that as a tool to put in the folks’ chest, or into their tool bag, to deal with habits.

Well, yeah, because ironically, our brain, when we’re computing things as an either-or, then we’re in trouble with ourselves, because “Now I’m on this side of the cliff, versus that side of the cliff, and there’s a canyon or a chasm, and shoot– now I’m screwed, because I’m on the wrong side.”

Right, right.

So now I’m gonna amplify my brain’s threat response of like “I’m in trouble”, and this is dangerous, even when I don’t want to be. So - awesome, I’m glad that’s at the forefront of this.

I like that.

We wanna think more abstractly. And you talk about optimizing - how do we be our optimized self, and does that have to look the same as anybody else’s optimized self?

[35:56] Second to that, we talk about having a sense of awareness, and the awareness would look like “Does it work for me? Does it take me closer to or farther from my goal?”

Right, the things you’re trying to do in life, whether it’s career, or personal, or whatever the scenario is. What your long term goal is, essentially.

Yeah, I love it - I don’t know if you’ve read the book Essentialism.

Yes. I say it faster because I love that book. One of my favorite chapters is Protect the Asset.

Yeah…! And see, we are all so uniquely designed, and we’re all designed to play a part within the greater whole. What we could do is amazing, amazing. But the whole premise of this book is like – I love the initial chapter, where he’s like “Quit doing everything that you don’t wanna do.”

[laughs] That seems so simple. Great advice. Book done.

Right?! [laughs] But for us to begin to see, “What do I just naturally do? What would I do independent of getting paid to do it? I don’t need anybody to ever pay me to read a book. I’m going to do that. I can’t help myself…”

Wouldn’t it be nice to be paid to read books though? I mean, come on now…

[laughs] It would.

As many books as you read, if you had a penny for every book you read, you’d be a thousandaire, or something. I’m just kidding…

[laughs] But recognizing that this is part of the unique design. So how then do I hack my unique design that’s going to work? And I also think of that – now I’m gonna pull in (while we’re unique) that social component of going “We’re all embedded in other relationships and families.” So just like you talked about the way in which mountain biking not only works for you, but with your family, I think of it like my team - like, who’s on my team? Who am most often around, that accompany me?

In the world of brain injury talked about our board of advisors, because their brains didn’t work as well. Like, “Who’s on my board of advisors?” Who would assist me in being my best me, that my choices actually have a direct or indirect impact on them?

Yeah, that’s true.

…so that they’re gonna help keep me accountable. Because we know that accountability, ironically, increases the likelihood of us reaching certain goals or habits that we want to achieve.

Right. For the simple fact that we don’t wanna let people down. If I was counting on you to do something and you let me down, you would feel bad about that, and that’s not a good thing, obviously. So you wanna feel good, and the natural thing would be to follow through with whatever I was thinking you should do, based upon our goal-setting, or whatever.

Right, so identify how this new habit would actually not just benefit you, but work well for the other people with whom you’re in relationship with.

Yeah, don’t put yourself in isolation with your decision-making, because if you’ve made a choice to change a habit that you felt was more desirable – is that what you said, desirable/less desirable, in terms of the polar opposites in this example? If you went that route, then it was more desirable for you, it had a positive outcome, but it had negative outcomes on other people that were very close to you, then you might wanna reconsider that choice.

Right. Recognizing that it’s not just me that gets to benefit from it. They’re gonna help keep me accountable, and it’s like there’s additional dividends.

Right. So an accountability partner is a key aspect in this toolset of habit understanding, and formation, and change.

Yeah. It’s just going to enhance it.

[39:53] If we’re looking at the social component, identifying our resources, then go “What nuances, what am I going to now replace it with?” I’ve identified how it doesn’t work, how it’s gonna benefit me, so I can hold that… And sometimes even putting that in your visual field, because we’re all sort of dense. We just forget because we’ll be distracted by X, Y or Z…

Oh, yeah.

Ironically, we don’t want to look at what we’re not doing. So if I put up on a calendar, say it’s like “I want to mountain bike four times this week”, put an X on the calendar when you do it, because you’re not gonna wanna look at a calendar that’s empty.

Right, yeah.

And identify then how you’re going to replace it. So if I’m looking at my day, and the context, and saying “I’m gonna be more prone to do this in the evening, based on my work schedule and my other social relationships, my family can join me etc. I’m gonna put it up on the calendar”, then I have to go “What’s my default? What’s my previous habit that I do?” For example, a lot of people, if they’re working outside the home, I could imagine one obstacle or default would be they come home and they’re like “I’m done. I’m tired. I’m not changing clothes. I’m gonna sit on the sofa and turn on the TV.”

Yes… Playbook plays out. TV watched. 11 o’clock. Now you crack open the ice-cream… Just kidding. [laughter] We’ve gone the whole wrong way. What I love though is what you said there, and I don’t know if the audience heard this as clearly as I did, but you said “Look at what you wanna do, your desired outcome, the desired thing to do, and then look at what you’re doing instead.” So if it’s me mountain biking or going to the gym or whatever it might be, and instead I get home tired and I just sit down, what’s the routine that plays out as part of the cue of getting home? I wanna get to the gym by six; what am I doing instead of getting to the gym by six? Those are the things I need to replace. Is that right?

Yeah, yeah. So if that’s the time that I’ve identified that that’s when I’m going to implement a new habit, then I need to look at how do I hack it? And I would say “I’m not gonna go home.”

Go right to the gym.

I’m gonna go right to the gym, I’m gonna take my bike with me… And really brainstorm. It doesn’t have to be just one, but you have to identify the replacement, because retrieval at that time, in that moment, is going to default back to–

To your comfort zone.

Because you’re probably tired, lonely or hungry, too.

Yeah, exactly. On testing - there’s all different ways to test. We can test via forced choice, like I will give you “Pick A, B or C”, or there’s like “Tell me - you have to retrieve the entire response, what would you do in this situation.” Forced choice answers, multiple choice answers are always easier, because I don’t have to do a full retrieval.

So in those moments when your brain has other things going on, the retrieval - not because of something that’s personal to you, but rather because you’re human - you’re not going to be apt to withdraw in that moment.

Yeah, that’s so true. There’s a lot of things in the moment we can’t – it often happens actually in forms like this, where you’re speaking publicly, lots of people are listening, and you sort of get one chance to say it right; in retrospect, you’re like “Oh man, I should have said that thing instead of this thing.” But in the moment, there’s just too much going on for you to truly recall what you might have wanted to do.

[43:50] So imagine you’re creating a forced choice option. I’m saying “I can take my clothes with me, I could change there at work, or I could figure out a way that a gym is in-between my work and my home, versus having to drive past my house. I could actually alter my route home so as to include that, or I could look at who I’m going to meet at work, or at home, or whatever, making myself accountable”, so that I’m pulling on these different threads to help make me more accountable to the follow-through.

So accountability, whether it’s self-induced, or literally another human being - it seems like a key system to this as well.

It is, it is. Because accountability - it’s sort of like I can’t lie to myself… So long as I don’t say anything, it only exists in my mind. I didn’t make it real.

Right, right. Until it’s real, you don’t really do it. You can get away with it. I understand that so well, it’s funny.

Yeah, because there’s like this opportunity for judgment, which then we could look at guilt, condemnation, shame - pick the negative emotion - for the lack of adherence. So long as I keep it coveted internally in my own brain, nobody knows.

Yeah. So if there was one core takeaway for habits, behavior change, cues, routines, rewards, dopamine etc. around this subject, what would be the thing that gives the listeners confidence in changing habits and establishing good routines for themselves when they’re typically doing something they don’t like to do? What’s a good takeaway here?

I think that it’s really important for people to recognize and identify that they have to get a buy-in. They’re never gonna be apt to change a behavior unless they are really uncomfortable, can recognize that there is a way in which the alternative, the desired behavior provides them an immediate benefit, and that that has to be achievable and repeatable. If I can only hit the mark on one occasion, I’m not gonna repeat it. But I want whatever I set as the payout to pay out repeatedly, because I’m really working on building an entirely new network in my brain, that says “This is the way to work we go.”

Yeah. It’s interesting to think of it like that, too; it’s like, you’re establishing new pathways, and some expectation of forging new pathways is sometimes pain, discomfort, potentially pleasure… But there’s a lot of the things that come in with the building process of anything, right?

Yeah. And that’s just it. At the beginning it’s always going to take more stamina, because I’m pushing a rock up the hill to do this harder thing, but it’s just unfamiliar; it’s just not well-practiced. So if you can give yourself the time and the opportunities to repeat it, then you are more likely to get where you want to go. But don’t try to make these huge, sweeping goals and changes all at once. I mean, if I am hiking down a forest or pathway through a forest, it’s gonna take me–

One tree at a time.

Yeah. So don’t get weary, don’t get upset when you don’t reach what you expected to reach or get, and don’t get weary… Because you’ll get there. Maybe not in the time – so I would offer to hold on to that intention, hold on to that desired idea of where you want to be and how you wanna feel, and not the specificity around a particular goal immediately at that time.


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