Habits and how to break them

Dec 5, 2023

Habits and how to break them

We now understand much more about habits.  In this blog, Deborah Hulme explains how habits are formed in the brain, why they are so difficult to break and how to break them.

Our brain automates as much as possible so that we can function effectively and efficiently. Habits are essentially repetitive behaviours that we have hardwired into the deeper automatic and unconscious parts of our brain. Our mind, our thinking capability, has little involvement with embedded ways of behaving.

A repeated movement or thought causes the brain cells activated to form a pattern, creating a circuit, which once established responds the same way every time a similar situation arises. It’s known as Hebb’s Law – cells that fire together wire together.

Our default method for changing a habit is to focus on what we want to change

Breaking a circuit or habit, once established, is difficult. Not helped by the fact that our default method for changing a habit is to focus on what we want to change. The more we focus attention on the habit we want to break the stronger the existing habit wiring becomes.

Neuroscience suggests that to break a habit we should ignore it and focus our attention instead on creating new wiring to form a new circuit. It being far easier to create a new circuit than undo the old one.

It is helpful to remember 3 things around habits:

  • The old circuits never fully disappear
  • With lack of use these circuits weaken
  • They are easily reactivated if put back in use, which is why so many diets are doomed to fail

Focused attention is essential in order to break habits

Focused attention is essential. It is the glue that holds the brain areas in place in an activated state long enough to form the connections needed to create new brain circuits. Hebb’s Law. Cells that fire together wire together. Focused attention combined with action creates a habit.

The brain does not care whether the habit is good or bad, healthy or unhealthy it will rewire to create new circuits or strengthen old ones in response to what we are thinking and what we are doing.

New habits are tiring

New habits are tiring.  It takes time to rewire the brain and until a new habit is established, it is a tiring process. Established habits sit as part of our unconscious processing – we are not required to think or use valuable energy resources. To create a new habit we are, which is why it is helpful to work with a supportive partner, coach or mentor.

Positive feedback is also important, as laughter and praise strengthens new wiring

Positive feedback is also important, as laughter and praise strengthens new wiring. To successfully create a new habit ignore the old one, focus attention with action on the new habit alone, take reinforcing feedback and understand it is a tiring process so do solicit the support of those who can help.

We explore habit formation in more detail in the Change Well module of our Brain-Friendly Change programme, for more information on this or any of our other workshops and programmes, please get in touch at engage@minervaengagement.com.