What, but we hear this all the time? There are books and courses about it. I Googled it and found a list of 27 books on exactly that topic. So how can I possibly say that we cannot break a habit?
Well, it all happens in the brain. Since my crash and concussion I have spent more and more time studying how my noggin works in addition to why it sometimes doesn’t. When we try something new, we form a neural link that makes a connection called dendrites – which connect with synapses – are basically a pathway in our brain from one thought to one experience/memory. This new pathway is fragile and thin, speaking physically in the term of the actual cells making it up.
However, if we do that same thing again the path gets stronger. The body layers on more cells to thicken the connection. If we do it over and over again the brain starts building a covering around the signal structure to protect it similar to the black or white casing on a house wire. In the brain it is called a myelin sheath. It gets thicker and stronger and becomes a ‘good connection’, the signal happens quickly and easily – a ‘habit’ is formed.
Some habits are skill based such as walking or brushing your teeth. You build a stronger neural pathway due to repetition. As they say, “Repetition is the mother of skill.”
That pathway becomes so strong the signal always gets through due to the thickness of the dendrite and sheathing. This is why you no longer have to think about how to walk, you just do it. In fact, it’s so easy, you have your own swagger that is well beyond the basics. After my crash, I had to learn to do everything with my ‘other’ hand for a while. Simple things like eating, or brushing my teeth were extremely challenging. It was like I didn’t know how. Sure, I could manage the basics of each task, but it felt awkward, clunky, slow, inaccurate. The dendrites were fresh and fragile. I had to really think about it.
If you go to a restaurant and have a great meal with great service, you build a pathway based on a reward. Then, if you go again and the experience is repeated, the connection gets stronger. It keeps getting stronger until it’s your new favourite restaurant. Same goes for laundry soap, cereal, how we walk through the aisles at the grocery store every week. Habits form from past experiences.
In the case of things like non supportive foods or smoking the same process occurs. The food is eaten. You enjoy it. You feel happy. A path is formed. The next time the food is offered, you remember that feeling. The experience is reinforced and the neural connection made stronger.
Now, what if that food is making you overweight or sick? What if you realize that smoking is bad for you? You know you need to stop, but that pathway is really strong and the longer you have been doing this the stronger the pathway. Layer in a social situation like a campfire, or a bar, or a favourite activity, then all of that adds up and reinforces the habit.
Here’s what you need to do: You need to create a new habit and start doing the new thing consistently. Begin to slow down doing the old thing. For example with smoking, what if you start two new habits – exercise and drinking water. Let’s say you decide to go for a workout and then have a large glass of water before you can have a cigarette. Perfect. Two new good habits, one bad one. Next day you want a smoke in the morning so you go for a 5-10 minute walk, have a large glass of water, then the smoke.
Next smoking impulse maybe you do five push ups then water first. Later it’s five crunches, then water, then smoke. You keep this pattern going and the dendrites get stronger and stronger for the new habits through repetition. Slowly you will feel better physically and maybe not feel like another large glass of water, so skip the smoke. Slowly you have one less a day, then two, then three less smokes, but you keep up with the exercise and the water.
Here’s the magic – the brain is really efficient. The dendrite for smoking will start to slowly shrink as its’ priority and frequency reduces. This will take some time, but if you keep going with the new habits they will get stronger and the old one will start to fade. It will eventually lose its power and connectivity.
Have you ever learned something – like a second language or a course you took in school, but now the dendrites are so weak, you can no longer access that information? Same thing.
So keep after those new habits and just let the old ones fade away.