Banish that unwanted habit by building a substitute
1. Design your alternative habit
The brain needs habits to function. To escape an old habit, give your brain a new habit to run on. Design an alternative that meets your real needs, and plan the details of weaving it into your life.
Loretta Graziano Breuning is founder of the Inner Mammal Institute, which helps people manage the ups and downs of their mammal brain. As professor emerita of management at California State University East Bay, and as a mom, she was not convinced by prevailing theories of human motivation.
Editor: Nadeem Noor
2. Commit to the new choice
It doesn’t feel good to give up what you like, even with a new choice all ready. The old habit feels good because your brain connected it to your happy chemicals long ago. Those connections make you expect a good feeling even though you end up feeling bad most of the time. You can build new connections that make the new habit feel good, but there’s a catch. It takes new actions to build a new pathway in your brain, and it’s hard to take new action with your old brain circuits. The solution is to build just enough path to make room for your next step. It’s hard work slashing a new trail through your jungle of neurons when you could be coasting on one of your neural superhighways. You can do it if you commit your energy instead of spending that energy elsewhere. It’s easier if you watch others engage in the new habit, and visualize yourself enjoying all the steps involved. This electrically activates the new neural pathway, making it easier to forge the trail.
3. Repeat for 45 days
Your new pathway will grow big enough to feel natural if you repeat a new choice for six weeks. Until then, the old way feels natural and alarm bells may ring without it. Your brain linked that old habit to survival, so it tells you that your survival is threatened when you take steps that actually promote survival. The neurochemical alarm dies down once the electricity in your brain has a new place to flow. Once electricity can zip down a new superhighway, you forget to think about the old habit. The old pathway will always be there, ready to alarm you when reminders of the old habit activate it. But you will have learned how to redirect your flow instead of believing that the alarm is a real emergency.
Here are some simple examples:
Winnie the Pooh has a habit of gorging on honey. Searching for honey pots consumes his attention and he wants to break the habit. He decides to take up landscape painting. He loves having control over a blank canvas, and likes the idea of keeping his hands busy while out in nature. He buys paints, enrolls in a course, and packs carrot sticks to snack on. He thinks about honey a lot, and sometimes dreams about honey. It feels like he will die without honey in some moments. When the feeling comes, he goes to his painting corner stocked with crudités, and soon he is immersed in a new thought. In six weeks, he feels good, and wants to keep the good feeling. He knows he can do that by focusing on painting if his thoughts start flowing in the old direction.
Alice in Wonderland has a habit of getting high. Much of her past life revolved around getting high, so she wants a new habit that’s big enough to take its place. Playing the saxophone in a jazz band has long been a dream of hers. She dusts off the sax in her attic and starts practicing. She visits local bands and finds people to play with. She loves it, and starts filling her calendar with jazz. She still thinks about getting high, and tells herself it would improve the jazz. One day she yields to the urge and soon she’s too high to play with others. She doesn’t want to lose that so she plans 45 days of jazz-band activities. After that, the new life feels like who she is. She still longs to get high, but her new life is not worth the risk.
Homer Simpson wants to break the habit of losing his temper. He decides to read a novel for ten minutes whenever his temper starts to flare. He always wanted to read the Harry Potter series, so he happily downloads Book 1 and keeps it in his pocket at all times. He learns to notice the revving up of his temper and to stop for a reading break immediately. He feels great when he’s immersed in the book, and starts looking forward to it. He plans for lots of reading time so he doesn’t need to lose his temper to enjoy it. Suddenly it feels like he can have something he wants, and that relieves his anger. In 45 days, he’s near the end of Book 2, and he knows how to feel good no matter what’s going on.
Tinker Bell has a habit of feeling sorry for herself. She often feels left out when the other fairies do things, even though she doesn’t really want to do what they’re doing. Career advancement is what she wants. She loves computer graphics, and decides to focus on building her skills.She arranges her schedule to include lots of skill-building time, and when the self-pitying feeling comes, she pulls out her favorite creative project. In six weeks, she is proud of her portfolio, and knows how to manage her self pity.
“I don’t have time or money for a new habit,” you may say. But in truth, you always find time and money for your old habit. Old circuits have power because electricity in the brain flows like water in a storm, finding the path of least resistance. We are born with lots of neurons but very few connections between them. Connections build so easily in youth that we don’t notice we’re doing it. We are designed to build our own operating system from early experience. Your brain is not designed to delete your early circuits but to trust them as if your life depended on it. In the state of nature, people started having babies when they started having sex, and they lost their parents at a young age. They had to figure out how to survive fast, and the operating system they built from experience told them how. They did not repeat behaviors that felt wrong for 45 days. Our brains evolved to honor our early experience, and sound the alarm when we violate it.
The connections between your neurons make you who you are. These connections turn on your happy chemicals (dopamine, serotonin, oxytocin, endorphin) and your unhappy chemical (cortisol). Happy chemicals mask the alarm feeling that cortisol causes, but good feelings pass quickly because the brain chemicals get metabolized. Threatened feeling return, and people often rush to trigger more happy chemicals in any way that worked before. Happy habits are powerful because they mask the sense of urgency caused by cortisol.
Your brain thinks you’re putting out the fire, even as you’re setting a new fire. We are better off learning to tolerate our own threatened feelings instead of rushing to mask them. We will always feel threatened because the brain doesn’t distinguish between physical threats and social threats. Once your physical needs are met, your brain focuses on social needs as if your life depended on it. The social disappointments of your past built neural superhighways that turn on your cortisol today. You can learn to turn off that alarm instead of masking it with a happy habit. You can build new happy habits that support your well-being.
My book, Habits of a Happy Brain, explains the brain’s quest for happy chemicals, and shows how you can build a new happy-chemical pathway in 45 days.