How to help your brain form healthy habits and break the bad ones

Article content

Setting goals for the new year can be daunting. Forming new habits and breaking old ones isn’t easy, but it’s far from impossible.

Advertisement 2

Article content

“The brain is very plastic, that is to say very changeable,” said Susan Hillier, a professor of neuroscience and rehabilitation at the University of South Australia.

Article content

Hillier compares a new habit to a shallow, new river bed where water “can flow somewhat unpredictably in multiple channels.” Deepening the channel – the pattern of neural firing in the brain – takes practice. “The more you practice and refine, the more the pattern will become subconscious and become your new default,” Hillier said.

Deep within the brain, a network of regions called the basal ganglia, specifically a structure called the putamen, plays an essential role in turning practice into habit. The putamen is “like a learning machine,” said Kyle Smith, a professor of psychological and brain sciences at Dartmouth College in New Hampshire. If you’re practicing something new, each time you begin, there’s a brief surge of activity in neurons in the putamen – like the start signal at a track meet – propelling the behavior forward so that it can become a habit.

Advertisement 3

Article content

Practice is crucial to forming new habits and making them stick. But finding the motivation to get started and follow through isn’t always easy. Here are some science-backed strategies that could help.

1. Set your goals wisely

When you set a goal, try to make it intrinsically motivating, said Juan Pablo Bermúdez, a professor at Externado University of Colombia in Bogotá and research associate at Imperial College London who studies self-control and willpower. “There is solid evidence that we are better at sticking to activities that we want to do than to activities that we have to do,” he said.

Bermúdez also advises against making all of your goals challenging to the point where failure is highly likely. “When you have a goal and you fail, it’s very disheartening,” he said. “That can have a kind of domino effect on all of your other motivations.”

Article content

Advertisement 4

Article content

Instead, give yourself a mix of goals, including some easy wins, to help boost motivation.

2. Be specific with your goals

Research has shown that attention and focus improve if the goal is specific. A study found that in a reaction time test where participants were asked to press a key as soon as they saw a symbol appear on a computer screen, providing a specific goal – to react in under 400 milliseconds, for example – led to better results.

As you set goals, avoid thinking only in “distal goals about achievements that you’d like to achieve in months or years,” such as getting a 4.0 GPA or starting to eat healthier, said Matthew Robison, a psychology professor at the University of Texas at Arlington who conducted the study with his colleagues.

Advertisement 5

Article content

Instead, he said, think about what it will take on a day-to-day or even moment-to-moment basis, which “can really keep your attention squarely focused on what it is that you’re trying to accomplish.”

Bermúdez suggests specifying not just what you’re going to do but where, when, with whom and any other details you can pin down.


We apologize, but this video has failed to load.

3. Choose a conducive environment and provide context clues

“In terms of forming new habits in the new year, repetition is key, but also being aware that the context makes a great deal of difference in terms of how the brain latches on to things,” Smith said.

If it’s exercise, for example, aim to do it at the same time of day and create visual reminders, he said. “I’ve heard people say they set out their gym bag, shoes,” Smith said, which can help. It provides a signal that something needs to happen.

Advertisement 6

Article content

Hillier also said to use external cues to remind you to break old habits. These could be notes or alarms, for example. “Yes, sleeping in is delicious when compared to getting up early for a run,” she said, so maybe disrupt that with an alarm clock and an excellent coffee afterward.

It’s also important to identify when your environment creates a motivational conflict, Bermúdez said. For instance, if your goal is to drink less alcohol, going to a bar is going to affect that motivation.

Bermúdez studies willpower, which he describes as a set of tools that allows us to steer our choices to align with our goals. Choosing an environment conducive to a goal is one tool. Another tool is rewarding yourself along the way.

4. Reward yourself

Advertisement 7

Article content

Providing a reward – even just a small treat – can help things stick, Smith said: “The brain loves these hits of reward to say ‘do that again.’”

Receiving feedback is another form of reward and improves performance, Robison said. Feedback can come from others or yourself, and can be as simple as physically crossing goals off a to-do list. “That’s a visual, tactile sensation of ‘I did that.’ And that is rewarding, right?” Robison said. “Even if it doesn’t carry any specific extrinsic reward like a monetary bonus.”

Bermúdez scribbles his New Year’s resolutions on a piece of paper that he carries in his wallet all year long. “And sometimes I just find it and then I remind myself, ‘How am I doing with this?’” he said. “And that actually helps me reassess and get back on track if I need to or congratulate myself if I’ve done well.”

Advertisement 8

Article content

“Guilt is not a sustainable motivator,” Hillier said. “Move toward a positive reward.”

And if rewards still won’t do the trick, there are other options.

5. Expand your tool kit

Sharing your goal with friends to stay accountable or making a more public commitment, on social media for example, can be helpful tools for some people, Bermúdez said.

Reframing the benefits of a goal can also be a powerful tool. If your goal is exercise-focused but the physical and psychological benefits aren’t motivation on their own, reframing time spent exercising as, “Oh, this is a chance for me to catch up with my podcasts or with the music that I love, or it’s a chance for me to go outside,” can be helpful, Bermúdez said. Conversely, to break a habit, “focus on the negatives of the tempting action,” he said, because it will start to look increasingly less appealing.

Advertisement 9

Article content

Bermúdez said it’s important to monitor if the strategy you’ve chosen is working and, if not, to be open to trying others. You may even need to reevaluate the goal itself.

6. Show yourself compassion

If it feels like a massive struggle to adapt, and you find yourself failing a lot, consider that you might be trying to force yourself into doing something you shouldn’t, Bermúdez said. Revising your goals doesn’t make you a failure.

“Sometimes it’s the brave thing to do when you face the problem and you take a different path,” he said.

For more health news and content around diseases, conditions, wellness, healthy living, drugs, treatments and more, head to – a member of the Postmedia Network.

Article content