If this seems a little disheartening, hear us out: If you think about it, understanding the realities of habit formation is actually kind of a powerful thing. It relieves the unnecessary pressure to stick to a certain timeline, as well as the frustration of being unable to meet it. It’s a reminder that what works for a friend might not work for us, and vice versa. And above all else, it’s an invitation to start slow and small, because that’s more likely to set us up for success in the long term.
But in order to know what it actually takes to form a new habit, first we need to dive into exactly what happens in the brain during that process.
The Habit Loop
The habit loop is the three-part cycle that, with enough time and repetition, illustrates how your brain puts a certain behavior on autopilot—effectively turning it into a habit. A lot of the research around this phenomenon has been spearheaded by Dr. Ann Graybiel at MIT. In the late ‘90s, Graybiel and her team began to connect how factors like behavioral triggers and positive reinforcement help drive habit formation in the brain.*
To get more specific (and scientific) about it, a new or unpracticed behavior starts off in the prefrontal cortex, which is the decision-making part of our brain. That’s why kicking off a new habit can feel like tough work—we’re directly engaging that very active part of our mind. But with enough completions of the habit loop, much of the brain function behind that behavior moves to the basal ganglia, which is responsible for our instinctual behaviors—things like eating, sex and general survival. These are the behaviors we generally don’t have to think about, because they’re second-nature. A habit is formed when the new behavior in question falls under that category—and that’s when it’ll probably start feeling a lot easier.
Cue: Let’s start with the behavior itself. Say you want to get in the habit of taking your vitamins every day. (We might be a little biased but humor us, okay?) Your brain actually needs a reminder to make vitamins part of your daily routine; something that acts as a kind of trigger to engage in that habit.
What that looks like is up to you—the point, scientists say, is that it should be consistent (including, ideally, the time of day). It might be as simple as your morning alarm, or a post-it note that says “HEY, YOU: TAKE YOUR VITAMINS.” Pro tip: Research suggests that it’s easier to kick off a habit when you connect it to another, well-established habit or routine—this is called “habit stacking.” (Might we suggest placing your vitamin bottle next to your coffee maker?)
Routine: Next up is “routine,” which is simply engaging in the behavior in response to your chosen cue. The goal is that with enough repetition, this feels like a very automatic reaction.
Reward: Graybiel and her team have found that positive reinforcement is crucial to learning new habits, as it helps drive the changes in the basal ganglia that help facilitate habit formation. In other words, your brain needs a really good reason to return to that behavior. (Willpower only gets us so far before it becomes exhausting, right?)
In the case of something like coffee, that reason is chemical—your body craves the caffeine. But for something a tad more abstract, like committing to working out or—ahem—taking your vitamins, you might need to create more of an emotional tie. This can take a little reflection and in some cases, a lot of patience.