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The Science of Changing Behavior

As the new year begins, I find myself thinking about how I can do things differently. While driving home, I heard the podcast from Hidden Brain called Creatures Of Habit: How Habits Shape Who We Are — And Who We Become. I was struck by the science of changing behavior and took the time to read the transcript. Like any good idea, I sat with the information for a few days to evaluate how it applied to my own life. What follows are insights from Shankar Vedantam's interview with Wendy Wood:

Conscious willpower is not the driving force behind sustained behavior change. We put willpower on a pedestal and shame people for not having enough of it. As it turns out, our beliefs and intentions are incapable of delivering sustained behavior change.

Habits are self-reinforcing. They stop being conscious and become automatic and unconscious. This is neurobiology, and our brain automating the process, so we don't use too much energy in making minute decisions. Think of this as learning to drive a car versus driving a car.

If you want to build a new healthy habit, make it unconscious and automatic. If you're going to interrupt a bad habit, make it more conscious, and be mindful of the habit as you're doing it.  Habits are shaped by short term rewards. Our brain responds with dopamine. This explains why eating sugar, smoking, or even gambling, are difficult habits to break since the behavior receives an immediate short term reward. Habits like exercising and healthy eating have long term benefits but no short term rewards. They don't necessarily produce a burst of dopamine.

To start a healthy habit - link your new behaviors with short term rewards, make it easy, automate your habit by inserting it into an existing routine. For example, if I wanted to start indoor cycling, I would reward myself by watching or listening to something I enjoyed and only indulged in when cycling. I would make this habit easy by setting up my bike on an indoor trainer in an accessible spot. I would automate this new behavior by designating a specific time to cycle within my existing morning routine.

To break a habit - make it difficult, be more mindful when doing it, and replace it with a rewarding healthy behavior. For example, If I wanted to stop snacking after dinner, I could post reminders on my favorite snack foods. The process of seeing these reminders would make me more conscious when opening the cupboard. I could reward my choice to stop snacking with a cup of mint tea. I could also have a conversation with a friend, pick up a book, watch my favorite TV show or take a quick stroll.

Whether you're starting or breaking a habit, use your neurobiology and ingenuity to help you create healthy, sustainable behaviors.

If you'd like to create a healthy habit, join us at Power Camp or invest in individual coaching. For more details, please email me at

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