Thursday, April 14, 2016

Staying in the Loop!

So, you think you're pretty good at making decisions, and you naturally assume most everything you do is under your conscious control - right?

Wrong! It turns out most of what you do and think and feel isn't under your conscious control at all. Your brain is in the business of gathering information and steering behaviour quickly and automatically and outside of your consciousness. It doesn't need you to stop and think. You operate day-to-day on multiple feedback loops - habits, that are hidden from view. As Pink Floyd put it, "There's someone in my head, but it's not me."

What happens when you want to change one of these feedback loops? How do you take back conscious control of your own brain?

First, you need to know something about the machinery of the brain. Habits emerge because the brain is constantly looking for ways to save effort. The process of habit-formation is a three-step loop. First, there is a cue, a trigger that tells your brain to go into automatic mode and which habit to use. Then there is the routine, which can be physical or mental or emotional. Finally, there is a reward, which helps your brain figure out if this particular loop is worth remembering for the future.

When a habit emerges, the brain stops fully participating in decision making. This allows it to stop working so hard, and divert focus to other tasks. Habits never really disappear. They're encoded into the structures of your brain. The problem is, your brain can't tell the difference between good habits and bad habits.

Creating a Habit
Habits are powerful, but delicate. They often occur without your permission, but they can be reshaped. You can create a habit by putting together a cue, a routine, and a reward, and then cultivating a craving that drives the loop. Cravings are what drive habits. And figuring out how to spark craving makes creating a new habit easier.

Want to exercise more? Choose a cue, such as going to the gym as soon as you wake up, and a reward, such as a smoothie after each workout. Then think about that smoothie, or about the endorphin rush you'll feel after the gym session. Allow yourself to anticipate the reward, and eventually that craving will get you out of bed and down to the gym every day.

Changing a Habit
The golden rule of habit change is you can't extinguish a bad habit, you can only change it. Here's how it works: use the same cue, provide the reward, but change the routine. To modify a habit you must consciously accept the hard work of identifying the cues and rewards that drive the habits' routines, and find alternatives. You can choose your habits once you know how they function.

If you believe you can change - if you make it a habit - the change becomes real. Your habits are what you choose them to be. Once that choice occurs - and becomes automatic - it starts to seem inevitable. Your habits have a central role in creating your happiness and success.