Making room for those new habits

You can learn a lot about forming new habits by looking at Pavlov’s dog, who learned to salivate at the sound of a bell. He (the dog, not Pavlov) used his brain’s basal ganglia to make the task of drooling automatic.

In the middle of the brain, sitting next to your thalamus, is a bundle of brain cells called the basal ganglia. These are not much different from the ones Pavlov’s dog used to drool. In fact, every vertebrate has that neuronal bundle. The basal ganglia are involved in a lot of stuff like grinding your teeth, biting your fingernails and saying “like” every sentence or so. They also drive your car for you when you’re thinking about something else. They make doing routine things a lot easier because we don’t have to think about them.

Think of the first time you used a cell phone to send an email. It was probably a bit of a struggle. But after you did it for a month or two, it became as easy as tying your shoes. That’s because your prefrontal cortex taught your basal ganglia how to send an email. It happened the same way when you learned to tie your shoes. You struggled at first. It was hard work, but by repeating the task, you learned to do it with almost no effort. Driving was the same way. It was hard when your PFC did the work, but it’s easy now because you basal ganglia took over.

The PFC and the basal ganglia work together to build wiring connecting all the different parts of your brain that handle a new task. As the saying goes, neurons that fire together wire together. That’s neuroplasticity — your brain changing to meet your needs.

The trick of making things automatic has a big survival payoff. Our brains are only about two percent of our body weight, but use 20 percent of our bodies’ glucose supply. We save energy when routine brain work is moved from the PFC to the much smaller basal ganglia. This also frees up our PFCs for more demanding work, like making decisions or talking about the weather.

Habits are easy. We don’t have to think about them. Intentionally forming a new habit is a lot harder. First, you need a cue — “When my alarm goes off, I’ll get out of bed.” Then you need your memory to remind you of your new intention — “The alarm went off, I should get out of bed.” Then you need willpower when the cue arrives — “I’ve really got to get out of bed.” Finally, you need time to repeat the behavior until it sticks ­— “Alright already. I’m getting up.”

In the jargon of psychology, you’ve changed intentional, goal-directed actions” into “habitual responses to antecedent stimuli.

How much time does it take to form a new habit? According to research by the UK Health Behavior Research Center, it takes on average 66 days. It varies a lot from person to person. More complex behaviors (driving a car) take longer than simpler ones (twirling spaghetti on a fork). The Brits’ research showed habits can form in as few as 18 days and as many as 254.

To build a habit faster, add a reward. “If I get out of bed when the alarm first goes off, on the way to work I’ll get a latte at Starbucks.” Now you have a feedback loop that sends dopamine from a little chemical factory called the ventral tegmental area (VTA) to a part of the basal ganglia called the nucleus accumbens, which is the brain’s pleasure center. Now the basal ganglia associate getting out of bed with a frothy coffee beverage. After a few cycles, your brain begins to see getting up as a good thing. You latte addiction begins to create a getting-out-of-bed addiction.

Forming a habit can be hard, but stifling an old habit is really tough work. Habits are wired into the brain and they’re there for the long haul. Let’s say you have one of hitting the snooze button. You can say, “From now on, when the alarm rings, I’m going to turn it off and jump out of bed,” but when the alarm goes off, it’s awfully hard to fight off the old wiring and follow your good intentions.

The more you practice a new habit, the less likely the old one will pop up. That’s because the new wiring gets stronger with use and the old habit’s wiring atrophies a bit from lack of use. The “get out of bed” wiring strengthens as the “hit the snooze button” wiring grows stale.

Under stress, old habits are more likely to pop up. That’s because when you’re under stress, your prefrontal cortex gives you tunnel vision, focusing strongly on the stressor. You get less help remembering the new habit and stifling the old. That’s just the circumstances the basal ganglia need to take over and kick off that old, comfortable habit. And that little bit of practice can be just enough to reinforce the old wiring. A battle ensues between the old and the new habit.

A better strategy might be to change the cue, such as buying an alarm with a buzzer instead of a ringer or get your spouse to pinch you. Even with all these tactics, you may backslide into snooze buttoning.

Another strategy is to disable the habit entirely by removing the target of the habit. In this case, you’d buy an alarm clock without a snooze button.

Is that old saying “You can’t teach an old dog new tricks” true? Pavlov had a lot of dogs in his laboratory. Some were younger than others, but they all learned to salivate on cue. The younger the brain, the more it can change. An old brain is filled up with lots of valuable stuff it wants to hang on to. It has to let go of something, but with enough willpower, room opens up for the new habit. And suddenly, you’re out of bed and on your way to Starbucks.

Bradley Harris is co-owner of NeuroSense Consulting, an HR consulting company specializing in neuroscience-based business coaching, management training, and leadership development. Contact him at


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