We’ve been talking about how to have a fresh start and make changes that last. That’s what today’s episode on how to use brain hacks for new habits is a perfect fit for our series on new year resolutions. How can we use the power of our mind to streamline life changes so that they become automatic and easier?
I’m sharing three practical ways we can use brain science to create habits for lasting change. These brain hacks give us practical tools to step out of bad habits, make new habits easy and fun, and make new habits do-able by making room for imperfection. Let’s get started!
WHAT YOU'LL LEARN:
- [0:42] The power of habits
- [2:06] Resources to support the development of new habits
- [5:05] A brain hack to get out of a broken habit pattern
- [10:00] A brain hack to make new habits easy and fun
- [19:23] A brain hack to make room for failure and flexibility when creating a habit
- [27:11] A summary of the brain hacks described in this episode
- [28:58] My wishes for the holiday season
[0:42] The power of habits
Today we’re talking about brain hacks for new habits, as new habits tend to be a focus for the new year. We don’t just want to make a change; we want it to be a habit.
We know the power of habits – James Clear’s book, Atomic Habits, is wildly popular for a good reason. The book talks about making a small habit and keeping it going day after day. We also know the power of habit is reinforced in our brains because the brain operates on habits. That is how the subconscious mind works. We can use habits to keep us doing what we want to do, and it becomes automatic.
New habits take 63-67 days to create in the brain. Because I have added habits to my life, I now don’t have to battle and fight with my prefrontal cortex about whether or not to take the action. The goal is to make things more automatic and move them toward true habits versus having to battle our own logical mind.
I’m going to share three of my favorite ways to make a habit effective and successful using brain science and including a few other aspects of understanding ourselves.
[2:06] Resources to support the development of new habits
As we talk about creating new habits, I want you to know that this is the third part of a three-part series. You can check out the other two parts to understand more about creating habits and creating goals, and how to do that by changing the mindset behind it (episode 144 / episode 145).
I also wanted to share a couple other resources I have available. If you want to create a new goal, I invite you to look into the goal setting workshop. This is an on-demand workshop that you can take any time. You can go through it at your own pace, get all the information, and repeat it as needed.
The resource that really undergirds everything taught here on the podcast is the Christian Mindset Makeover™. This is a nine-week course that I teach on-demand and live. It helps you to understand what it means to know how to renew your mind. It helps you understand why you get stuck in things like perfectionism, why you’re self-sabotaging, why you cannot just shake that worry or fear and surrender.
You may feel like, “I just don’t know that God loves me. I mean, I’ve heard God loves me. I’ve heard that my whole time I’ve been a Christian, but I can’t seem to operate from that.” The Christian Mindset Makeover™ helps you to understand what is going on in your brain from a brain science perspective, and then it also gives you the specific tools and the plan you need to be able to move forward.It’s a beautiful journey, including nine weeks of lessons you can watch at your own time. The live interaction with me is 12 weeks, as part of your enrollment. During those 12 weeks, you and I get to hang out on Facebook in a private group, and we also have Zoom calls twice a month so you can ask questions. You will also have email support from me for your brain priming process. The Christian Mindset Makeover™ is this beautiful marriage of going through the process in your own time, but you also have the incentive to work with me live and get your questions answered.
I also have a free workshop that teaches you the power of transforming your thoughts to transform your life. It talks about the Christian Mindset Makeover™ and *hint* it gives you a discount so it behooves you to go through that workshop first. You can find the free mindset workshop here.
[5:05] A brain hack to get out of a broken habit pattern
The first brain hack we’re going to talk about is a brain hack that helps us get out of broken habit patterns. This is that thing we struggle with where we feel like we can set up the habit and it’s all going great, but then we lose interest or something derails us. This is really the issue of willpower. How can we get past this issue of relying on ourselves to do something differently?
At this point, I want to share an audio that I did with my mentor, Dr. Shannon Irvine. She is the one who trained me in the neuro-coaching method, and she is my resource on all things neuroscience. She is a powerful speaker and a wonderful woman of God as well.
To listen to the audio, start playing the episode at time stamp [6:03].
Alicia: First, if you could start out by sharing a little bit about what you know from brain science about how the brain works in terms of forming habits. What’s that process like?
Dr. Shannon Irvine: We all do in the new year start to like, oh, okay, I’m going to do it this year. This is my year. And all of those things and what we’re doing when we’re doing that, we’re using – and I’m going to throw a few science-y geeky words out there but, um, I promise I’ll explain them. We were using our cognitive prefrontal cortex, which means we’re using our willpower. We’re using this, no different than a muscle that if you sat and, you know, used a bicep curl for, you know, you could do it for a little while and then it gets a little harder and it gets a little bit harder. And then if you’re trying to do it past like maybe a hundred of them, you’re, you’ve got a noodle for an arm. And that’s exactly what happens to our habits when we go, you know, and try to use willpower only instead of how habits are truly formed in the brain. So, to answer your question, how they’re formed and how you can actually hardwire them so you’re not even thinking about them, so they’re automatic is, it really does begin with the thoughts. We know from neuroscience that thoughts create emotion and thoughts and emotion combined after repetition become a belief. A habit is just a repeated belief. Why that’s important is just really understanding the cascade that happens in the brain. And the funny thing about this is, or the fun thing about this, and we can dive into that too, is that scripture completely and totally backs all of the scientific research that came up out after scripture came out. So all of this is in the book. All of this is there, which is really even like neuroplasticity synaptic pruning, like the reticular activating system – what you believe you’ll see – all those things are in scripture. We could chat about that. But the process in the mind, that science is completely validated now, is: the thought creates the emotion, that combines to become a belief if it’s repeated over time, and that belief, every single day you show up and what you believe gets created as a decision in your mind. And from that decision place is where our habits really get created, right? We decide every single day what we will put in our mouth and what we won’t put in our mouth. We think we have some kind of automatic control over it, but the reality is if you have a pattern programmed in your mind of disbelief around something happening, then you’ve got what we love to call in our community and automated subconscious program that runs 80-90% of your daily decisions and actions. If I’m trying to, I’m going to just pick something else out of the sky, like while I’m trying to lose weight or whatever the habit is that you’re trying, I’m trying to get a morning routine. We try through willpower, through like muscling it through when, if we just actually primed it into the thinking that we choose every single day to the point to where we believe it, then the habit is automatic. Then you don’t have to think about creating it. It gets created from the inside out.
It’s so important for us to understand that we can make new changes in our lives using willpower – we have to decide to do something in the moment. When we approach it from a mindset perspective, however, it doesn’t have to be just our prefrontal cortex running the show and deciding what we are going to do. We are setting ourselves up for success with these undergirding kind of mindsets that support it from underneath. It makes it easier to choose the right thing at that moment.
Check out Dr. Shannon’s work if you have any more interest in what she is talking about in terms of how it relates to business, because she specifically helps businesswomen. You can check her out at drshannonirvine.com.
[10:00] A brain hack to make new habits easy and fun
The second brain hack for these new habits that I want to talk about comes from behavioral science. Dr. Katy Milkman wrote a book called How to Change, and I have really been enjoying this book this fall. It has been super fun to learn about how different fields of study–psychology, brain science, and spirituality–address how to make life change.
Dr. Milkman’s background is in behavioral science and engineering. She has a unique approach to solving issues of motivation. We all have wondered why we can’t stay motivated, why it’s hard to make a change, and why we do what we don’t want to do. She takes that on from an engineering perspective, like a puzzle solving kind of mindset, which is so interesting to me.
This is a great book, but one of the things I wanted to pull out in terms of how to make new habits was a concept she shares about how to make new habits easy and fun. She advises us not to focus just on the long-term benefit, but also to focus on the benefit in the short-term.
Doing the right thing often feels unsatisfying in the short term. She talks about this idea of “present bias” which is the fancy way of saying “impulsivity.” We know we should take the stairs, but we’re tired. We know we shouldn’t be angry with a co-worker, but it’s satisfying to get out that frustration in the moment. We know we shouldn’t eat the donuts that are in the pantry, but we do because we’re tired, we’re hungry, and we just want to do it.
We need to identify the forces working against us, or the reasons why we don’t want to do something. Once we know what is keeping us from doing it and why it isn’t fun, then we can ask ourselves how we can make it instantly gratifying. Dr. Milkman gives the example of Mary Poppins adding the spoonful of sugar. She adds magic and fun little touches to make cleaning the nursery more fun.
Dr. Milkman also noted that we tend to be overconfident in how easy it actually is to be self-disciplined, which is related to what we were talking about with Dr. Shannon and willpower. We think the “future me” will be able to make good choices, but often “present me” succumbs to temptation. We overestimate what we will do, and we put a rosy spin on things like it will be better next time. It’s not a pessimistic perspective to say that we won’t necessarily make better choices next time. It’s a realistic perspective, because humans don’t always make good choices.
What she suggests, therefore, is not just relying on willpower. Instead, she recommends doing something called temptation bundling. This helps with self-control, impulsivity, and the present bias by combining the habit we are trying to create with something that we really want to do or that we find enjoyable. We can combine something negative with something positive. If you don’t want to exercise, you can bundle something like listening to audiobooks with going to the gym. Maybe you can only binge watch your favorite TV shows while you are folding laundry or cooking.
This year my husband and I started the habit of going for a walk every morning. What keeps me doing it is that I get to listen to non-fiction books on my walks, like this book by Katy. I am such a nerd about learning, especially about stuff related to the brain and mindset, that it motivates me to walk so I can listen to these books or podcasts. This morning time is really encouraging for me, as it allows me to feel like I’m starting my day by feeding myself the way I want to. I have also had to make the tradeoff that I’m not doing a heavy workout including weightlifting, but instead I’m going to walk because it gives me more joy and allows me to be consistent.
Another piece that relates to this temptation bundling is the idea of letting it be easy. There is a book called Let it Be Easy by a business coach of mine, Susie Moore. In this book she talks about how to avoid letting our own decisions and fears get in the way, and she encourages us to let go of things that make it harder than they need to be. I know I’m really good at making things harder than they need to be, so we need to ask ourselves how we can make it easy. How can we stop the self-sabotage? How can we let stuff go? These are great questions to keep front-of-mind.
[19:23] A brain hack to make room for failure and flexibility when creating a habit
These questions lead right into the third brain hack I want to discuss, which I would say categorized as a new spiritual perspective which has been incredibly freeing for me. God has allowed me to develop a new mindset around what it means to be successful, and this has allowed me to step into new habits with confidence and ease.
I mentioned this a little bit in the previous episode, but I want to go more into this here because when we can create this type of confidence and use it as a brain hack for creating habits, it makes such a difference. I now have the ability to make room for failure and to not be afraid of failure when creating a habit. I’m a lot more flexible and willing to experiment than I would have been before.
Let me explain what I’m saying. I have defined success as an immovable target. My success is based on obeying God, and my identity is secure in Him. There is nothing that can change how He views me and how He takes care of me. He will never love me more or less than right now, so I don’t have to prove myself to Him. I don’t have to do certain things to be loved by Him – I can just work, and exist, and try new things from the foundation that I am loved. I am enough, I am accepted, and I am worthy. So if that’s true, then all I have to be concerned about is obedience and all I have to do is obey God. If God is calling me to do something, I have to do it. It’s not always easy to do, but that is my calling and my responsibility. Whatever comes of the effort, if it’s “successful” in the sense of producing a certain outcome that I want, is up to God. My responsibility is to obey God.
For example, I obeyed God when it comes to the Christian Mindset Makeover™. I felt like the coaching I was doing was fabulous and getting great results, but it was limited. I could only offer coaching to a certain number of people because I only have so much time in a day, and it was cost-prohibitive to many people. When God gave me the idea to streamline it and put it into a course that could be offered in a self-paced model at a highly reduced price compared to my one-on-one coaching, I needed to be obedient. I had to follow through with creating the course and putting the curriculum together, whether millions of people will go through it or five people will go through it. My success is creating this habit that would have built the course. My success was defined by doing what God told me to do.
So when we think of it like that, it becomes much easier to create a new habit. We can be flexible and do what we need to do without feeling the pressure of “messing up”. My idea of being successful is not tied to the outcome of this habit or that goal. It is completely related to who I am in Christ, and that is immovable. God has been working on this in me for a good 6-9 months now. When we make these big subconscious changes, we often notice it most prominently when we’re put back in a situation that might trigger it again.
Last week, I tried a pottery class for the first time. I haven’t taken pottery since I was in college, over 20 years ago at this point.I remember really liking it and thinking it was fun, and so when it was offered at a local art studio in town I decided to do it. Part of my goal for 2022 is to be what I’m calling “more human”. I am trying to make room for new experiences and for people: being real with them, listening to them, loving them, and being generous. I am allowing myself room to be tired some days, and to make mistakes. This is part of being human.
So anyway, I went to the class and tried to make several different things. Every single one of them fell down until the very end when I made a cup – and I will work on that next week. When I was going through the process of creating these pottery items, the items would look good and then something would happen and it would fall down.
Before I had done this work on being content with the experimental side of things and being secure in who I was, I literally would have been crying while this was happening to me. I would have felt like, “Why can’t I get this? What is wrong with me? I’m so stupid.” Instead, without even realizing it, I was just kind of laughing about the whole process. I wasn’t mad at myself. Driving home, I really recognized this and I began praising God, because He gave me the ability to embrace this new habit and new adventure in my life. I didn’t feel that pressure to define if I was good or bad at it. It wasn’t more evidence of me not being good enough. It was really this beautiful opportunity to try something new and see that I’m learning. Next week, when I go back, those little pieces will still be waiting for me. I’m going to see what happens next.
That mindset did not just come because I believed it or because someone told me I was going to be fine. It was because I had learned how to redefine success. I had to learn how to make room for failure. I learned that foundational truth that there is nothing that can shake my identity. My success is just in obeying God, and that’s all I need to worry about. Everything else is just experimenting and having fun.
[27:11] A summary of the brain hacks described in this episode
I hope those three things are really encouraging and helpful. We don’t need to rely on willpower. We talked about being stuck in that broken habit pattern with Dr. Shannon, and using behavioral science to make new habits easy and fun with Dr. Katy Milkman, and how we can use spirituality in order to make room for failure while defining success as an immovable target and being solid in our identity in God.
All three of these things, and especially the final thing, comes down to creating and addressing the mindsets that are underneath. As I just shared, I could not have just told myself a thousand times that my success was already defined for me. I had to get to the root of why I already had that different mindset, and that’s the kind of work we do in the Christian Mindset Makeover™. And remember, you can check out the free workshop that provides practical tools to help you renew your mind and transform your thoughts – and get a discount on the Makeover.
I’m always here to continue to dialogue with you about these things on Instagram, and I would love to hear from you about how this series has been helpful. What have been some of the biggest takeaways for you? What are some things you’re going to try differently this year with your new year’s goal planning and habit forming? How are you going to approach it from a different perspective? I would love to hear from you.
[28:58] My wishes for the holiday season
I am going to be taking a break between Christmas and New Year’s to spend time with family and to give my podcasting team a break. This is a great chance for you to catch up on previous episodes, do some binge listening, or just spend extra time with family, loved ones, and God, and enjoy the season.
I hope you enjoy this wonderful time of year. The week between Christmas and New Year’s is literally one of my favorite times of the year because we’re all still in the holiday spirit but most of our busy-ness (and the pressure of the to-dos) has passed. There’s just this in-between loveliness where we can dream, think ahead, and really get quiet with God. I pray that you can take that time to do that, whatever that looks like for you – listening to some other episodes to encourage you, or just being silent beforehand.
I appreciate you, and I am cheering for you on this journey as you embark on your fresh start for the new year, and I will see you in 2022. I look forward to our conversations. Take care friends, and thanks for joining me today.
OTHER PODCAST EPISODES ON CREATING NEW HABITS:
- Ep 29: Change Your Life with One Small Shift
- Ep 32: Get Over the FEAR of Change and Choose What’s Best Over What’s Comfortable
- Ep 67: 3 Hidden Spiritual Growth Obstacles that Keep You From Growing Closer to God
- Ep 82: Overcoming Your Biggest Self-Care Obstacles with Carlie Kercheval
- Ep 98: How to Have a Weekly Spiritual Check-In
- Ep. 144: Creating New Mindsets for Fresh Starts + New Beginnings in the New Year
- Ep. 145: My Unique 3 Step Goal Setting Strategy to Achieve Your New Years Goals
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