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The Science of Creating (and Keeping) Habits

February 04, 2022 5 min read

The article you’re reading was late. I submitted it two days past it’s deadline.

I have a good habit of starting my research well in advance for longform articles. I’ve got a bad habit of actually sitting down to write those same articles the night before they’re due.

When I saw this topic on our content calendar, I jumped on it. At the turn of a new year, I (like most) like to take inventory of where I’m at. I take time to shed some light on the best parts of my daily routine, and the bits that I’d like to alter or improve upon. I set my intentions to build or break my habits.

I started researching habits in December of 2021. It wasn’t hard to find input on the subject at all. I read two books by Ryan Holiday, coincidentally over the holidays. As the calendar flipped to January, just about every podcast I follow on Spotify released an episode about resolutions and / or habits. Whenever I went on a walk, I brought an episode with me. I listened along and took a few mental notes, but I hadn’t really heard anything novel that made me want to hit the keyboard. That is, until January 3rd. That’s when the most popular professor in podcast-land dropped his episode. Andrew Huberman released episode 53 of Huberman Lab right when I needed it most. For 110 minutes, he clearly and effectively explained “The Science of Making & Breaking Habits.” Finally, I had a tangible take.

With the information I learned in this episode, I can confidently share with you, from a neuroscientific perspective, why I struggled to write this article in time - again. Armed with this knowledge, my hope is that you start to understand what’s keeping your good and bad habits in place, and how you can effectively break or make them.

The Science of Creating Habits | Mukha Yoga

You’ve probably heard that humans are creatures of habit, but the degree to which that statement is true is actually quite remarkable. According to the scientific literature Huberman presents,up to 70% of our waking behavior is made up of habitual behavior. To fully digest that statement, it’s important to define what counts as a “habit”

What is a habit?

Google the definition and you’ll learn thata habit is “a settled or regular tendency or practice, especially one that is hard to give up.You may think that habits are the same as reflexes, but the key difference is that habits are formed (consciously or subconsciously) whereas reflexes (like blinking) are completely automatic from birth. Habits are formed, reflexes are instinctive.

The Science of Keeping Habits | Mukha Yoga

How do we form habits? How long does it take?

Habits can be formed consciously or subconsciously, meaning you can either set out to create a habit, or you might pick one up without realizing. Many bad habits (like nail-biting) may be performed subconsciously. Other bad habits (like smoking) come from conscious choice. Likewise, many good habits, like developing a meditation practice, come from purposeful action. Other positive habits, like hugging your dog every time you come home, seem to form without any effort at all.

You can consider a habit to be formed, when you consistently perform it without much thought or effort.The length of time required to form a particular habit can vary tremendously; from person to person and habit to habit. A widely cited study by Lally suggests that habit formation can take anywhere from 18 to 254 days!

Huberman explains that this huge variation can be chalked down to something he calls “limbic friction”. This term refers to our ability to overcome one of two states that might prevent us from taking action: laziness or anxiety. If you experience too much limbic friction while trying to perform a habit, it’s going to be tough to achieve. For example - take my writing. I tend to sit down to write my articles after a full day at my 9-5 job. I generally have a lot on my mind when I begin writing. Not to mention, the added stress of knowing the deadline is very near or has already passed. You could imagine, in this case, that my limbic friction is quite high. A more sustainable way to make my writing habit more effective would be to begin the task in a more relaxed state such as first thing in the morning, or after a brief meditation, thereby reducing limbic friction.

How can we break bad habits?

Looking to shed a bad habit? The tool Huberman offers is probably one you haven’t heard before. You may very well catch yourself in the process of performing a bad habit (smoking, staying up too late, overeating etc.) or maybe even the steps that led you there, but the key to changing your behavior comes in the moments that follow immediately after, says Huberman. Right after you perform the undesirable action, take a positive replacement action. The interesting, and somewhat counterintuitive part, is that the subsequent adaptive behavior doesn’t have to be a replacement to help break the habit. For example, if you notice you have been distracted from a particular work task, and have been mindlessly scrolling through Instagram, follow this action with one you’ve deemed as positive. This could be 5 minutes of breathwork, writing a page in your journal, performing a sun salutation etc. By doing so, you engage other neural circuits that can help dismantle those that lead to the so-called bad behavior. The mismatch between these two behaviors creates a sort of confusion in your brain that helps to loosen the hold of the bad habit.

"...the key to changing your behavior comes in the moments that follow immediately after... Right after you perform the undesirable action, take a positive replacement action..."

How can we make good habits sustainable?

One popular method to make good habits stick comes from James Clear, author ofAtomic Habits, who coined the term “Identity-based” habits. He suggests that involving a broader sense of identity is the key to forming habits that stick. For example, if you set the goal to practice yoga 3 times a week, that’s a good goal. A great goal is to practice yoga 3 times a week, because you’re the kind of person who values yoga. Attaching an identity-based meaning to your goals provides more depth and meaning, increasing the likelihood of success.

Sustainable Habits | Mukha Yoga

Victoria Maybee l Mukha YogaBy Victoria Maybee; All Rights Reserved @2022

To make your identity based habits stick, Huberman presents a very practical tool developed by Wendy Wood and colleagues. The tool “Procedural Memory Visualizations” is a very specific form of previewing the outcome you desire. In order to increase the likelihood of your new habit lasting, they suggest sitting down, closing your eyes and picturing each and every action step required to perform the habit. For example, if your goal is to develop a morning journaling habit, take a few minutes to vividly picture yourself waking up in the morning, turning off in your alarm, rolling out of bed, making the bed, walking to the living room, sitting down on the couch, opening your journal, picking up the pen, and writing. Amazingly, research finds that you may actually only need to perform this activity once in full, in order to strengthen the neural circuitry required to perform it! By mapping out every action you will take, you engage your procedural memory to form a mindset that limits your limbic friction and increases the likelihood that your new habit will stick.

Happy habit-ing!

Victoria Maybee l Mukha YogaBy Victoria Maybee; All Rights Reserved @2022