Habit Formation

Dec 28, 2022

If you’ve struggled to develop healthy habits like meditating or running in the morning, here are some tips from the science of habit formation.

According to Dr. Andrew Huberman, a professor of neurobiology and ophthalmology at Stanford School of Medicine, a habit is something that your nervous system has learned consciously or not. Learning takes place through changes in the connections between the neurons. This is called neuroplasticity. Your nervous system changes in reaction to experiences and new neural circuits and pathways are formed.

The goal of habit formation is to make desired behaviors automatic so they require less effort. We don’t need to send instructions to the brain to perform them. The neural circuitry fires automatically.

Contrary to popular belief, it actually takes anywhere from 18 to 254 days for a habit to be formed depending on the individual. The length of time depends on how well an individual manages what Huberman calls “limbic friction”— the effort required to overcome 1) anxiousness or 2) fatigue and laziness. Less limbic friction equals easier habit formation.

Some of our habits are more strongly engrained than others. The strength of a habit depends on 1) how context dependent the behavior is and, 2) how much limbic strength is required to execute it. Tooth brushing is a great example of strong habit for most adults. There is little resistance to overcome before engaging in it and it’s not tied to any particular context or place. Meditation on the other hand, may not be as strong a habit because more limbic strength is involved, i.e., you need to overcome fatigue or anxiety before you do it.

One way to enhance habit formation is thinking through each of the steps involved in the behavior. This mental rehearsal sets in motion the neurons that will be used to actually do the task so the limbic friction is reduced when you actually do it. For example, thinking through all the steps of getting up early to run makes it easier to actually do it. You can also reduce limbic friction by putting out your running clothes the night before.

Another way to form new habits is by linking them to your linchpin habits. These are things you enjoy doing and require little effort, e.g., strength training. So, if you’re trying to make ice baths a habit, try doing them after your linchpin habit of strength training. If you want to make gratitude journaling a daily habit try linking it to your morning coffee, another common linchpin habit.

Lastly, another way to accelerate habit formation is capitalizing on the brain and body’s natural rhythms. The first 8 hours of your day is when you are most alert. And your levels of norepinephrine, epinephrine, dopamine and cortisol are elevated. These chemicals enhance learning, motivation and focus. So, this is the best time to take on challenging behaviors, i.e., those with more limbic friction, that you want to make regular habits. If you are struggling to exercise or meditate regularly, try doing these things in the morning.

Try some of these science-based tips to develop healthy habits and you just might find it’s easier than you thought.

Dr. Lisa Napolitano is an expert in cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT), dialectical behavior therapy (DBT), and other mindfulness-based treatments. A licensed psychologist in New York and Florida, she is the Founder and Director of CBT/DBT Associates, a boutique psychology practice group. Dr. Napolitano is an expert in the treatment of stress, anxiety, worry, and emotion regulation problems. She has specifically designed her treatment approach for executives, attorneys, and other high-functioning individuals whom she believes shouldn’t have to sacrifice their careers to manage their stress and work on developing their potential.

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