In 1960, India presented President Eisenhower with a gift. That gift was Mohini, a rare white tiger. For years, a 12-by-12-foot cage at the National Zoo in Washington, DC, was the tiger’s home. Sadly, Mohini spent her days endlessly pacing the cage’s perimeter.
Zoo staff and scientists worked to build Mohini a new multi-acre enclosure. This natural habitat featuring a pond, vegetation, and variable terrain presented Mohini with a new lease on life.
On the day Mohini was introduced to her new enclosure, she retreated to a corner of the compound. This corner was where she spent the rest of her life wearing a 12-by-12-foot pattern in the grass. 1 2
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Like Mohini, humans also get stuck in patterns of harmful behavior. Bad habits like spending too much, overeating, or constant procrastination can ruin your ability to excel in life.
If this sounds like your life, you’re not alone. Studies show that more than 60% of Americans admit to having bad habits they want to break. 3 Unfortunately, breaking bad habits is easier said than done.
In this article, I’ll show you how to break bad habits and build good ones. To do that, I’ll explain how you can rewire your brain using the five factors of neuroplasticity.
Neuroplasticity allows your brain to automate behaviors that once took concentration.
If you’ve learned how to type, you are familiar with this process. At first, moving your fingers into unfamiliar positions takes immense focus. Yet with time, you gain the ability to type words with ease.
Neuroplasticity is beneficial for two main reasons.
1. It saves energy. Focused conscious thought uses a lot of energy. So it would be inefficient if you had to focus intensely every time you performed a routine task like walking. In contrast, automated behaviors occur primarily on a subconscious level and are far more energy efficient.
2. It frees up cognitive resources. You can only give your full conscious attention to one thing at a time. So by automating behaviors and passing them off to your subconscious mind, you free up your conscious mind for other tasks.
Your brain works a lot like a written language. For example, consider the English language.
The English language contains 26 characters. These individual characters carry little significance. But, when combined in specific patterns, letters create words that have meaning.
Similarly, the adult human brain contains roughly 86 billion neurons. 4 Like the letters of the alphabet, individual neurons have little significance. But, when connected in networks, neurons create neural patterns that store things like thoughts, memories, and habits.
Incredibly, your brain adapts, allowing it to learn almost anything. So if you are learning a new language, your brain changes its neural structure by creating new neural patterns for that language.
These new neural patterns are initially weak, requiring effort and concentration to recall. However, as you repeat a behavior, its neural pattern strengthens. Once a neural pattern is strong enough, it’s recalled automatically and with little effort.
Habits and automated behaviors guide much of your life because your brain is inherently lazy. Essentially, your brain takes the path of least resistance when it can. If you have good habits, this is excellent news. But if you have bad habits, this tendency can lead to trouble.
Thankfully, you can strengthen helpful neural patterns and weaken the harmful ones using the five factors of neuroplasticity.
Five factors, alertness, focus, frequency, recency, and sleep, alter the strength of your neural patterns.
Here’s an explanation of the five factors of neuroplasticity.
Alertness is a measure of how aware or attentive you are. Your level of alertness is low when sleeping and high after you hear a scary noise in the dark.
You must be alert to strengthen the neural pattern for a particular behavior. The following analogy explains why.
Imagine you have to read a book and recall what you remember. If you weren’t very alert when reading the book—maybe because you were falling asleep—you’d have difficulty remembering the details.
Well, your brain works the same way. If you’re not alert when performing a new behavior, your brain has a hard time strengthening that behavior’s neural pattern.
To weaken the neural pattern for a particular behavior, you can eliminate the behavior or decrease your level of alertness while performing it.
Focus is the process of giving your attention to something for an extended period of time. Playing the piano while ignoring the television is an example of focus.
Focus tells your brain and nervous system that a particular behavior is valuable and worth learning. Therefore, you must focus on a particular behavior to strengthen its neural pattern. 5 I’ll use the same book analogy to explain why.
If you weren’t focused when reading a book—maybe because your mind was somewhere else—you’d have difficulty remembering the details.
Again, your brain works the same way. If you’re not focused when performing a new behavior, your brain has a hard time strengthening that behavior’s neural pattern.
To weaken the neural pattern for a particular behavior, you can eliminate the behavior or decrease your level of focus while performing it.
Note: If you are under the age of 25, alertness and focus are helpful but less important. Young brains are plasticity machines that can change almost passively. Over the age of 25, alertness and focus are necessary for building strong neural patterns.
Frequency refers to the number of times you perform a particular behavior. Neural patterns get stronger as frequency increases.
What’s important to note is that frequency requires alertness and focus. Aimless frequency isn’t helpful. I’ll explain why frequency works using the same book analogy.
If you read a book once, you’d probably be familiar with the broad concepts but less familiar with the details. However, if you read the same book every day for a year, your knowledge of the book would be much deeper. As a result, you’d be able to recall details from the book with ease.
Your brain works the same way. The more you repeat a particular behavior, the stronger its neural patterns become. As a result, they are easier to recall.
You can weaken the neural pattern for a particular behavior by eliminating the behavior or decreasing its frequency.
Recency refers to the amount of time that has passed since you last performed a behavior. Neural patterns get stronger as recency decreases. Let me explain using the book analogy.
Consider the difference between recalling details from a book you read yesterday versus a book you read ten years ago. Clearly, remembering what you read yesterday would be easier.
Well, your brain works the same way. A behavior’s neural pattern will be stronger if you’ve performed it recently. This explains why you feel rusty if it’s been a while since you’ve performed a behavior.
To weaken the neural pattern for a particular behavior, you can eliminate the behavior or lengthen the time between repetitions.
Surprisingly, neural patterns don’t get stronger while you learn. It’s only during periods of sleep and non-sleep deep rest that neural patterns strengthen.
Naturally, the quality of your sleep plays an important role. Better quality sleep builds stronger neural patterns.
For context, imagine how well you could recall the detail from a book if you were exhausted or sleep-deprived.
Your brain works the same way. Without enough quality sleep, your brain has difficulty strengthening neural patterns.
What might not be intuitive is that you also need good quality sleep to weaken neural patterns. So if you’re trying to break bad habits, be sure to get enough quality sleep.
The following ideas can help you improve the five factors of neuroplasticity.
1. Work with nature. Your body goes through natural cycles of being more and less alert. On a broad scale, the circadian rhythm regulates your daily 24-hour sleep-wake cycle.
However, inside a 24-hour day, you also go through a series of shorter ultradian rhythms.
The ultradian rhythm is a 90-minute block of increased alertness followed by a 20-minute recovery period. These 90-minute blocks are ideal for focused learning.
To improve alertness, aim to fit focused learning sessions into 90-minute blocks of time. Then, use the 20-minute recovery periods for non-sleep deep rest or naps. This combination will supercharge your ability to build strong neural patterns.
2. Increase adrenaline. You need the brain chemical adrenaline for alertness. You can increase adrenaline with caffeine, Wim Hof breathing, and quality sleep. 6
1. Practice meditation. Studies show that mindfulness meditation is an effective tool for improving focus.
2. Mute your other senses. If you limit the number of inputs your brain is receiving, you can increase your focus. For example, to listen better, close your eyes. And, for better visual focus, use noise-canceling headphones.
1. Add it to your schedule. This idea might sound trivial, but studies show writing down when and where you will perform a particular behavior increases your odds of doing it.
2. Make it easy. One way to keep consistent with a particular behavior is to make it easy to start. So, if you want to learn to play guitar, make the process of beginning practice easy.
Instead of storing your guitar in the attic, keep it on a stand beside your desk.
1. Commit to limiting your misses. Life happens, and you’re bound to miss a day of practice occasionally. But, you can prevent yourself from getting off course by committing to limit your misses.
That might be, “I will never miss more than two days per week” or “I will never miss two days in a row.”
2. Use spaced-repetition software. Spaced repetition is an algorithm-based learning system that’s based on the forgetting curve. 7
The software shows flashcards. Flashcards that receive the correct answer are displayed less often. However, flashcards that receive the incorrect answer are displayed more often. As a result, you’re always brushing up on your weaknesses.
1. Create an inviting sleep environment. It helps if you look forward to spending time in your bedroom. To make your bedroom more inviting, buy soft pillows and comfortable sheets. You can also install calm lighting, play relaxing music, or light candles.
2. Take advantage of non-sleep deep rest. If you’re using the ultradian rhythm mentioned above, try incorporating non-sleep deep rest after 90-minute blocks of work. To do that disengage from what you are doing and let your mind drift without focus. Or, go for a walk, run, or bike ride.
If you listen to audiobooks while on break, you’re still asking your brain to focus. To make sure your brain gets the break it needs, consider turning off inputs while resting.
Building a stronger neural structure isn’t easy. It takes consistent, focused work. Here are some common problems people face and how to overcome them.
1. You keep doing the good and the bad. The rules that apply to building good behaviors also apply to breaking bad ones.
Don’t assume new habits replace old ones. Unwanted behaviors won’t go away on their own. Remember to decrease the alertness, focus, frequency, and recency of harmful habits.
2. You let up after you see progress. People working to build new habits often revert to their old ways after seeing the first sign of improvement. Doing this is a mistake. If you want your new habits to stick, you need to build strong neural patterns with consistency.
Here are two signs that you’re taking the ideas in this article too far.
1. You obsess over every action you take. Don’t worry if you make the occasional mistake. Your brain does not etch every error into your neural structure. Instead, learn from your mistakes and move on.
2. You expect perfection. A poor night of sleep or momentary lack of focus won’t end your chances of building strong neural patterns. Do the best you can, and trust your body to take care of the rest.
Here are the key takeaways from this article.
The following book links are Amazon affiliate links. If you purchase a book after clicking one of the links, I will receive a commission.
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