Oops, I did it again! The art of positive habit forming.

It was earlier this year when we were sitting in one of our Monday morning Left Field work in progress meetings and having an in-depth discussion about one of our upcoming workshops. For me, these discussions are fascinating. It’s a time when I can sit, listen and observe how the team interacts, thinks and draws on their amazing knowledge and research based backgrounds from all the different facets they learn from. During these discussions is where our team take these amazing abstract concepts from the latest in psychological science and brain research and form new activities and learning objectives for our workshops. It is amazing to watch and a great way for me to subconsciously learn the research behind the Left Field brand (as I studied business, not psych!).

This particular day though, I was actually getting into the discussion. The team were talking about a specific workshop where they wanted a way to assist a particular group to embed learnings and continue to put the activity from the workshop into place in their day-to-day work life. That’s when I took the opportunity to take my (very) limited knowledge of neural-pathways and how habit forming works in the brain and suggest a possible way to use that science in a practical way for our participants. My favourite part was when the team were pleasantly surprised that I’d been listening when they talk science and also excited because my idea just might work!

This brings me back to habit forming in the brain. In the few articles I have read on the topic, I am completely fascinated at how it works. Initially, I found myself reading articles online (in quality literature like Huffington Post, Cosmopolitan and Women’s Health) that would refer to habit forming and how to make your health and fitness goals stick. These articles started to intrigue me as they were mentioning the basics of how powerful habit forming could be, but then I wanted to look into it in more depth from a science perspective to really understand it. I found out that NMDA receptors on dopamine neurons in the brain’s basal ganglia are essential to habit formation. Turns out these receptors are critical to turning learned behaviour into habits.

The reason why it sparked my interest is that in a few days’ time, I will have exercised for 30minutes or more every day for 100 days straight. Crazy right?! During these 100 days, somewhere along the way I found myself transitioning from the “Ughhhhh. Do I really have to get out of my pyjamas and exercise?!” to actually really enjoying getting up a little earlier to go for a jog, or incorporating something fun and active (like a bushwalk) into my weekend. This transition kind of snuck up on me and now I have realised that making exercise a part of my day everyday has become a habit. Does this mean that I can apply the same core principles that led me to get this far with forming this exercise habit to other aspects of my life? And if I can do that, how can I use my experience and my own personal learnings to apply to our Left Field work in a way that might help others?

After thinking back to what I did to achieve this milestone of 100 days exercise in a row and what are the key things I did to assist in forming this habit, I’d like to take a moment to share them with you (from the perspective of someone that’s been there!):

  • Yes you want to change your behaviour / habit, but as the old adage goes, Rome wasn’t built in a day. In my case, it was unrealistic for me to say I must exercise 1 hour a day for the rest of my life. I set a more realistic aim of 30 mins a day (that’s only 3.5 hours a week!) that I could achieve. As an example, you could set yourself a task that you want to spend 10 minutes to sort and file your inbox three times a week instead of getting to the end of the month and stressing out because you have eleventybillion unfiled emails!
  • Positive reinforcement. Once you have selected something that you feel is sustainable, incorporate a clear Goal/Reward system and stick to it. This will give you incentive and motivation to keep going. Set small milestones and allocate yourself a reward for them, then work up to bigger milestones that come with more exciting rewards. My favourite example was when I hit 60 days in a row, I could treat myself to a new handbag!
  • Pick someone that you trust and respect and tell them what your goal is and ask for their help to keep you on track. Check in with them as often as you need to, or use a calendar or a checklist to track your progress. Remember – if you fall off the bandwagon and get off track, it’s not the end of the world. Just dust yourself off and try again! Remember, behaviour change and habit forming takes time!

Consistency really is key in changing learned behaviour into a habit. And now I know how I can use the basal ganglia to help me do it, I am going to tackle my next challenge… the quest to be on time. In my personal life, I am notoriously known amongst my family and friends for my tardiness. So much so that one of my friends gave me a watch with a design on the face that says “Whatever, I’m late anyway!”. I read an article somewhere (no idea if this is research backed!)  that chronic lateness is usually the most prevalent in optimistic personalities because we always under-anticipate how long it takes us to do things or get places. I guess that’s a positive?! Ever the optimist! Let’s see if I can use that positive attitude combined with what I’ve learnt from my previous experience, tackle another goal and form a new habit! Earliness here I come!

Betina Osley, Team Coordinator

Read more about the basal ganglia, dopamine neurons and habit formation here: Georgia Health Sciences University. “Habit formation is enabled by gateway to brain cells.” ScienceDaily. ScienceDaily, 13 January 2012.