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How can neuroscience help us to strengthen and change habits

What is the neuroscience behind habit formation, further strengthening, and even changing habits

Habits are powerful drivers of our behaviors, shaping our daily routines, and influencing our overall success and well-being. Understanding the neuroscience behind habit formation, strengthening, and change provides valuable insights into how our brains adapt to new patterns of behavior.

In this blog, we will explore the neuroscience behind habits and delve into the role of a career coach in supporting individuals through habit formation and change processes.

“Your beliefs become your thoughts, your thoughts become your words,

your words become your actions, your actions become your habits,

your habits become your values, your values become your destiny.”

– Mahatma Gandhi

 

The Neuroscience of Habit Formation

Habit formation involves a complex interplay of brain structures, neural pathways, and chemical signals. The basal ganglia, a region deep within the brain, plays a crucial role in habit formation. It helps in encoding repetitive behaviors and shifting them from a conscious effort to automatic responses. A career coach can utilize this knowledge to guide us to see that the basal ganglia rely on a feedback loop involving cues, routines, and rewards.

Basal Ganglia

The basal ganglia, a group of structures located deep within the brain, plays a central role in habit formation. It consists of the striatum, which includes the caudate nucleus and putamen, and the globus pallidus. A career coach can introduce that the basal ganglia act as a “habit loop” controller, integrating information from various brain regions.

Habit Loop

The habit loop consists of three main components: cue, routine, and reward. The cue acts as a trigger that signals the brain to initiate a particular routine or behavior. The routine is the behavior itself, which can be as simple as reaching for a snack or as complex as a multi-step task. The reward is the positive reinforcement the brain receives upon completing the routine.

Dopamine

Dopamine, a neurotransmitter associated with reward and motivation, plays a critical role in habit formation. A career coach will advice that when we engage in behavior that leads to a reward, dopamine is released in the brain, creating a pleasurable sensation. This release of dopamine strengthens the neural connections associated with the habit, making it more likely to be repeated in the future.

Neural Pathways

Habit formation involves the establishment and strengthening of neural pathways in the brain. Initially, when we engage in new behavior, the neural connections are weak. However, with repetition and reinforcement, these connections become stronger and more efficient. A career coach can utilize this knowledge to guide and support us in adopting this process for long-term potentiation and involves synaptic changes that enhance the transmission of signals between neurons.

Prefrontal Cortex and Striatum Interaction

The prefrontal cortex, responsible for decision-making and conscious thought, interacts with the basal ganglia during habit formation. Initially, the prefrontal cortex plays a crucial role in consciously initiating and executing behavior. A career coach understands however, that as the habit becomes more established, the control shifts to the basal ganglia, allowing the behavior to become automatic and require less conscious effort.

Neuroplasticity

The brain’s ability to reorganize and form new connections, known as neuroplasticity, underlies habit formation. Neuroplasticity allows the brain to adapt and change in response to experiences and behaviors. A career coach knows that as we repeat behavior and reinforce the associated neural pathways, the brain undergoes structural and functional changes, making the behavior more automatic and ingrained.

Habit Disruption and Change

To disrupt or change an existing habit, it is necessary to interfere with the cue-routine-reward loop. By modifying the cue or replacing the routine while preserving the reward, individuals can establish new habits. A career coach can utilize their knowledge to guide and support us through conscious effort and repetition to weaken the old habit and reinforce the new behavior until it becomes automatic.

Understanding the neuroscience of habit formation helps individuals grasp the mechanisms underlying their behaviors. By leveraging this knowledge, individuals can consciously shape their habits, establish new ones, and make positive changes in their lives. Career coaches can draw upon these insights to provide tailored strategies and support individuals in their habit formation and change endeavors.

“You’ll never change your life until you change something you do daily.

The secret of your success is found in your daily routine.”

– John C. Maxwell

 

Strengthening and Changing Habits

To strengthen or change habits, we need to understand the concept of neuroplasticity—the brain’s ability to reorganize and form new neural connections. Neuroplasticity allows us to reshape existing habits or develop entirely new ones. To strengthen habits, repetition, and consistency are key. A career coach can utilize this knowledge to guide and support individuals by consistently practicing a behavior, we reinforce the neural pathways associated with that habit, making it more robust and automatic.

Changing habits involves a process called habit reversal. It requires interrupting the existing cue-routine-reward loop and replacing it with a new one. This process requires conscious effort and repetition to weaken the old habit and reinforce the new behavior until it becomes automatic.

Repetition and Neural Plasticity

A career coach can utilize this knowledge to guide and strengthen habits that involve repeated engagement in a behavior, which leads to neural plasticity—the brain’s ability to reorganize and form new connections. When we consistently repeat a behavior, the corresponding neural pathways in the brain become more efficient and robust. The repeated activation of these pathways reinforces the habit, making it easier and more automatic over time.

Long-Term Potentiation

Long-term potentiation is a process in which synaptic connections between neurons strengthen due to repeated stimulation. A career coach can utilize this knowledge to guide and support us to understand that when we engage in a behavior repeatedly, the synaptic connections associated with that behavior become more potent. This strengthens the neural pathway and facilitates the transmission of signals related to the habit, making it easier to perform.

Neurotransmitters and Reward

The brain’s reward system, primarily driven by the neurotransmitter dopamine, plays a crucial role in habit strengthening. A career coach can explain how Dopamine is released when we experience pleasure or receive a reward. It reinforces the neural connections associated with the habit, making us more motivated to repeat the behavior. The anticipation and experience of rewards provide positive reinforcement, increasing the likelihood of habit repetition.

Context and Environmental Cues

Context and environmental cues play a significant role in habit strengthening. The brain associates specific cues in our surroundings with certain behaviors and rewards. For example, if we have a habit of going for a run every morning, seeing our running shoes or stepping outside may trigger the desire to engage in that habit. A career coach can utilize this knowledge to guide and support individuals to put this into context and identify cues that act as reminders and activate the neural pathways associated with the habit.

Habit Reversal and Neuroplasticity

Changing habits involves a process called habit reversal, which requires interrupting the existing cue-routine-reward loop and establishing a new one. Neuroplasticity enables the brain to adapt and form new neural connections, allowing for habit change. By consciously replacing the routine associated with a cue while still obtaining a reward, a career coach can utilize this knowledge to guide and support individuals to weaken the old habit and strengthen the new behavior.

Cognitive Control and Prefrontal Cortex

Changing habits often requires cognitive control and conscious effort to override automatic behaviors. The prefrontal cortex, responsible for decision-making and self-control, plays a crucial role in habit change. A career coach can utilize this knowledge to guide and support individuals in consciously evaluating their behaviors, making intentional choices, and initiating new routines. With practice, the prefrontal cortex can exert greater control over automatic habits, facilitating habit change.

Practice and Consistency

Strengthening and changing habits requires practice and consistency. The more we engage in a desired behavior, the more we reinforce the associated neural pathways. Consistency helps establish new connections and weaken the old ones. Over time, with repeated practice and reinforcement, the new behavior becomes more automatic, and the old habit diminishes.

Understanding the neuroscience behind habit strengthening and change empowers individuals to actively shape their behaviors. By leveraging the brain’s capacity for neuroplasticity, individuals can establish new habits and modify existing ones. A career coach can utilize this knowledge to guide and support individuals in their journey of habit strengthening and change, providing strategies, accountability, and encouragement.

“It’s not about perfect. It’s about effort.

And when you bring that effort every single day, that’s where transformation happens.

That’s how change occurs.”

– Jillian Michaels

 

The Role of a Career Coach in Habit Formation and Change

Career coaches are uniquely positioned to support individuals in habit formation and change processes. Here’s how they contribute:

Goal Alignment and Habit Identification

Career coaches help individuals align their goals with their desired habits. They assist in clarifying aspirations and identifying specific habits that will lead to professional growth and success. By understanding an individual’s career objectives, coaches can guide them towards habits that are most relevant and impactful.

Creating a Habit-Building Strategy

Coaches help individuals create a structured plan to establish and strengthen habits. They break down larger goals into smaller, manageable steps, and assist in setting SMART goals (Specific, Measurable, Achievable, Relevant, Time-bound). Coaches also help individuals establish accountability systems and develop strategies to overcome obstacles and challenges that may arise during the habit formation process.

Providing Accountability and Support

Career coaches offer ongoing support and accountability to individuals working on habit formation and change. They serve as a trusted partner, providing guidance, encouragement, and feedback. Regular check-ins with a coach help individuals stay on track, monitor progress, and make adjustments as needed.

Leveraging Behavioral Science

Coaches apply principles from behavioral science and neuroscience to inform their coaching strategies. They help individuals understand the cues, routines, and rewards associated with their habits, and work collaboratively to modify or replace them with more desired behaviors. Coaches leverage techniques such as habit stacking, implementation intentions, and mindfulness practices to expedite habit formation and change.

Motivation and Mindset

Career coaches play a vital role in cultivating motivation and fostering a growth mindset. They help individuals tap into their intrinsic motivations and align their habits with their core values and long-term aspirations. Coaches provide encouragement, celebrate milestones, and assist individuals in maintaining a positive mindset throughout the habit formation and change process.

Adaptation and Course Correction

Habit formation and change are not always straightforward. Individuals may encounter setbacks, face challenges, or need to adapt their habits to changing circumstances. A career coach provides guidance and support during these times. They help individuals analyze their progress, identify areas for improvement, and make necessary adjustments to their habits and strategies.

Building Self-Awareness

Career coaches facilitate self-reflection and self-awareness, which are essential for habit formation and change. They help individuals identify patterns, triggers, and barriers that may hinder progress. By increasing self-awareness, individuals can develop strategies to overcome obstacles, address underlying issues, and reinforce positive habits.

“If you believe you can change – if you make it a habit – the change becomes real.”

– Charles Duhigg

 

Conclusion

The neuroscience behind habit formation, strengthening, and change reveals the remarkable adaptability of our brains. Understanding how habits are formed and modified allows individuals to take intentional steps toward personal and professional growth. A career coach plays a pivotal role in supporting individuals throughout this journey.

They assist in goal alignment, create tailored habit-building strategies, provide accountability and support, leverage behavioral science, cultivate motivation and mindset, facilitate adaptation, and foster self-awareness. With the guidance of a career coach, individuals can harness the power of neuroplasticity and transform their habits to achieve greater success and fulfillment in their careers.

 

Related Executive Coaching Articles

A 5-step coach’s guide for unwiring unwanted habits

Why match knowledge and skills with the industry requirements

Reevaluating career interests, capabilities, and direction

 

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Based on that exposure, our company has intentionally set out to support those practicing the art and science of leadership – or as often referred to, “Executive Talent.” These are people who acknowledge that they are not experts. They are open to opportunities for continued growth and carry the desire for learning what is needed to become a success in today’s complexity and uncertainty.

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References

Books:

  1. “The Power of Habit: Why We Do What We Do in Life and Business” by Charles Duhigg
  2. “Atomic Habits: An Easy & Proven Way to Build Good Habits & Break Bad Ones” by James Clear
  3. “Habits of a Happy Brain: Retrain Your Brain to Boost Your Serotonin, Dopamine, Oxytocin, & Endorphin Levels” by Loretta Graziano Breuning
  4. “Tiny Habits: The Small Changes That Change Everything” by BJ Fogg
  5. “The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People: Powerful Lessons in Personal Change” by Stephen R. Covey

Articles:

  1. Wood, W., & Rünger, D. (2016). Psychology of Habit. Annual Review of Psychology, 67, 289-314.
  2. Neal, D. T., Wood, W., & Quinn, J. M. (2006). Habits—A Repeat Performance. Current Directions in Psychological Science, 15(4), 198-202.
  3. Verplanken, B., & Wood, W. (2006). Interventions to Break and Create Consumer Habits. Journal of Public Policy & Marketing, 25(1), 90-103.
  4. Lally, P., van Jaarsveld, C. H., Potts, H. W., & Wardle, J. (2010). How Are Habits Formed: Modelling Habit Formation in the Real World. European Journal of Social Psychology, 40(6), 998-1009.
  5. Ouellette, J. A., & Wood, W. (1998). Habit and Intention in Everyday Life: The Multiple Processes by Which Past Behavior Predicts Future Behavior. Psychological Bulletin, 124(1), 54-74.

Videos:

  1. TED Talk: “The Power of Habit” by Charles Duhigg
  2. TEDx Talk: “Forget Big Change, Start with a Tiny Habit” by BJ Fogg
  3. YouTube Video: “How to Break Bad Habits” by James Clear

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