We Can Rewire Our Brains For Success

Let me begin by giving you the definition of a habit and going over some of the science behind habits because I’ve found that there’s an awful lot of it, and also because I think it’s important that we understand how we’re hardwired.   Webster defines a habit as an acquired mode of behavior that has become nearly or completely involuntary. Charles Duhigg writes in his best-selling book: The Power of Habit that habits are, “the choices all of us deliberately make at some point, and thus stop thinking about but continue doing, often every day.”

Charles declares in his book, “Most choices we make every day may feel like the products of well-considered decision making, but they’re actually not, they’re habits.” And Charles believes, “Although each habit means relatively little on its own, over time, the meals we order, what we say to our kids each night, whether we save or spend, how we exercise, and the way we organize our thoughts and work routines have enormous impacts on health, productivity, financial security, and happiness.”

In my research; I didn’t have any trouble finding scientific support from major universities backing up Charles’ statement. One research paper, published in 2006 by Duke University stated, “more than 40 percent of the actions people preformed each day weren’t actual decisions, but habits.” And several similar studies out of universities such as Yale, North Texas, Michigan, and MIT have discovered up to 95 percent of everything we think, feel, do, and achieve is the direct result of a learned habit. In fact, leading behavioral psychologists believe that 80-percent of our behavior is habitual. 80 percent! This means that virtually everything we do is governed by our habits. Think about that for a moment…..So, in essence, we have our habits, or a set of routines, and these routines – effect and control almost every aspect of our lives, which certainly includes the overall quality of it. That’s why it’s imperative that you thoroughly understand that once you make your habits – your habits have a way of making….or breaking you.

You see, one of the most important lessons I’ve learned in life is that we don’t necessarily choose our futures, we choose our habits, and our habits choose our future.

Steve Covey wrote in his game-changing book, The 7 habits of Highly Effective People that, “Habits are powerful factors in our lives. Because they’re consistent, often unconscious patterns, they constantly, daily, express our character and produce our effectiveness….Or our ineffectiveness”

And Aristotle wrote in his immensely popular book Nicomachean Ethics, “Some thinkers hold that it is by nature people become good, others that it is by instruction, and others that it is by habit.”

For this Greek philosopher, habits reigned supreme. Aristotle believed behaviors that occur unthinkably are evidence of our truest selves – and he famously said, “We are what we repeatedly do. Excellence, then, is not an act, but a habit.”

Habits, scientists say exist because our brains are constantly looking for ways to save effort. And the way our brains accomplish this is by converting sequences of actions and processing them into patterns and automatic routines.   Researchers call this “chunking,” and it’s at the root of how habits are formed.

You see, our brains have an amazing ability to take repeated thoughts and patterns of behavior and hardwire them into our subconscious. Science shows that these patterns of behavior and thoughts repeated many times create what neuroscientists call a neuro-signature, or in lay terms, a brain groove. Brain grooves are found in the basal ganglia, which is the part of the brain responsible for recalling patterns and acting on them.

They’re generally formed in three stages. Stage one is nothing more than beginning a new routine, stage two is repeating the routine, and stage three is a full-fledged unconscious response to the routines we’ve imbedded into our brains, or more specifically, our basil ganglia’s. Often, we follow these routines without even being aware that we’re doing so.

In one set of particularly interesting experiments I uncovered, scientists at MIT connected wires to lab rats basil ganglia’s and read their mental activity each time they went through a maze. And within the subject’s brains researchers discovered that something rather unexpected occurred, as each rat learned to navigate the maze, its mental activity decreased. As the route became more and more automatic, each rat started thinking less and less. The scientists concluded that while the rest of their brain went to sleep, the basil ganglia remained fully active recalling the patterns, routines, and habits.

It’s not difficult finding an analogy in the human world that’s akin to the experiment MIT conducted. Consider this: Let’s say your loving wife of 14 years asks you one morning, “Honey, would you mind dropping off the dry cleaning for me, I’ve already placed it in your car.” You reply, “No problem, anything I can do to help” (imbed that response and you’ll likely be in for a long and healthy marriage.) Anyhow, you jump in your car, pull out of the driveway, exit you neighborhood, and proceed down the road. Eventually you come to a stoplight. On the right-hand side is the dry-cleaners. All you have to do is pull in the drive through and the friendly attendant will come out, pick up your clothes, bring you a receipt, and send you on your way, not only to the office, but to saving you thousands in marriage counseling. But despite all logic, you just sit there at the stop light with the clothes less than three feet away from you.

And the second the light turns green, you speed through the intersection, because unfortunately your brain is figuratively asleep at the wheel – while your basil ganglia remains fully engaged navigating you through the maze. You make several lefts, a few rights inevitably arriving at your office. You anxiously scurry into your office to begin your day, then around lunch time you get a text from your wife that says thank you for dropping off the dry-cleaning. Immediately you think to yourself Son-of-a……

You see, the more we follow certain routines, the more we follow particular patterns of behavior, the stronger and more automatic they become. It’s almost like we’re unconsciously programmed on autopilot. Which, in essence, is exactly what we’ve done. This works every time we repeat a thought, every time we repeat an action, every time we repeat an experience it’s getting neurologically recorded between our neurons, consequentially, deepening our brain grooves.   And over time, these thoughts, these actions, these experiences only become stronger through repetition and validation. This happens because the neuropathways have developed so deeply through interconnected neurons that certain habits, certain routines and thought patterns get executed without us consciously realizing we’re doing so.

The good news is that habits and routines help us do things more quickly because they bring structure to our days. And if there’s one thing I love, it’s structure. But perhaps the biggest benefit habits and routines provide is the fact that they remove mental clutter so that our brains are able to focus its attention on what’s most important. Take for example legendary golf professional Jack Nicklaus’s famous pre-shot routine. Nicklaus was religious about the “dance” he would do before every shot. He would always go through a series of mental and physical steps that got him fully focused and ready for each shot. Nicklaus would start out behind the ball, and then pick out one or two intermediate spots between the ball and the target. He would not put his feet into position until he felt he had his clubface properly squared up. Then he would take his stance. From there he would waggle the club and look out to his target, then back to his intermediate target and back to the golf club, with a repeat of the view. Then, and only then, would he strike the ball.

During one of the important Majors, a psychologist timed Nicklaus from the moment he pulled the club out of the bag until the moment he hit the ball, and guess what? In each shot, from the first tee to the 18th green, the timing of Jack’s routine never varied for more than one second. That’s pretty amazing. What was happening here was that Jack’s basil ganglia was fully focused on his routine – which in turn, allowed the rest of his brain to focus on the big picture – winning the golf tournament, which he did by more than eleven strokes. The same psychologist measured Greg Norman during his disastrous debacle at the 1996 Masters.   Lo and behold, Norman’s pre-shot routine got faster and faster as the round progressed. Apparently, varying his routine stunted his rhythm and consistency, he was never able to catch momentum, the moment Norman changed his routine, his performance became erratic and his results unpredictable.

For those of you who haven’t figured it out yet, producing predictable results is the name of the game. Because without question, results are what pays for the rent. Some Financial Advisors get confused and think efforts do as well. But I’m here to tell you they don’t. So rather you’re striving to become the next Jack Nicklaus, or to become a million-dollar producer, the adage remains the same: Build your daily agenda on good routines and the likelihood that you will achieve the results you desire will dramatically increase.

I mentioned earlier that psychological studies have revealed that up to 95% of everything we think, feel, do, and achieve is the direct result of a learned habit. And that our habits are governed by our routines, which in turn, impacts every aspect of our lives, from our health, to our wealth, to our happiness…So what happens when our habits and routines aren’t good? What happens when they’re not producing the results we desire? What happens when they lead us in the wrong direction?

One of the lessons I’ve had to learn the hard way is that habits can be tricksters. Why? Because they disguise themselves as little everyday decisions that seem insignificant at the time, but over the long haul, make a world of difference. That’s why my personal definition of a habit is: Small things that make a big difference. You see, the problem with habits is that they tend to have a cumulative effect on us, but unfortunately, the results don’t show up until much later in life. Therefore, if our habits are bad, by the time the damage is evident, it’s often too late to alter the results. That’s why I’ve said throughout this broadcast, and will continue to say that you had better take control of your habits before your habits take control of you. And the way you do this, in fact, the only way you do this is by brutally and honestly assessing yourself and the direction your habits are taking you. This takes courage. It also takes discipline, but had I done this years ago it would have saved me an awful lot of heartache.

You see, something we all need to understand is that the only way any of us ever improve is if we develop a real ability to assess ourselves and the habits that shape our lives.   Because if we can’t figure out a way to accurately do that, then how can we tell if we’re getting better or worse? How can we tell if we’re on track or not?

For far too many of us, our biggest challenge is that we’ve been sleepwalking through our choices-we’ve programmed ourselves with bad habits and routines and now we’re following them on autopilot. So how do we break this cycle? Experts believe that by becoming aware of our most trivial decisions we can loosen the mysterious grip our habits have on us and consequently, get ourselves back on track. This is important, because something else I’ve had to learn the hard way is that you can’t change the direction your headed if you aren’t aware it’s leading you the wrong way.

Psychotherapist Nathaniel Brandon asserts, “The first step toward change is awareness.” And this expert suggests that if we want to get from where we are to where we want to be, we have to start becoming aware of the Habits that are leading us away from our desired destination.

This sounds simple enough….doesn’t it? But always remember: what’s simple to do is also simple not to do. Darren Hardy tells us that, “The magic is not in the complexity of the task, the magic is doing the simple things repeatedly, making them a Habit so that we can do them long enough to ignite what he refers to as The Compound Effect.

For all of you listening today who are enslaved by a coup of bad habits, now is the time to stop drifting – to wake up and assess yourself in as cold and brutal light as possible. And when you do this, don’t make the mistake I once did, don’t look at yourself as the way you want to be or hoped to be. Look at yourself as you truly are- the state and stage you’re currently in. Focus on your habitual behavior, not short term isolated instances. Focus on those habits that are leading you away from your goals and dreams. I’m certain you already know which ones they are.

Legendary change agent and prolific author Zig Zigler warns: “we should focus on the early signs of bad habits and do our best to cut them down in their budding stage before they reach full bloom. Because unfortunately, bad habits never go away on their own.”

Ann Greybiel, one of the scientists at MIT who oversaw the basil ganglia experiments in the lab rats states, “habits never really disappear. They’re encoded in the structures of our brains, and that’s a huge advantage for us, because it would be awful if we had to relearn how to drive after every vacation. The problem is our brains can’t tell the difference between good and bad habits, and so if you have a bad habit, it’s always lurking there, waiting for the right cues and rewards.”

This scientist makes several great points. But none more significant than identifying cues and rewards.

You see, researchers at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology discovered in the early 1990’s a simple neurological loop that consists of three parts, a cue, a routine, and a reward. Think of it like this: when the lab rats were placed in their maze that was their cue, navigating the correct rout was their routine, and the piece of cheese they found at the end was their reward. For humans, let’s say a smoker sees someone smoking, that’s their cue, they pull out a pack of cigarettes and light one up, that’s their routine, their body receives nicotine, that’s their reward-if you call injecting cancer into your body a reward!

But the reason why the discovery of the habit loop was so important is because it also revealed a basic truth, which was: when a habit emerges, the brain stops fully participating in the decision making, it stops working as hard and divert its attention to other tasks. So, unless you deliberately fight a habit- unless you find a new routine, which research suggests is the best way to change a habit, the pattern will unfold automatically.

To put it another way, a habit is a formula our brain follows automatically. It thinks, when I see a cue, I do a routine in order to receive a reward.

It’s also important that you know that cravings are what typically drives the habit loop, you can think of them as the engine. And marketers learned long ago that if they can figure out how to spark a craving, then they might be able to convince you to consume their product habitually.

Let me give you an example of how the fast food industry has mastered cultivating a craving to drive the habit loop in order to convince people to consume toxic food at an outrageously unhealthy rate: When researchers at the University of North Texas and Yale tried to understand why people gradually increased their fast food consumption, they found a series of cues and rewards that most customers never knew were influencing their behavior. They discovered the habit loop.

Every McDonalds, for instance, looks the exact same. The company deliberately tries to standardize their stores architecture. And the foods are specifically engineered to deliver an immediate reward-take the French fries- they’re designed to disintegrate the moment they hit your tongue.

You see, one of the problems with habits is that they can and often do emerge without permission, and since we don’t recognize these habit loops as they develop and take control of our lives, we’re blind to the ability to control them. But by learning to observe the cues and rewards, we can learn to change our routine, because as I mentioned research shows the best way to break a bad habit is to keep the same cues and reward- just insert an alternative routine.

What people are failing to understand is that habits shape our lives more than we realize. And the fact is that some are so strong and have so much power over us that they cause our brains to cling to them even at the exclusion of all else-which includes common sense. “Particularly strong habits,” wrote two professors in a research paper at the University of Michigan “produce addiction-like cravings that can force our brains into autopilot, even in the face of strong disincentive, including the loss of one’s reputation, job, home, and family.”

The criminal justice systems have even agreed that some habits are so powerful that they overwhelm our capacity to make choices, and thus we’re not responsible for what we do.

Personally I think that’s a bunch of malarkey, because I believe changing our habits is not a question of capability, we’re all perfectly capable. The question here is do we have the self-discipline to do so.

You see, changing our habits is not as sophisticated as one might think. In fact, it’s actually quite easy. So… how exactly do we do it, how do we rid ourselves of bad habits? The answer is surprisingly simple: by being aware of them.

Nathan Azrin, a neuroscientist who specializes in habit reversal training states, “It seems ridiculously simple, but once you’re aware of how your habit works, once you recognize the cues and rewards, you’re halfway to changing it.” Nathan goes on to add, “It seems like it should be more complex, the truth is, the brain can be reprogrammed. You just have to be deliberate about it.”

My sole purpose here in giving you all this science behind habits, quoting one expert after another, and citing several case studies was to help you understand just how our brains are hardwired when it comes to habits. To get you to grasp that there’s a circuitry mechanism at work here that controls our thinking and behavior more than we realize. But most importantly, the reason why I went way beneath the surface was to prove to you that patterns in our thinking and behavior can be interrupted. They can be permanently changed. We can rewire our brains for success, we just have to be deliberate about it.