The Science of Creating Healthy Habits – How to Make Habits Stick

Feb 18, 2022

Kieran Behan was born in Hertfordshire, London, to parents who were of Irish descent. Ever since he could remember, Kieran loved everything about gymnastics, from the tumbling floor routines to the mental fortitude required to compete on the high bar. He lived for the Olympics and was determined to become an Olympic champion. Kieran poured himself into the sport and was practicing daily for hours to hone his craft by the age of twelve.

One day while practicing his floor routine, his coach noticed that he was not pushing off with the force that made Kieran’s routines so formidable. Kieran told his coach that his leg had been bothering him for a few weeks, but he didn’t want to lose practice time, so he kept the pain hidden. Upon examining Kieran, his coach immediately noticed a mass in his upper leg.

Kieran was taken to the doctors, where it was discovered he had a benign tumor, and surgery was performed to remove it. Unfortunately, the unthinkable happened. The surgery did not go as planned, and various complications arose, which resulted in massive never damage to his legs and being confined to a wheelchair for almost a year.

After fifteen months of painful physical therapy and daily exercises to restore the strength in his leg, Kieran was ready to return to gymnastics. He quickly rediscovered his passion, and his talent was again flourishing. His favorite event was the high bar, and he was practicing a new routine when fate intervened again. His hand lost grip as he was attempting a Rumbutis dismount when he lost hold of the bar and was hurled uncontrollably into the air.

This caused a traumatic brain injury and damaged his inner ear, affecting his balance and coordination skills. Due to complications caused by post-concussion syndrome, he missed a whole year at school but still maintained his goal of becoming a world-class gymnast in mind.

This article is based on an episode of the Passion Struck Podcast.

Once again, Behan was forced to go through months of daily physical and cognitive therapy to retrain his brain to regain his coordination and relearn simple things like sitting and moving his head. It ended up taking him almost 18 months to recover. Even then, his doctors told him that they did not expect him to ever be the same again, much less be competitive in gymnastics.

However, the doctors didn’t know Kieran’s resolve, ability to develop and sustain habits, and endless passion. With time and daily practice, he recovered his strength and returned to gymnastics, where soon he was winning competitions and getting closer to his dream of competing in the Olympics.

Then another blow came when his knee snapped just after being selected for the European Championships. Behan was, at that point, frustrated and considered giving up, but he managed to keep hope alive and continued to take steps towards his goal. He got into physical rehabilitation yet again and was able to get back on with his gymnastics program, mainly because of his mental strength and the habits he constantly developed over the years of training. But did he ever achieve his goal of competing in the Olympics?

How could Behan overcome the obstacles that came his way and eventually become the world-class gymnast he had hoped to be? He had intentionally developed the habit of showing up, training consistently, and doing whatever was necessary to remain fit and capable. This habit helped him through his most difficult times when he recovered from his injuries.

How can we also learn to build habits that will sustain and help us function at our best through life?

Neuroscientific Process of Habit Formation

Let us delve briefly into the actual science of how the brain structure facilitates habit formation.

Neural pathways, composed of neurons connected by dendrites, are created in the brain based on our behaviors. The number of dendrites increases with the frequency behavior is performed. With an increased and constant frequency, the behavior develops into Habits.

When first adopting a new behavior, the prefrontal cortex, the part of the brain responsible for thinking, must be engaged. This allows for the insertion of conscious effort, intention, and thought into the process. b By performing the new routine enough times for connections to be made and strengthened in the brain, the behavior requires less effort as it becomes the default pattern.

In creating new habits, our brain will always try to take the path of least resistance. To help with this, our brain develops pathways for habits that it can follow with ease. MIT researchers discovered that if the habit formation region of the brain fires neurons at the start and end of distinct behavior, then a new habit is formed. The neuron firing will create routines over time, both in the brain and in one’s behavior.

Neuroplasticity

Neuroplasticity, also known as neural plasticity, or brain plasticity, is the neural networks’ ability to change through growth and reorganization. These changes range from individual neuron pathways making new connections to systematic adjustments that include circuit and network changes that result from learning a new ability, environmental influences, practice, emotions, and thoughts.

Neural pathways that form habits are built, either intentionally or accidentally. Once a much-repeated movement is initiated and begun, it naturally and automatically triggers the habit pattern down the neural pathway.

Gymnastics are a great example of this because gymnastics is a series of habits that are developed involuntarily. The intrinsic routine simply takes over, and the gymnastic training is executed, whether it is a good or wrong movement. This is also a clear example of why habits are so hard to break once they are formed. Any movement initiation falls immediately into the neural pathway habit and defies change.

However, the more often we perform an action or behave a certain way, the more it gets physically wired into our brain. Hence, due to the brain’s unique ability, we all can train ourselves to adapt to new situations and build new habits, just as Behan did.

Choosing and Developing New Healthy Habits

In the case of Kieran, he reached his goal by firstly understanding that gymnastics skills and other complex physical movements are basically a series of physical habits. He then began to thoroughly learn each skill before proceeding to the next step.

It is not a quick and straightforward process when we create a new habit or replace an old one. There needs to be a compelling reason for making the change and recognizing how beneficial to our lives, building those great and healthy habits will be.

Realize that any new habit formation will require time and energy. That is why we need to be compassionate to ourselves if we stumble along the way. However, by understanding how habits are created and putting the following suggestions into effective practice, we can make meaningful changes in our lives.

Practice mindfulness and meditation

Besides relieving stress and calming your mind, meditation will help you self-reflect on what is going on in your life. It will help expose the areas you need to improve and form healthy habits and also help you conquer your bad habits. Being genuinely mindful of yourself, your feelings, and your motivations gives you higher ground when battling bad habits. Through this activity, your mind will be better prepared to imbibe the inspiration and motivation it needs to build new habits effectively.

Understand the habit loop

MIT researchers uncovered a primary neurological loop at the center of every habit, which consists of three parts: a cue, a routine, and a reward.

Picture of the Habit loop

A cue prompts you to start the very thing you want to do consistently, a routine is developed when you consciously and effortfully keep responding to the signal and doing what you set out to do, and the reward comes when the habit is fully formed. With this understanding, you will be able to navigate your way to developing great lasting habits effectively.

Find an accountability partner

Whether it’s a friend, a mentor, or a family member, have someone who can keep you accountable for keeping up with building your habits. Choose a partner who wants to achieve a similar goal and make a coordinated plan. Ensure the person is disciplined and trustworthy, so they can encourage you and make you committed enough to your goals.

According to Dr. Tim Church, “In my years of working with thousands of people, there’s one thing that drives accountability more than anything else: If you want to keep people doing a behavior, get a buddy.”

Reflect and improve

Measure your progress and mark milestones by taking out time to reflect on your journey towards developing those great habits frequently. A great way to do this is through daily journaling, which in itself is a habit. This will help you realize how far you’ve come and what you need to accomplish to reach your desired end-state.

Practice habit stacking

Habit stacking is one of the most effective ways to create new habits. When you habit stack, you attach a new behavior to behavior you already do regularly.

According to Sohee Lee PH.D., “By anchoring something that’s a goal (say, flossing) to something you already do consistently (like brushing your teeth), you use an existing trigger, which makes it easier to pull the new behavior into your routine smoothly.”

In addition, several digital tools facilitate the building and tracking of habits, such as momentum, lifetick, goalify, and habitforge. Put them to practical use to boost your ability to achieve those habits.

Make your habits realistic and achievable

Sometimes, we give up on building healthy habits because they seem unattainable. This is because we get overwhelmed when we want to do so much within a bit of time.

To eliminate significant old habits or form new ones, you need to start with accessible daily practices or routines that just take a few minutes to complete. For instance, if you want to read a book a month, start by reading a page a day and if you’re looking to improve your sleep quality, start going to bed early and waking up at the same time every day. These mini habits can be built upon over time, making new habits stick. Be sure to celebrate every little progress you make.

Be consistent

The more regularly you practice your habit, the more natural it will become. Make it a point to practice your routine daily. Don’t try to do too much at once, and don’t overwhelm yourself. Take things step by step and always keep in mind that the key to habit-building is to be patient and consistent.

Living with New Desirable Healthy Habits

Kieran Behan was obviously aware that building a new habit is difficult, but it is possible to set your mind to it. It began with the desire to pursue his dream of becoming an Olympic gymnast and consciously make daily efforts to improve until he reached his desired goals. There were days when he wanted to give up on his routine and times when he failed to practice the habit. But he kept in mind that it was all part of the journey. 

Despite his setbacks, Behan returned to gymnastics. He went on to gain several awards as a Junior gymnast, including a 4th-place finish at the Junior European Championships in Volos Greece in 2006, competing for GBR. He was named Overall Floor Champion throughout the 2011 World Cup Floor Champion series after winning bronze, silver, and gold respectively on the floor in Slovenia, Croatia, and the Czech Republic.

He became the first-ever Irish gymnast to qualify for the Olympic Games, competing in London 2012 (in front of his come crowd) and Rio 2016. He kept persevering and eventually achieved the things he set out to do.

As Ralph Waldo Emerson once said, “That which we persist in doing becomes easier — not that the nature of the task has changed, but our ability to do has increased.”

By taking all the lessons learned from Kieran’s story and the suggestions provided to make daily efforts to build and improve our habits, we become empowered in the task of creating meaningful, prosperous, and productive lives — for ourselves and for the world at large.

And remember, no one knows precisely how long it takes for habits to form fully. The 21-day approach suggested by many is actually a myth. According to Benjamin Gardner, Ph.D., a senior lecturer at King’s College London, and other experts, the simple fact is that some habits take longer, and some can form considerably sooner than that. So use the number of days as your only litmus test for inserting new patterns and breaking old habits.


Listen to the Passion Struck Podcast anywhere you listen to podcasts online.

Are you suffering from the hustle culture grind and is it causing you to feel miserable? Read my article on how to break free.

Check out John’s article on how you teach yourself self-love.

Are you having trouble joy in your life? John discusses navigating life with joy as your compass in Episode 106

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