How the Brain Builds Better Habits

How can we use knowledge about the brain to overcome bad habits and build new ones, especially when it comes to leadership development?

Even though we read a lot about the brain and leadership skills these days, most of us carry around mistaken beliefs. One big myth is that we’re born with huge amounts of brains cells that we lose steadily every day until we die. While I’m still certain that holds true for a few of the “idiots” I’ve encountered, it goes against what the neuroscientists have learned about the brain.

In actual fact, every day the brain generates 10,000 stem cells that split into two (which¬† makes me wonder who counts them, and if it’s still really true for some of us old fellows…). One of these stem cells continues making stem cells and the other migrates to where ever it’s needed in the brain and becomes that kind of cell.

That destination is where a cell is needed for new learning. Over the next four months, that new cell forms about 10,000 connections with others to create new neural circuitry (from Daniel Goleman’s The Brain and Emotional Intelligence). I find it fascinating that new software tools for brain imaging can now track and show this new connectivity at the single-cell level.

The brain continually reshapes itself according to the experiences we have. For example, if we try to learn a new golf swing, the neural circuitry will attract connections and neurons. If we try to change a habit, for example, learning to ask more questions and listen to responses, then that circuitry will grow accordingly.

Contrarily, when we try to overcome a bad habit, we have to deal with a thick circuitry because it’s been used and repeated thousands of times. That’s why change is so difficult. Newer circuits of neurons are small and weak, compared to the ones used for habits.

So the question is, how can we get a new habit to stick, so that the neural connections in the brain become solid and strong?

Here’s what Goleman and others recommend:

  1. Get committed. This requires deep engagement, which involves the prefrontal cortex… and a coach. Your own brain isn’t sufficient because by a certain age, we’ve all become masters of excuses. Another person can help keep you on target.
  2. Get practical. Don’t try to change everything at once. One habit at a time. Break it down, then ramp it up.
  3. Be specific. Know what you’re going to do, when, and what your back up plan is (If this, than that…).
  4. Persist long enough for new neurons to grow and become strong. If you falter, pick up and repeat.

A habit begins to be hard-wired the very first time you practice it. It usually takes 3 to 6 months of practice before a new habit becomes more natural than the old one.

What’s been your experience with this? Does knowing what your brain does to build a new habit help you?

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