Habits of the Wealthy: Neuroscientist

Habits are a big part of who we are and what we do habitually makes up much of what we do entirely. It’s estimated that up to 70 percent of our waking behavior is made up of habitual behavior.

People are highly variable and if you can’t form one habit easily, it doesn’t mean that you can’t form other habits easily. It takes 21 days to form a habit – some people say 18 days, some people 30 days, some people 60 days. So which one is it?

The Science Behind Habit Formation

Understanding Procedural Memory

Does it depend on the habit that one is trying to form or does it depend on the person that’s trying to form the habit?

There’s a study published in 2010 by first author Lally. This study found that for the same habit to be formed it can take anywhere from 18 days to as many as 254 days for different individuals to form that habit.

So what i’d like to do is take the scientific literature of how the nervous system learns and engages in neuroplasticity and apply that to habit formation, habit maintenance and if so desired, how to break particular habits.

I’d like to give you a tool that’s gleaned from the research psychology literature with each repetition of a habit small changes occur in the cognitive and neural mechanisms as a sodium associated with procedural memory.

Just want to talk for a second about what procedural memory is. In the neuroscience of memory we distinguish between what’s called episodic memory and procedural memory.

Episodic memory is a recall of a particular set of events that happened whereas procedural memory is holding in mind the specific sequence of things that need to happen in order for a particular outcome to occur.

Overcoming Limbic Friction Through Visualization

Think of it like a recipe or a protocol or if for the sake of exercise it’s like sets and reps or a particular course that you’re going to run or cycle or the number of laps you’re going to swim and how you’re going to perform it.

It’s very clear that for anyone trying to adopt new habits getting into the mindset of procedural memory is very useful for overcoming that barrier that we call limbic friction.

How do you do that? Well, a simple visualization exercise doesn’t even have to be done eyes closed. Oftentimes we hear visualization exercise you think about sitting in the lotus position eyes closed trying really hard to visualize something.

Doesn’t need to be anything like that it can simply be if you are deciding to adopt a new habit to just think about the very specific sequence of steps that’s required to execute that habit.

I’ll use a trivial example, but this could be applied to anything. Let’s say I want to get into the habit of making myself or someone else in my household a cup of espresso every morning. I would actually think through each of those steps – walk into the kitchen, turn on the espresso machine, draw the espresso. Walking through each of those steps from start to finish.

Turns out just that simple mental exercise done once can shift people toward a much higher likelihood of performing that habit regularly. Not just the first time but as they continue out into the days and weeks that follow. So that’s remarkable to me and the literature is robust.

The Power of Task Bracketing

Now I’d like to discuss a second and what I think is perhaps the most powerful tool for being able to acquire and stick to new habits. The tool that I’m referring to is something called task bracketing.

The neural circuits associated with task bracketing are basically the neural circuits that are going to allow you to learn any new type of habit or break any habit that you’d like to break.

We have in our brain a set of neural circuits that fall under the umbrella term of the basal ganglia. The basal ganglia are involved in action execution, meaning doing certain things, and action suppression, not doing certain things.

In the experimental realm these are referred to as go, meaning do, or no go, don’t do certain things and some of us fall more into the category of we find it very easy to do certain things but harder to not do other things.

Some people have a lot of no-go type circuits that are very robust and they have a lot of behavioral constraint but they have a harder time getting into action.

Task bracketing involves a particular set of neural circuits within the basal ganglia. We have particular circuits in our brain that are devoted to framing the events that happen just before and as we initiate a habit and just after and as we terminate a habit.

In other words it acts as a sort of marker for the habit execution but not the execution of the habit per se. This is very important because task bracketing is what underlies whether or not a habit will be context dependent or not.

Key Tools for Habit Change

Whether or not it will be strong and likely to occur even if we didn’t get a good night’s sleep the night before even if we’re feeling distracted even if we are not feeling like doing something emotionally or if we are you know completely overwhelmed by other events.

Visualizing the Steps of a New Habit

If the neural circuits for task bracketing are deeply embedded in us meaning they are very robust around a particular habit well then it’s likely that we’re going to go out for that zone 2 cardio no matter what.

That we’re going to brush our teeth no matter what in fact brushing our teeth is a pretty good example because for most people even if you got a terrible night’s sleep even if everything in your life is going wrong chances are unless you’re very depressed if you’re gonna leave to work or even if you’re not that you’re going to still carry out the behavior of brushing your teeth in the morning I would hope so actually.

But you are probably less likely to perform particular habits that are not what you deem as necessary but if you think about it brushing your teeth, exercise, eating particular foods, maybe engaging socially in particular ways you are the one that places any kind of value assessment on which ones are essential and which ones are negotiable.

Framing Habit Execution with Task Bracketing

So task bracketing sets a neural imprint, a kind of a fingerprint in your brain of this thing has to happen at this particular time of day so much so that it’s reflexive.

While it is important to think about the sequence of events that would be required in order to engage in that behavior, that procedural memory visualization exercise we talked about before that will help there is a way also that you can orient your nervous system toward this tax bracketing process so that your nervous system is shifted or oriented towards the execution of a given habit.

This is sort of like warming up your body to exercise. When the dorsolateral striatum is engaged your body and your brain are primed to execute a habit and then you get to consciously insert which habit you want to perform.

Inserting New Habits After Bad Ones

If you are considering adopting a new habit or if you are trying to break a habit it’s very useful to think not just about the procedural aspects of what you’re going to do but also think about the events that precede and follow that particular habit.

I’ll get into the specific tool for breaking habits. Capture the sequence of events not that led to the bad habit execution but actually to take advantage of the fact that the neurons that were responsible for generating that bad habit were active a moment ago and engaged in a replacement behavior immediately afterward.

Now this is really interesting and I think powerful because I would have thought that you have to engage in a replacement behavior that truly replaces the bad habit behavior. That you would have to be able to identify your state of mind or the sequence of events leading to the bad habit.

But rather the stage or the period immediately after the bad habit execution is a unique opportunity to insert a different type of what we would call adaptive behavior but that could be any behavior that’s not in line with the bad behavior.

Let’s give an example. Let’s say you find yourself, you’re trying to do focused work, you pick up your phone, you’re disappointing yourself for picking up your phone.

You could of course just put it down and re-engage in the work behavior but if you were good at that then you probably wouldn’t have done it in the first place.

So what turns out to be very effective is to go engage in some other positive habit now. This has two major effects:

  1. You start to link in time the execution of a bad behavior to this other good behavior and in doing so you start to recruit other neural circuits, other neurons that can start to somewhat dismantle the sequence of firing associated with the bad behavior. In other words you start to create a kind of a double habit that starts with a bad habit and then ends with a good habit and that seems to create enough of a temporal mismatch so that then recognizing when you’re heading toward the bad habit becomes more apparent to you.
  2. The second major effect is that by engaging consciously in this other positive habit you are actively retraining your nervous system away from the bad habit and towards something positive. You are growing new connections that can eventually override the bad habit connections.


The Role of Habits in Our Lives

In summary, habits play a major role in our behavior – up to 70% by some estimates. Understanding the science behind how habits form in the brain gives us tools to change our habits.

Applying Scientific Research on Habits

Concepts like procedural memory, task bracketing, and inserting new habits after bad ones utilize insights from neuroscience and psychology to transform our habitual tendencies.

Investing in Positive Changes Through Habits

By actively visualizing the procedural steps of a good habit, framing habit execution, and overriding negative habits with positive ones, we can sculpt new habits that enrich our lives.


How long does it actually take to form a new habit?

Research shows it takes anywhere from 18 to 254 days for a new habit to form, depending on the habit and the person.

What part of the brain controls habits?

The basal ganglia circuits control habit learning and execution. These include both “go” circuits to perform habits and “no-go” circuits to inhibit them.

What is an example of procedural memory?

Procedural memory includes things like remembering how to ride a bike, play an instrument, or make a cappuccino through sequential steps.

How does task bracketing work?

Task bracketing involves brain circuits that mark the beginning and end of a habit. This framing helps signal habit execution separate from the habit itself.

Why insert a new habit after a bad one?

Inserting a new habit after a bad one starts to break the neural wiring behind the negative habit while building up alternative positive wiring through conscious effort.

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