We all have habits we wish we could change, but personal growth is hard and we often fall back into old ways. What if there was a way we could rewire our behaviour from the inside out?
The term “brain hacking” was created based on a simple premise: Our brain is just one huge computer. It can be rewired, upgraded, and hacked just like a PC. However, brain hacking actually refers to the application of techniques and/or technologies to affect an individual’s mental state, cognitive processes or level of function.
This practice is typically reported on in a negative fashion: It’s tech insiders and Silicon Valley big wigs invading your grey matter to get you hooked on their products. It’s dopamine gaming, notification overload, and phone addiction.
But what if we could use it to our own advantage? What if it’s just a tool, and we can harness it for good habits instead of bad ones?
In fact, an alternative approach to “hacking your brain” is to develop mindful practices and habits to help with stress relief and coping. Dr. Karolien Notebaert in her TED Talk “Hack your own brain” describes brain hacking as the capacity to better manage ourselves and meet our full potential.
Instead of considering brain hacking an evil, it could actually be a way for us to create consciousness and openness to grow. Hacking our brains is a way to embrace the power within each of us to unlock our talents, capacity and skills with better habits.
Habits are the process by which activities that would usually require willpower become automatic. In order to form better or new habits, you need to condition your brain through a process that lets you map out your actions and visualize the results.
How to hack your own brain for better habits
1. Choose a behaviour
The first step is deciding on which new habit you want to nurture. What do you want to make into a habit? Do you want to become a gym rat? Read more books? It’s best to start small by choosing one specific habit or behaviour you want to work on so you do not get overwhelmed.
2. Set a conditioning period
This will be a set amount of time in which you focus solely on building up your chosen habit. Scientific studies show this period is approximately 66 days. Start by committing to a specific timeline, for example, a month. Making it through this initial conditioning phase and honing your discipline during that time makes it much easier to sustain the new habit. It also allows you to track your progress and adjust your plans as you move forward.
3. Practice the new habit daily or set a schedule
It is imperative that you practice and nurse your new habit every day. For habits that require rest like going to the gym, practice active rest by setting aside time to stretch, walk, or do yoga. Consistency is key when it comes to changing your lifestyle and behaviour. Establishing a routine and a timeline for engraining this new habit in your brain makes it more likely for the learned behaviour to stick.
4. Focus on doing more, not less
If your new habit is about giving up an old habit, one of the most crucial steps is focusing on replacing the most common 80-90% of that behaviour. Doing this will eliminate that black hole that forms in your habit’s absence. So, if you want to stop eating junk food, focus on eating a lot of healthy food. Don’t tell yourself you can’t have bad food, only that you need to eat a certain amount of vegetables and fruits per day. Soon, your body will become accustomed to being fed more nutritious items and there won’t be room in your diet for poor choices.
5. Reward yourself
Hack your brain’s reward system to build sustainable habits is a great strategy to ensure your success. Reward is the final step in the “Habit Loop”. By practicing positive reinforcement, you incentivize yourself to stick to your habit as your brain seeks the reward associates with it. Anything can act as a reward, as long as it motivates you and enables you to learn the new behaviour and keep up your habit. New gym clothes can make it more fun to get ready to work out, for example.
6. Start small
Don’t go from 0-100. Commit a small amount of time per day to the new activity (and pick one new thing at a time. Don’t try to start meditating, working out, reading, and learning to code all at once). Make the expectation low so you can easily accomplish your goal, especially at the beginning. This might mean setting a goal to read for 10 minutes in the morning or walk for 20 minutes after work. Each day you meet your micro-quota will bring you closer to your macro-goal. You’ll find that, as soon as you start doing whatever your new habit is, you’ll end up dedicating more time to it than you originally intended.
7. Make it social
Many of us have had no real problem forming new habits, it’s keeping them that’s the real problem. This is where your friends or family come in. Charles Duhigg, in his book The Power of Habit: Why We Do What We Do in Life and Business, says “for a habit to stay changed, people must believe that change is possible. And most often, that belief only emerges with the help of a group.” This is simply because groups create accountability. Without accountability, we slip into old habits, as there’s no fear of repercussions. For example, you could go to the gym with a friend, or start a book club. The social aspect can make the process enjoyable, but add the necessary social pressure to keep you on the wagon.
8. Just do it
The most important and most crucial step is not caving into those “ah-screw-it” moments. Perseverance is key. Building new habits is an ongoing process. Personal development is a continual pursuit. There will be a few bumps along the roads, but don’t let small failures deter you from sticking to your plan to become a better you.
Ready to hack your own brain?
Humans are governed by habits. The little things we do every day make up who we are. If you know how to control your habits, you can better control who you are. So, go ahead. Hack your habits, and become a better you.