When the new year rolls around,
Whether to improve our fitness or our mental health, to eat better or spend less time on TikTok, by and large, we’re inspired by the fresh start January brings, ready to be better, smarter, fitter, faster versions of ourselves.
Self-directed neuroplasticity is when you intentionally rewire your brain to create positive habits. People do this primarily through active reflection.
Yes, the term is a mouthful — but it’s also a powerful, science-based method to break undesirable habits and create new, healthy ones.
The concept was first defined by researcher Dr. Jeffrey Schwartz and then popularized by Dr. Rick Hanson, a psychologist and senior fellow at UC Berkeley’s Greater Good Science Center and author of “Hardwiring Happiness.”
Self-directed neuroplasticity is different from experience-dependent neuroplasticity, a passive process in which we reinforce habits by doing them unconsciously over and over again, whether they’re good or bad.
You can use this method to train your brain to stick with habits for the long haul. Sound too good to be true? Read on to learn how to do it.
How habits are formed
Habits are routines or rituals that are unconscious or that have become almost automatic or second nature.
A habit is a practice you repeat so regularly that it can be hard to change. This could be biting your nails when you’re worried, picking up a bottle of wine whenever you pass the liquor store, or cracking open a bag of chips while watching TV at the end of the day.
A habit might even be unconscious, like jiggling your leg while you’re on a flight, or licking your lips when you’re forced to do some public speaking.
But where do habits come from?
Your sensory nervous system is always monitoring for actions you can take that will deliver a hit of dopamine, the brain’s reward chemical. We’re wired to seek out pleasure.
“Any habit we develop is because our brain is designed to pick up on things that reward us and punish us,” explains Dr. Sanam Hafeez, a clinical psychologist and neuropsychologist based in New York City.
When your brain recognizes a pattern, such as a connection between action and satisfaction, it files that information away neatly in an area of the brain called the basal ganglia. This is also where we develop emotions and memories, but it’s not where conscious decisions are made — that’s the prefrontal cortex.
This may be what makes habits so hard to break. They come from a brain region that’s out of your conscious control, so you’re barely aware you’re doing them, if at all.
In the early days of humankind, this was beneficial: The reward center of our brains was a survival tool that helped us to seek out the things we needed to survive, like comfort and calories, and to avoid discomfort.
In a modern world, though, that constant search for feel-good experiences can drive us in some less-than-helpful directions.
Just because something feels good in the moment, that doesn’t mean it’s good for our long-term happiness, health, longevity, social relationships, or mental wellness. And just because something is uncomfortable, that doesn’t mean it’s dangerous.
Just like in our ancestors, our brains chase that dopamine high. So when a behavior comes along that results in a reward, the brain builds a connection between that behavior and pleasure that can be hard to shake.
This linking of cue, action, and reward is how a habit is born.
The habit loop
Habits are actions that are triggered by cues, such as a time of day, an activity, or a location. They culminate in a feel-good reward that, through repetition, fuses the connection between cue and reward firmly in the brain.
Psychologists at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) made a landmark discovery in 1999 of a cue-routine-reward feedback loop that journalist Charles Duhigg later coined “the habit loop” in his 2012 book “The Power of Habit.”
Design by Ruth Basagoitia
Here’s how the habit loop works:
- Cue. You experience a stimulus — a trigger. It could be being in a certain location, smelling a certain smell, seeing a certain person, or feeling a particular emotional state, among many other possibilities.
- Craving. The stimulus causes you to desire a particular outcome that you find rewarding. It motivates you to act.
- Response. You engage in behaviors, thoughts, or actions you take to get that outcome.
- Reward. The outcome occurs and you feel a sense of reward as a result, satisfying your craving. The pleasure or relief you experience reinforces the cue, making the cue even better at triggering craving next time. That’s why it’s an endless loop.
Here’s an example of how the habit loop can lead to undesirable habits:
You might hit a wall with a creative work or school project and crave a break from the hard mental work. You step outside for a cigarette, both relieving yourself from an uncomfortable situation and giving yourself a nicotine boost. Over time, feeling stuck at work will start to trigger you to reach for cigarettes.
Or, that relief might come from something less obviously addictive: scrolling social media. Sound familiar?
The habit loop often happens subconsciously and can perpetuate not-so-good-for-us behavior. But we can also use these principles of cue and reward to intentionally cultivate habits with outcomes we want.
Here’s an example of the habit loop leading to beneficial results:
You hit a wall with a project and crave a break from the hard mental work. You step outside for a walk, relieving yourself from an uncomfortable situation and getting some exercise. Or maybe you start using audio for breaks — putting on a podcast, book, or music.
Over time, feeling stuck at work will start to trigger you to go for walks or to close your eyes and listen to something relaxing.
Design by Ruth Basagoitia
One smart option is to connect “good habits” (like exercising more) with a more immediate reward — for instance, listening to new episodes of your favorite podcast only when you go for walks.
Another option is to tap into the magic of mindfulness.
The power of ‘why’
At the core of rewiring habits is reflection.
It’s a pillar of cognitive behavioral therapy, which basically works like this: Try new things and pay attention to how they make you feel. That second part is absolutely key. “It’s the best hack for changing preset behaviors,” says Hafeez.
To practice it at home is straightforward. Reflect on how unhealthy behaviors make you feel bad, and how healthy behaviors make you feel good. Then write it down. Then talk to someone about them. Then reread what you’ve written a month down the road.
“When you see the data that you’ve done what you said you would do, you develop a belief in yourself,” says Catherine Roscoe Barr. She’s a Vancouver-based wellness coach with a background in neuropsychology who has successfully used neuroplasticity to adopt positive fitness and nutrition habits.
“You can use the mind to change your physical brain and hardwire that belief in,” she says.
Importantly, for actions that have more long-term benefits, it’s important to take time out to celebrate the short-term benefits.
Yes, over time, eating nutrient-rich food will probably increase your energy and focus and maybe create a stronger physique, but the brain has a tough time sticking with something if it doesn’t see immediate results, too.
That’s why journaling soon after an activity is important, to fuse feelings with action. “I am proud I made that choice” or “I was more energetic after lunch” are positive feelings you might have after picking a kale salad over a cheeseburger.
It’s vital to take a moment to acknowledge those so your brain can learn to crave that connection next time lunch rolls around.
Barr suggests regularly going back and reading the past few weeks and months of your journal or notes to truly see the data in action.
“When you see the data, you know that it works, and it convinces your brain through your own words and own writing that yes, indeed, this is really powerful,” says Barr.
How to start a new habit (or break a old one)
Of course, journaling isn’t a magic cure-all for breaking an unhelpful habit or motivating yourself to adopt a new routine.
Here are more science-backed techniques that can help make your habit-hacking more likely to succeed.
Say your goal out loud
Positive affirmations may have a woo-woo reputation, but saying your goals out loud to yourself does actually make you more likely to do them, and it may help increase your sense of self-worth too, according to
Dr. Tom Kannon is a psychiatric mental health nurse practitioner. He says that when people have undergone brain scans while saying positive affirmations, the brain “lights up like a Christmas tree.”
“Your brain truly wants to believe everything you’re saying,” he says.
Swap a new habit for an old one
Instead of going cold turkey, it’s far more effective to start replacing or adjusting small parts of the habituated action.
If you always sit down with your glass of Scotch at 6 p.m., for instance, keep the time and the glassware, but swap out the booze for soda.
“It’ll make it much easier to decouple the alcohol from the habit and then you can work on replacing this habituated action with something different,” says Kannon.
Aim small (to start!)
There’s nothing wrong with big, audacious goals, of course. But there need to be smaller, bite-sized achievements along the way. Accomplishing even a tiny goal can offer enough of a dopamine kick to reinforce behavior and boost you to the next step.
“You don’t have to commit to going for a certain amount of time,” says Kannon. “It’s just about getting over that initial hump. You can start building on it later.”
Once you have your bite-size habit ingrained — say, committing to meditating, starting with the goal of 1 minute a day — it’s easy to expand or contract as you need to.
Add on to an existing routine
Habit stacking, as popularized by James Clear in his book “Atomic Habits,” takes the mini-habit idea one step further.
Take a habit you already practice, and add on one little positive thing to your routine, like doing calf raises while you brush your teeth.
If you take a snack break at 11 a.m. every day, why not walk around the block at the same time?
Banish the all-or-nothing mentality
Remember: Anything is better than nothing.
Would working out in the gym for an hour every day, 5 days a week be ideal? Maybe. But making that your only definition of success only makes getting active that much more intimidating.
“Everybody can find 15 minutes in their day,” says Barr. “That’s 1 percent of your day.”
And once you’ve developed the habit of moving for 15 minutes a day, it’s far easier to go a little longer.
Create a plan that plays to your strengths
“Work with nature,” suggests Hafeez.
If you’re a visual or spatial person, build new habits around the format that works best for you. If you want to take up meditating, for instance, and the audio apps aren’t working for you, seek out a program with visual guidance instead.
If your goal is to read a book a week, but you’re having trouble sitting still and focusing on your novel, download the audiobook and “read” while you stroll your neighborhood.
Change your language
Metacognition is thinking about the way we think, including how we use language. If the way you talk about exercise is, “I hate it, it’s hard, it hurts,” then you’re probably not going to crave that experience.
Reframing it as something positive that makes you feel powerful and happy (even if it’s challenging!) is going to help compel you to get moving.
Even if you don’t believe it at first, “faking it till you make it” may wire neurons together to eventually create the genuine reaction you were forcing at first. Smiling even when you don’t mean it can actually make you happy, at least to a small degree, according to a 2017 review of research.
As any sports psychologist can tell you, visualization is an incredible tool for reaching your goals. Even if your goal is to run 1 mile without stopping rather than win the Boston Marathon, it can have an impact.
Studies show that whether you’re thinking about running or actually running, similar neurons are firing in your brain — and creating those feel-good pathways with visualization can help motivate you to get up and actually lace up your shoes.
Set up the right cues in your environment
A 2018 review of research found that environmental pressures can be more powerful than simply willing yourself to achieve a goal. In other words, change your environment to change your habits.
So if you want create a new habit like, “Be more mindful,” instead of trying to achieve it with sheer willpower, create a tangible cue to link it to.
For instance, you could leave a pen and gratitude journal on your bedside table. Then, every night before you go to bed, you’ll see it, pick it up, and write down what you’re grateful for.
The point is this: You may be more likely to maintain this habit when you’re prompted by seeing the journal compared with just having the goal in mind.
This can help you make diet changes, too. That’s why many nutritionists recommend strategically stocking your kitchen so that healthy snacks are readily available on the counter or in the cupboards, while less nutritious foods are in a less visible place.
In doing this, you’re actively changing your environment, making it much easier to avoid cues for habits you want to break (like seeing the cookie jar), and incorporating cues into your environment for the habits you want to make (like grabbing an apple).
Give yourself a break
Whether you’re trying to build a new positive habit or shake an old habit you don’t like, patience is vital.
Yes, there are people out there who can just go cold turkey with a negative habit. But the reality is, they’re very rare. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) reports that most people who smoke try to quit smoking
Be kind to yourself as you try to break a pattern. Falling back into a habit doesn’t mean you’ve failed.
“Instead of thinking of yourself as a failure, reframe setbacks as, ‘I didn’t succeed that time, but I can still try again,’” suggests Kannon.
Consistency will come with practice, and so will success.
5-part framework for creating positive habits
Catherine Roscoe Barr shared her recommendations for creating positive habits.
Use this five-part framework to set goals that you can actually stick to:
- Discover. Make sure you understand why your goal matters to you.
- Diagnose. Identifying friction points or roadblocks and removing them is important. Create boundaries that will help keep you on track.
- Prescribe. Figure out your ideal game plan and personalize it to your interests and skills. Want to move more but hate to run? Dance or swim instead.
- Practice. As they say, done is better than perfect. Don’t get stuck in an “all-or-nothing” mindset for creating new habits. You’re not a failure if you aren’t going to the gym for an hour each day. Instead, take baby steps. Be flexible and forgiving with yourself. “I love the word ‘practice,’” says Barr. “It’s a reminder that it’s not about being perfect — it’s about doing it.”
- Pause. Reflecting on your efforts and results builds new links in the brain.