Monday, September 23, 2013

Five Steps to Habit Change

By Virgil Carter

How many of us have habits we’d like to change?  Hold up your hands!  I’ve got my hand raised; how about you?  According to a recent article by Daniel Goldman, the brain’s basal ganglia plays a key role in the formations of habits, both good and bad.  What’s the basal ganglia I heard someone say?  The basal ganglia (or basal nuclei) are a group of nuclei of varied origin in the brains of vertebrates that act as a cohesive functional unit. They are situated at the base of the forebrain and are strongly connected with the cerebral cortex, thalamus and other brain areas.  If you don’t believe me, just Wiki it!  But I digress.

According to Mr. Goldman, “As we keep repeating a routine of any kind, the brain shifts its control of the habit from areas at the top of the brain to the basal ganglia at the bottom. As this switch occurs, we lose awareness of the habit and its triggers. The routine springs into action in response to a trigger we don’t notice, and does so automatically. We lose control.”

“To change the habit we must first bring it into consciousness again. That takes self-awareness, a fundamental of emotional intelligence.

Mr. Goldman writes, “This (idea of habits) came up at a workshop I gave with Tara Bennett-Goleman on her new book, Mind Whispering: A New Map to Freedom from Self-defeating Emotional Habits, which explains the neuroscience of habit change. She recommends mindfulness as a way to bring unconscious habits back into awareness where they can be changed. And she outlines a simple five-step process for making that change, especially helpful if the person is working with a coach.

1.   Familiarize yourself with the self-defeating habit. Get so you can recognize the routine as it starts, or begins to take over. This might be by noticing its typical thoughts or feelings, or how you start to act. You can also follow Paul Ekman's simple suggestion: keep a journal of your triggers.

2.   Be mindful. Monitor your behavior –thoughts, feelings, actions – from a neutral, “witness” awareness.

3.   Remember the alternatives – think of a better way to handle the situation.

4.   Choose something better – e.g., what you say or do that would be helpful instead of self-defeating.

5.   Do this at every naturally occurring opportunity.

Tara cites the neuroscience evidence that the more often you can repeat the new routine instead of the self-destructive one, the sooner it will replace the self-defeating habit in your basal ganglia. The better response will become your new default reaction.

To read the full article, go to

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