Issue 60

Breaking Bad habits

Vlad But
Managing partner @ AZIMUT Happy Employees & updateED


"Self-discipline has a bigger impact on academic performance than intellectual talent" - This is the quote that may give us all, regular people, some hope that we can still accomplish great things, be the expert in our field of work or that the power to change is in fact in our own control.

Well, the quote mentioned earlier is in fact one of the conclusions of a series of tests and experiments which were taken to determine the factors which influence performance, which was compared to IQ. One of the factors which stood out as being even more influential to performance than IQ was the self-discipline to create or change behaviors and habits. Before understanding how this conclusion was reached, it is important to define what habits (good or bad) actually are and to understand the way the human brain records new habits and behaviors, or, simply put, the way it learns (learn with ref. to learning behaviors, not just memorizing or retaining information).

What are habits and how does the brain learn new habits? - T.B.R. model

Our brain is by far the most complex system in our human body and for this reason over 20% of our energy resources are directed to the brain (the rest of the organs taken individually receive a lot less).

Given that the resources the body has at its disposal are limited, the human brain has evolved over time to streamline the way it allocates these resources to the various processes that take place within our body, one of the crucial processes of our evolution being the selection, learning and practicing of new behaviors. Specifically, each time we face a new situation or a new context that requires action / behavior on our part, our brain will always choose the path that involves the least energy or mental effort, and will learn and retain this way of action in order to be able to directly access it in the future without having to go through that process again (e.g. it would be inefficient and frustrating to have to re-learn to drive a car after a longer break). The more we are faced with that context, the more previously-learned behavior will become a routine for us, a habit.

Physiologically speaking, when we learn a new behavior, new neural pathways are created in our brain, and as the frequency of access to this path increases, the neural link becomes stronger and more accessible to us.

For example, for a person who works in a field that requires a lot of interaction with new customers / new people (meeting and seeing each other (visual and auditory stimulus) via a video call), then we will have the tendency to pursue the interactions with other new people similarly, not just on the phone (auditory stimulus).

By understanding the way the brain works, let us now define what a habit actually is.

Habit is the behavior associated with a certain context / trigger stimulus (social, psychological, visual, auditory, etc.), whose action has as a result various rewards for the brain. To further clarify this apparently abstract aspect, we will introduce fig. 1 below together with an example:

Fig 1. The way a habit is formed - the Trigger - Behavior - Reward (TBR)


The habit can be: To speak over to other colleagues during a meeting.

1. Possible triggers - Some ideas that I disagree with are being discussed, I want to affirm my authority to my colleagues, the others expect me to speak the most at this meeting, I want to be seen as team leader, and so on.

2. Action / Behavior - Intervene and talk over other people (using my stronger voice or professional authority, or etc.)

3. Reward - I voiced my point of view, imposed my idea in front of my colleagues, rose to the expectations of others, I see myself as a team leader, etc.

How can we change unhealthy habits?

Now that we understand how the habits appear and how they are perceived by the brain, we can move to the stage that really matters: the awareness and change stage (of course, if this is what we are after).

Of course, habits can be healthy (the habit of brushing our teeth daily in the morning and evening, the habit of listening to the opinions of all our colleagues, the habit of always helping colleagues in need, etc) or unhealthy (the habit of not doing sports, the habit of being individualistic, the habit of imposing our point of view without giving arguments just because we are a manager / chief / client, etc).

It helps to understand that all these habits have been created taking into account the first experience that our brain has lived in the given context and what its response to it was (at that exact time, taking into account the knowledge, past experiences and resources available) the result being the most effective, effortless and handy behavior. So, if my boss did this in my first job, I learned this behavior and, now that I'm also a manager, this is the only model my brain has registered and is now implementing.

To change a habit, often an unhealthy one, the first step we need to take is to become aware of its cerebral pattern and why we chose to apply it. Specifically, let's begin to analyze our reactions and relate them to the situations / context / stimuli that are present at that moment, be it a moment of the day, certain people, a certain place, and so on. Then let's see how our brains receive the reward after performing the behavior / action. (See Fig. 2)

Fig.2 Awareness of the brain pattern

After we realize what brain pattern is used, the second step is to replace the old behavior with a new behavior that matches the old context exactly and gives us the same reward (see fig. 3) and test it.

Fig.3 Changing a habit, keeping rewards and trigger stimuli

During the process of transforming unhealthy habits into healthy ones we will come accross some barriers of motivation or willpower, that means we need to know exactly why the initial behavior is not healthy for us and be absolutely convinced that the new behavior is the healthy one. Otherwise, the chances of returning to the original behavior are very high because the brain will consider that the execution of the new behavior is not a more effective solution for it and prefers to return to the original pattern.

In conclusion, the way in which the unhealthy habits are transformed is not a very complicated one; instead, it is complicated to find and become aware of the network of neural connections that triggered that behavior and the identification of the reward we receive every time and which we still want to receive.




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