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Goal Achievement

Are We Poisoning Our Kids With Our Bad Habits?

Author: NeuroGym Team | 2016

 If you’re like most people, you have at least one bad habit that drives you nuts...

If you’re a parent it gets worse -- you’re harming not just you, but your family too.

We all know kids imitate everything. If you have kids, I bet they’ve embarrassed you at least once or twice. Have you ever been talking to someone, when your child blurts out something like "my mommy thinks your new house is ugly!"

You, mortified, turn bright red and apologize. Your child looks confused, and protests:  "But you did say that!"

Kids are like sponges. They're also transparent as a freshly cleaned window.

Whatever you do, say, wear, or consume looks cool through their impressionable little eyes.

Do you ever want your child to be plagued with a chronic cough from smoking? How about struggling to walk up a staircase because they weigh more than a pregnant pig?

That’s almost inevitable if you, their primary role model, are a smoker or an unhealthy eater.

Even if you don’t have kids, I’m guessing you hate your bad habits...  otherwise you wouldn’t call them “bad habits.”

Why You Haven’t Succeeded in Quitting

Have you tried to stop biting your nails, being late, smoking cigarettes... only to do it again, and then feel even worse than before?

First off, forget about the times you tried to quit and failed — it’s ok. Everyone’s been there.

Next, keep reading to learn effective and scientific tactics for changing your behavior.

When trying to kick a bad habit, most people aim too high. They say “I’m never drinking again!” or “I’m going to lose 30 pounds in 60 days!”

Doable, sure, but not great a great plan for long term success.

That’s because:

There’s a big difference between a goal and a lifestyle change.

If you’re trying to lose weight in a specific period of time (maybe for a wedding, class reunion, or some other event), you may have enough motivation to reach the finish line.

If you’re thinking about fitting into that dress in a couple weeks, that may be enough to keep you away from the Krispy Kremes. Maybe you do go to the gym every day, and eat nothing but celery and cheese cubes...

But what happens after the event, when you’re totally burned out? There’s a good chance you’ll fall into your old patterns, and gain back what you lost.

The best way to get to your goals (without killing yourself, or giving up), is to focus on your habits, and start small.

And let’s face it:

Do you REALLY want to “never eat an oreo again” and “weigh 120lbs?”

OR do you actually want to be a fit person?

The second one, right?

Ok, cool.

So now let’s clarify how habits are formed and why they stick around.

What IS a Habit, Really?

At the neurological level, you have a few different areas involved in decision making. Your prefrontal cortex (the logical, thinking part) isn’t required all the time.

Instead, you’ve got an area called the “basal ganglia,” which operates on autopilot. Two impulses originate there — let’s call them “Stop” and “Go.”

StopAngel2 Stop is the angel on one shoulder, cheering for willpower. Go is the devil on the other. He keeps life fun, fresh, and exciting. GoDevil2

Stop is in control by default. You’re already in the habit of NOT doing something.

To put Go in charge, you have to feel a reward when he makes a choice. Usually, this happens with a release of dopamine.

Maybe you eat too much junk food. Sugar is one of the most common ways to get your dopamine fix.

Or perhaps you use a rude tone of voice when you’re stressed. People don’t want to deal with it, so they just give you what you want. Your subconscious reads that as:
Rudeness -> goal attainment -> dopamine for reaching a goal.

At some level, you’re getting a positive result.

Here’s a three part cycle that explains how this process leads to habits:


(Courtesy of James Clear)

It’s pretty simple, really. Something triggers an action, you do it, it goes well, so you keep doing it.

Once your brain links a certain behavior to an outcome, it takes some effort to unlink them. 

This is where it gets tricky… 

The key to breaking bad habits is to disrupt the cycle, then consciously rebuild a new one.

If your habits include playing video games for 30 hours a week, it’s going to take more than “motivation” to turn that around.

All sorts of things deplete your willpower throughout the day. When you finally get to your “free time,”  there’s probably not much left. You don’t want to rely on motivation to push you away from bad behavior and towards good activities.

That’s why people keep doing things that hurt them in the long run.

You were going to go to the gym every day this week, but you’re sooooo tired. Work, kids, hungry, beer….


Oh man, same thing. You just don’t have the energy to get dressed, put on your sneakers, drive to the gym, think up a routine, actually do the exercises, then drive home, shower….

You’ll go this weekend.

Then you don’t.

Then a month passes, and you realize you didn’t hit your goal.

What went wrong?

You were asking too much of yourself, and you weren’t building habits. Each day, you had to look for the motivation again to go through the whole ordeal of hitting the gym.

(If you’re STILL not convinced that willpower will let you down, check this out)

Understanding Behavior Will Help You Form Habits Around Good Ones.

Three separate factors combine to result in a behavior:

  1. Motivation — you need a reason to do it.
  2. Ability — how easily can it be done?
  3. Trigger — something that happens to spur you into action.

Here’s a nice visual representation from Dr. BJ Fobb over at Stanford:


The curve represents the “activation threshold.”

If an activity falls under the line, it’s too hard and you’re not motivated enough.

Above that line, you’re motivated and it’s easy enough, so a trigger will cause you to take action.

If something is easy, you don't need much motivation to do it. If someone asks you to stand up, twirl around, then sit back down, why not? You don’t want to, but it’s so easy there’s no reason not to, either.

On the flip side if you want to run the New York Marathon, you have to really want it.

The trick to making lasting behavioral changes is to stay above the line (with a decent margin). Even if you have an off day, it should be too easy not to keep doing.

Then, you want to attach the action to a trigger. What makes a good trigger? Something you’re already in the habit of doing.

Here are some examples:

  • Think of one thing you’re grateful for every time you brush your teeth.
  • Kiss your spouse for a full ten seconds every time you walk in the door.
  • Do two push-ups every time you check your email.

But how do you get the big change you want without pouring out sweat at the gym, or having a friend chain you to your desk until you have a million dollars?

 Focus on BEING That Person.

 Imagine the person you want to be, then identify with her as you build your new habits.

Do you think a fit person never eats an oreo?

Or do you think she treats herself sometimes?

She probably enjoys that oreo, or even five oreos.

She doesn’t feel guilty, either. She just runs an extra 1/2 mile today, or skips dessert later.

If you want to stop being rude when you’re tired and hungry, decide “I AM the type of person who is in control of her emotions.”

Then, commit to a new tiny habit: whenever you start to feel crabby, you will go into the bathroom and smile at yourself in the mirror for 2 minutes.

After a while, you probably won’t even have to. You’ll be in the habit of turning off your negativity.

Building great habits that stick is a long term game.

It may seem totally silly to start out so small.

But —  “hitting snooze only once” is a much easier to maintain and build on, than deciding to wake up at 6am everyday.

Master the tiny habit, and you can incrementally form bigger habits.

Not only does this make you more likely to succeed, but it sets a good example. If you have children, they’re picking up on your attitudes, behaviors, and results.

Instead of demonstrating negativity (like guilt, or shame, or giving up), you can be consistent, positive, and patient.

“Earning 50k in 50 days” is a sexy sounding goal. “Spend 10 minutes a day reading about finance” is arguably less exciting.

However -- 2 years later, you’ll probably be more grateful you committed to the second one.

As Aristotle says,

We are what we repeatedly do. Excellence, then, is not an act, but a habit.”

Too Impatient To Wait For Your Dream Life?

The tiny habits thing isn’t a quick fix. You can use it anywhere, anytime, with any habit; you just have to be patient. The point is to start small, and gradually intensify.

Another option is to supplement your habit renovation with some mindset work.

Let’s say you’ve been overweight for years, and you just want to feel healthy and fit again. By now, all those bad habits and mindsets are wired into your brain.

If you work on your habits and your mindset, you can reach your goals even faster -- it’s like sprinting to the end vs jogging.

There are a few ways to build a mindset for success -- meditation, affirmations, journaling...

With practice, you can take your brain from believing in a “ sad, underpaid, scarcity mentality…” to a “resourceful, optimistic, opportunity seeker.”

Imagine what it would feel like to wake up in the morning, excited to start your day.

You know whatever outfit you choose will look great on you. You’re pretty sure your net worth will increase by tomorrow. You can’t wait to dive into your work.

(If you had a hard time picturing yourself in your ideal scenario, that’s a red flag that your mindset isn’t on the right track)

Since brain retraining can be a little tough, we made some programs that are pretty easy to follow. We call the activities “innercises,” because they’re like exercises for your brain.

It’s kind of like having a personal trainer at the gym. First you find out where you have a weak spot, then you strengthen it.

Imagine the difference you could make in 12 weeks, if you had a personal trainer and a community to support you, and hold you accountable...

All you have to do is choose the area that needs the most help, and then show up for training.


About The Author

NeuroGym Team

NeuroGym Team: NeuroGym’s Team of experts consists of neuroscientists, researchers, and staff who are enthusiasts in their fields. The team is committed to making a difference in the lives of others by sharing the latest scientific findings to help you change your life by understanding and using the mindset, skill set and action set to change your brain.

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