Brain-based Habit Formation

Habits and the Dopamine Pleasure/Reward Cycle
(change your habits, change your LIFE)

©Madelyn Griffith-Haynie, CTP, CMC, ACT, MCC, SCAC
from the Time & Task Management Series:
Habits, Decisions & Attention-2

The Power of HABIT

Charles Duhigg, in an award-winning book entitled The Power of Habit, published in 2012, reminds us that transforming a habit is rarely easy, quick, or simple — but it is POSSIBLE.

I’ll go him one further.

As long as you will follow a simple 4-step procedure as you set your habits in place according to what science has learned about how the brain works, it is PROBABLE!

Now that science understands more about how patterns and pattern-recognition impact the the human brain (a pattern-recognition “machine,” after all), it is possible for any one of us to transform our entire lives through the power of habit.

In other words, we now know why habits develop, how they change, and how to build and rebuild them to our exact specifications — and feel GREAT about doing it.

Yea verily – even those of us who are citizens of Alphabet City can take advantage of the power of habit to change our experience of living.

What’s Possible?

Click the words UNDER the book jacket above to read a brief excerpt on the NPR site that tells the story of an small-town army major, a self-described “hick from Georgia” who almost single-handedly stopped a pattern of escalating riots in an Iraqi village, simply by analyzing the patterns that produced “the riot habit” and making ONE fundamental tweak.

“Understanding habits is the most important thing I’ve learned in the army,” the major in the excerpt linked above discloses. “It’s changed everything about how I see the world.”

  • What might be possible in YOUR life if you understood what the major knows about the neurology and psychology of habits and the way patterns work within our lives, businesses, and social groups?
  • What if you understood how to apply what you’ve read here on about the needs of neurodiversity to the neurotypical advice about motivation and habit formation — so that you could tweak the “standard” information that dominates the info-market to make it all work for YOU?

Take a moment to really think about THIS:

What might your life look like one short year from now if you actually applied what you learned here, step by step?

  • Would you be healthier?  Wealthier?  Happier with your marriage and family life?
  • Would you finally find the time to write that novel, or start that new business, or to take the necessary steps to move into that lakeside house you’ve always dreamed about?
  • What WOULD you do, tweaking the old expression slightly, if you understood how to set it up so that you could not fail?

That’s exactly what this Series is offering you — right here and at no charge what-so-ever until the time when it becomes available only in a paid format by eBook subscription.

For those of you who want to add velocity to your progress (or who need the structure of a little nudging along the way), I will soon be announcing a TeleClass that will expand on the principles offered for free, and serve as a MasterMind Group to keep you going — but I’m getting WAY ahead of myself here.

For right now, keep reading — and do the exercises that will be included as we move through the articles that explain the dynamics and outline the process.  Take advantage of this opportunity while its still free for the taking.

I’ll be working right along with you as I recover from the mugging incident last December, and redesign my own life.

So let’s get to work.  What’s going on in that brain of ours that keeps rotten habits in place, and how can we use that understanding to transform our lives?

Be sure to scroll up the sidebar to read how links work on this site, they’re subtle ==>

Dopamine and the Pleasure/Reward Cycle

Dopamine Modulated Reward Pathways in BLUE

Scientists have known for years that dopamine is related to positive behavior, pleasure and joy.

More recent studies have indicated that key receptors for dopamine functions in the Pre-frontal Cortex [PFC – blue shading on brain at left] are essential for habit formation, influencing overt behaviors that, in turn, change cognitive activity by creating physical changes in our brains (hold that thought!)

Why Care about Dopamine?

Dopamine, you may recall, is a neurotransmitter implicated in many of the struggles of those of us with challenges in the domains identified by ADD/EFD.  Many of you reading already know that one of the reasons why stimulant medication is effective is that it increases the bioavailability of dopamine – the amount available for your brain to use.

Kludgy dopamine metabolism in many of the citizens of Alphabet City almost approaches reward-deficiency syndrome [RDS], which is the main reason why consistent and immediate feedback is frequently required to reward our ongoing efforts and keep us on task.

This later research is great news for us, however – it means that we can learn to manipulate our own dopamine production, even without medication!

Releasing more dopamine through the brain’s automatic response to creating positive habitual activities will allow us to feel increasingly more pleasure, which will serve as the wind beneath our wings as we develop even MORE new habits – as long as we keep it up. (The additional dopamine will help with intentional focus overall, too!)

Creating habits that get us where we want to go eventually becomes its own reinforcer — as long as we don’t continually reactivate our bad habits.

By acting as Keystone Habits, attracting the formation of congruent positive changes, less productive habits will be naturally pushed aside by the new pathways created by our new habits — unless we reactivate the old pathways.

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~ As we learned in Part One, Keystone Habits are habitual behaviors that have what is sometimes termed “a multiplier effect,” serving as a CUE for additional habits congruent with the original set of actions) ~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

Changing a Habit

Any golf pro will tell you that eradicating their client’s bad habits is the toughest challenge they face.

It’s much easier and quicker to coach someone to play par golf if they’ve never picked up a club than if they’ve been a bogey golfer for years.

Only the best golf pros understand why that is and what to do to overcome it more quickly, however! 

Remember the habit CYCLE:

CUE (situation) ==> ACTION (behavior) ==> REWARD (reinforcement) ==> REPEAT!

REPETITION creates a mental association that develops into a “linkage” of brain pathways.

As a result, linked behaviors become practically automatic at the presence of the cue — an almost involuntary, “below-the-radar” control of behavior, scarcely available to conscious awareness.

If we want to, effectively, eradicate an old habit, we must tweak the second portion of the formula: linking the new action to the old cue.

Understanding the reason WHY stopping ourselves from activating old habits by replacing them with new, different and more effective habits requires understanding another important element.

The Role of the Basil Ganglia

Scientists now understand the crucial role that a part of the brain called the basal ganglia plays in creating new habits and maintaining existing ones.  This understanding helped explain why some people, even after significant brain damage, were still able to do certain things that they’ve always done before — without any conscious awareness of how they were able to do them.

Now they realize that if the basal ganglia are intact, old habits are still available. Many years ago, an actor friend of mine told me of an incident from his life that illustrates this finding very well.


An Interesting Example:

My friend was rendered unconscious immediately following a serious accident and experienced a period of retrograde amnesia after he woke up in the hospital.

As is common with head injuries severe enough to cause unconsciousness, he had no memory of the period immediately before the accident, which he never recovered.

Regular readers may remember from the articles on memory that, unless the brain makes the “decision to store,” events are originally held in active working memory for a period of only about twenty minutes.

Everything we experience – what is referred to as autobiographical memory – is not worthy of moving into long-term storage.  For most of us, only once something is deemed relevant is it stored for subsequent recall — in a process known as consolidation.

The blow to his head interrupted that consolidation phase.

What was NOT so common was that he was initially unable to recall much of anything before the accident, even his own name and where he lived.

STILL, he was able to dial the number of a girlfriend — who recognized his voice and was able to fill in more than a few blanks at the hospital.

  • His access to his autobiographical memory returned after a few days, but it continued to be a mystery what prompted him to attempt to use the phone that night in the hospital — or how he was able to dial the number of his girlfriend.
  • He did have a HABIT of phoning her every night, however. The kinesthetic memory of dialing that particular series of numbers was still intact – as was the habit of checking in every night.
  • Mystery solved.


UNLEARNING and Relearning

The latest research indicates that habits are ingrained in our basis ganglia so well they might as well be hard-wired.  We keep acting in accordance with them even when we no longer benefit from them, or when they are in direct opposition to what we say we want to do instead.

Apparently, unlinking – extinguishing a habitual response – is a process our brain resists.

  • When we encounter a CUE, we respond as readily as Pavlov’s dogs salivate at the ringing of a bell.
  • Unless, that is, we link something else to the cue — and repeat it often enough that it becomes a HABIT.

When we create a new habit, our brain creates new neurological pathways that allow us to more easily use the new response again because it requires less energy than recalling the old. 

So, the most effective way to change your habits is to REPLACE them with new ones. 

Then how do we explain backsliding?

It is beginning to look like the neural pathways established as a result of the habits we develop never get deleted.

  • If those pathways did not remain available for activation, learning complex tasks that build upon information previously stored would be practically impossible — because the previous habits would not be available for linking.
  • Almost everything we know is a product of incremental learning: from language acquisition, to arithmetic, to cooking, to golf — to every single job skill we pick up from years of experience.

Most of our brains will store the pathways of old habits — like riding a bicycle — even if we don’t use them for decades, in case we need to go back and use those same routes again.

  • Few of us have had to stop and think about how to walk, for example, since we first learned how to do it.
  • Yet, because the brain conserves those old pathways, we can regain the ability to walk much more quickly and easily than we could when we were babies if we must relearn how to walk, say, after a skiing accident resulting in a badly broken leg and almost a year in a cast (once our bones are healed and our muscles are once again strong enough to support the process, of course).

Redeveloping the walking habit

That last example about the skiing accident and the cast is a real-life example.  It happened to ME.  Those of you who have seen me at conferences can attest to the fact that I walk just fine now.

And yet, if I hadn’t consciously retrained myself, I’d probably have continued to have a slightly noticeable limp.

  • For some time after my final cast was removed and it was medically cleared for weight-bearing, whenever I didn’t remain consciously aware of what I was doing as I moved through my day, I limped.
  • This continued for some time after it was no longer painful to put weight on my formerly broken leg.

    I had to replace my recently developed HABIT of depending on one leg for balance by remaining carefully aware of the steps of the walking process long enough for the pathway to my former “walking habit” to take over again.  Otherwise, every time I limped was strengthening the pathway I no longer wanted to activate.

    Because I was an actor at the time of that skiing accident and wanted to get back to work as quickly as possible, I had extremely high motivation to make SURE I didn’t backslide.  I certainly didn’t want to miss out on a part I might have gotten except for that limp! I thought about practically every single step – until the glorious day I realized I no longer had to.

Real-world application for YOU

Let’s say you want to get in shape by running, losing 40 pounds before next year’s High School reunion.  It will never be enough to simply decide that you are going to run every day, no matter how “motivated” you are by wanting to impress the old gang (or avoid your own mortification at having to show up in your “fat clothes”).

Since those existing, habitual neural pathways never get deleted, the way to change an existing habit is to replace it with a new habit.  Remembering the habit CYCLE, replacing your “not running habit” means you will have to link a new ACTION to an old CUE.

That will take beginning by paying conscious attention to the steps that created the old habit to begin with, examining them closely — which is how the major in the story that began this article was able to determine which part of the “riot habit” to tweak to end the riots.

What do you do that is likely to get in the way of your decision to run every day? 

Which step of your daily routine needs to change to encourage you to DO what you’ve decided to do for long enough for you to develop the running HABIT?

  • Are you likely to give in to the “I-don’t wanna’s” if you can’t easily find your running shoes, for example?
  • Then put them where you practically trip over them at the time you have decided you are going to run.
  • If that doesn’t change things sufficiently, keep sherlocking until you locate your tipping point – the trigger cue for the old habit you are trying to jettison. Tweak there and you will be amazed at how much more attractive the idea of running will suddenly become.

Let’s NOT be simplistic about this process!

It’s impossible to learn much about changing your habits in a single article. Human beings are simply not that SIMPLE.

The example above is just an explanation for ONE way that a new habit might evolve. There are a great many others.

  • Sometimes the problem is that a cue is missing that needs to be put into place first.
  • Piggybacking off the running example above, you might need to buy decent running shoes or something suitable to run in.
  • You might need to map out your run by car before it seems to call you to action.
  • Maybe you need to enroll a running buddy.
  • Maybe BOTH of you need to join a running group to encourage you to actually show up and run.

The point is, by understanding the PROCESS of habit formation, it is possible to develop systems in your life BEFORE you reach the point where you flake out on yourself, jettison the attempt to build the habit, and conclude that nothing you try will ever work for you.

Take a look at your life to date.

How many New Years Resolutions have gone the way of the dinosaurs? The likelihood that willpower alone will sustain you for long enough to reach the point of automaticity – when the action takes on a life of its own and is integrated into your day – is slim to none! 

In the NEXT article in this Series we are going to examine some myths about how LONG it usually takes to develop a new habit, and begin to take a look at some things you can do to shorten the process.

As the Series moves forward, I’ll begin to share some of the things I am doing in my own life as I put my former habits back in place to replace my “sitting around doing nothing until I can use both hands again” habit and my newly acquired PTSD habit.

I will also begin to share a few exercises that just might turn you into a believer. So stay tuned.

No TIME to read all this stuff? Want more help?

man-on-phoneOnce my own life recovers from a relatively recent repair deficit situation where even the ability to use the systems I have put in place was taken from me at gunpoint, WATCH for the announcement of an upcoming 12-week TeleClass on Modular Success Systems.

It will help you sort through a great many of the “functional modules” so that you can design an action plan guaranteed to be easier than what most of you are currently attempting to work with.

Classes are a much cheaper alternative to hiring my personal coaching services (and the FIRST time I offer a new class is always your least expensive option by far!). As always, class size will be small to allow for personal attention, so don’t miss the announcement if you want to make sure you sign up before the first class fills.

BY THE WAY – anyone who plays along as this Series develops – and contributes to the development of its content with the feedback of YOUR experiences (in the comments), earns a significant DISCOUNT if they take this TeleClass the first time it’s offered.

If you already know that this is something you are going to want to be part of, let me know in a comment below and I’ll make sure you have advanced notice (don’t forget to fill in your name and email on the comment form or I won’t be able to contact you).

Meanwhile, keep reading as often as you can! Until my own life recovers, I won’t have the time to post more than once a week or so, but there is A LOT already on the site. Take advantage of this free resource.

To double the benefit, whenever you read a new article, make it a HABIT to pick at least one of the Related Content links to read immediately following (embedded in the text and duplicated in the Related Links at the bottom of every post if you prefer not to “interrupt yourself” while you are reading).

If you’ll “like” or comment after the pages you’ve read, it will help you keep track and will point others to posts you find especially helpful (as well as helping ME to know what you want me to write about) and I’d REALLY appreciate it if you would help me out by taking a few moments from your own life to “share” or “reblog,” spreading the word about and any upcoming TeleClasses, OK?

© 2013, all rights reserved
Check bottom of Home/New to find out the “sharing rules”
(reblogs always okay, and much appreciated)

Shared on the Senior Salon

As always, if you want notification of new articles in the Time & Task Management Series – or any new posts on this blog – give your email address to the nice form on the top of the skinny column to the right. (You only have to do this once, so if you’ve already asked for notification about a prior series, you’re covered for this one too). STRICT No Spam Policy.

Want to work directly with me? If you’d like some coaching help with anything that came up while you were reading this Series (one-on-one couples or group), click HERE for Brain-based Coaching with mgh, with a contact form at its end (or click the E-me link on the menubar at the top of every page). Fill out the form, submit, and an email SOS is on its way to me; we’ll schedule a call to talk about what you need. I’ll get back to you ASAP (accent on the “P”ossible!).

I’m still quite a way from being fully functional at this time, but I will begin accepting a limited number of private clients in late March/early April, 2014. Leave me a comment if you’re interested, and I will get in touch with YOU.

You might also be interested in some of the following articles available right now – on this site and elsewhere.

For links in context: run your cursor over the article above and the dark grey links will turn dark red; (subtle, so they don’t pull focus while you read, but you can find them to click when you’re ready for them) — and check out the links to other Related Content in each of the articles themselves —

Related articles right here on (in case you missed them above or below)

Other supports & LinkLists Related to this article
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Related Articles ’round the net

BY THE WAY: Since is an Evergreen site, I revisit all my content periodically to update links — when you link back, like, follow or comment, you STAY on the page. When you do not, you run a high risk of getting replaced by a site with a more generous come-from.

About Madelyn Griffith-Haynie, MCC, SCAC
Award-winning ADD Coach Training Field founder; ADD Coaching field co-founder; [life] Coaching pioneer -- Neurodiversity Advocate, Coach, Mentor & Poster Girl -- Multi-Certified -- 25 years working with EFD [Executive Functioning disorders] and struggles in hundreds of people from all walks of life. I developed and delivered the world's first ADD-specific coach training curriculum: multi-year, brain-based, and ICF Certification tracked. In addition to my expertise in ADD/EF Systems Development Coaching, I am known for training and mentoring globally well-informed ADD Coach LEADERS with the vision to innovate, many of the most visible, knowledgeable and successful ADD Coaches in the field today (several of whom now deliver highly visible ADD coach trainings themselves). For almost a decade, I personally sponsored and facilitated seven monthly, virtual and global, no-charge support and information groups The ADD Hours™ - including The ADD Expert Speakers Series, hosting well-known ADD Professionals who were generous with their information and expertise, joining me in my belief that "It takes a village to educate a world." I am committed to being a thorn in the side of ADD-ignorance in service of changing the way neurodiversity is thought about and treated - seeing "a world that works for everyone" in my lifetime. Get in touch when you're ready to have a life that works BECAUSE of who you are, building on strengths to step off that frustrating treadmill "when 'wanting to' just doesn't get it DONE!"

26 Responses to Brain-based Habit Formation

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  2. Thank you Madelyn for an excellent and thought provoking post. I wondered what the army major tweaked to avoid an escalation. You have certainly given me food for thought.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Also I think the older we are, the harder it is to change ingrained habits.

    Liked by 1 person

  4. Osyth says:

    I am currently at the start of a 90 day habit changing challenge. I will read your article again later and really try to absorb the wisdom. I surely need it!! xx


    • The main take-away is linking a new and different reaction to an existing cue. It doesn’t really matter WHAT it is, simply that it is something you don’t “normally” do. That allows the old habit links to atrophy through disuse, even when you aren’t yet where you want to be on replacing the action in THE most effective manner.

      That’s what’s behind the advice to smokers to wait a certain amount of time when they reach for a cigarette, btw – useful for smokers who want to quit, even if they eventually smoke that particular cigarette anyway.

      Thanks for taking the time to read and comment. MUCH appreciated – and good luck with your 90-day challenge.

      Liked by 1 person

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