Ken Nowack, PhD June 22 2021

The Neuroscience of Habits Part One

This blog is part one of a two part series written by Dr. Kenneth Nowack.

We are all pretty good at setting goals, but not nearly as successful at attaining them. Goal setting and sustaining new behaviours over time is particularly challenging for most individuals (e.g. listening for understanding - before speaking). Recent neuroscience research provides a framework for understanding the challenge in forming new habits.

Elliot Berkman, a professor at the University of Oregon in the U.S. suggests that successful habit and behaviour change is heavily influenced by two separate areas of the brain that facilitate getting started on goal setting (“The Will”) and successfully accomplishing a goal (“The Way”). “The Will” (default mode brain network) relates to emotional and motivational aspects of behaviour change. It reflects the way a goal or new habit is important to you and your employees. In contrast,“The Way” (executive function/task-positive brain network) refers more to informational aspects of habit change such as creating a specific plan, rewarding goal accomplishments, and evaluating our progress to ensure goal success.   

Forming a new habit is extremely challenging for most of us and it takes both motivation and deliberate practice over time to build automaticity to successfully sustain new behaviours. Using mindfulness meditation as an example, there are several studies suggesting that it takes 3 to 8 weeks of deliberate practice resulting in changes at a neural level (e.g., increased cortical thickening in the hippocampus and other areas). However, these observed changes in the brain may not necessarily immediately translate to improved emotional regulation or reappraisal at a cognitive level.  

Research by Phillippa Lally and colleagues from the University College London suggests that new behaviours can become automatic, on average, in 66 days (range was 18 to 254 days) but it depends on the complexity of what new behaviour you are trying to put into place and our personality. Indeed, it takes more than a one-shot training program or brief coaching engagement to ensure someone has enough practice to both create the neuronal firing and automaticity we associate with new habits.   Let’s look at three specific neuroscience-based facts and “hacks” guaranteed to enhance one’s motivation to get going (“The Will”) and to guide you and others (“The Way") towards successful habit and behaviour change efforts. 

NoH the will

Facts and Hacks About Goal Setting: “The Will” 

Think of any new behaviour you want to change or have an employee you might be coaching or supervising change (e.g., becoming a better listener, being more participative and involvement oriented in meetings, managing emotions during challenging interpersonal interactions). Here are 3 things we know about the science of getting going (“The Will”) to initiate new goals.  

Hack #1: Define Your Goals and Then Break Them Down Into Tiny Steps 


Successful behaviour change is a result of adequate motivation, ease or difficulty of the goal, and a “trigger” (all at the same time). A complicated or difficult goal impedes success. Take tiny habits and reduce the difficulty of a goal, rather than manipulate motivation, to ensure goal success. Expert BJ Fogg suggests that goals that are more difficult require more triggers/prompts to create success and maintain our level of motivation. 


Think of goal setting as having five options (stop doing something, start doing something, do less, do more or do differently) and whether the desire is to do this once (e.g., run a marathon), sometimes, or all-the-time to become part of your routines. Modify the difficulty level to carry out the behaviour (i.e., make it easier to do) as this requires less motivation to actually succeed and causes the brain to reward they success of tiny steps through the release of the “feel good” peptide dopamine. 

Hack #2: Increase Fun to Increase Persistence 


Intrinsic motives predict goal success more than extrinsic ones and the ideal self is the emotional driver of intentional change. Fun is a much better predictor of working on a goal (e.g., physical activity) than perceived importance of that goal.


Pair what is enjoyable with aspects of your goal that aren’t and seek elements within assignments that you do find enjoyable. Focus on the gap between your current self vs. your ideal self to enhance intrinsic motivation.  

Hack #3: Talk to Yourself First and Then Others—No, Talk to Others First and then to Yourself 


“Change self-talk” and “sustain talk” reflect two sides of a person's ambivalence about change and ingredients to a large body of research that therapist uses in the techniques of motivational interviewing.  However, change talk is actually more motivating. Recent research suggests that people struggling with motivation will benefit more from giving advice to others than receiving it by boosting confidence & facilitating successful “change talk.” 


When you are struggling with a goal have a conversation with another about the advantages, gains and rewards of changing behaviour with advice you have about it. Additionally, to increase motivation to a goal, ask others how likely they are to commit to change on a 1 (low) to 10 (high) scale and unless they answer “10” ask why they didn’t rate higher to elicit change talk. 

In next week's part two, we'll explore 'The Way'.

Kenneth M. Nowack, Ph.D. is a licensed psychologist and co-founder of Envisia Learning. Ken received his doctorate degree in Counseling Psychology from the University of California, Los Angeles and has published extensively in the areas of 360-degree feedback, assessment, health psychology, and behavioural medicine. Ken serves on Daniel Goleman’s Consortium for Research on Emotional Intelligence in Organizations and serves as Editor-in-Chief for the Consulting Psychology Journal: Practice & Research and is a Fellow of the American Psychological Association (Division 13; Society of Consulting Psychology).   

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