The Key Habits of a Happy Brain: The Art of Taking Action

Published On - 11 August, 2021By Alina Butunoi

In every one of us, there are two sides to our brains that control our habits and actions. In ancient traditions, these two warring sides were sometimes referred to as the Rider and the Elephant.

The Elephant represents the emotional side of our brain; a large, dominant force that often seems difficult to control and can take over at a moment’s notice. The Rider, on the other hand, is the rational side of our brain; a figure constantly trying to take control of the great unwieldy beast.

Most of us would like to think that we’re the Rider and the great Elephant obeys our every command. In reality, however, the majority of people – whether we realize it or not – are almost entirely controlled by our emotions.

And that’s where habits come in. These repetitive experiences are fueled almost entirely by our emotions. That’s why it seems so effortlessly easy to develop bad habits while creating new healthy habits can often seem like an impossible task.

But if we dig beneath the surface, we actually find that habits are incredibly useful biological constructs that are designed to make our brains happy, healthy and more efficient. In fact, according to some research, 40% of what we do on a daily basis is purely driven by habit. That means habits aren’t something we can simply ignore. They’re a part of how we operate as human beings.

The problem, however, is that most of us aren’t taught how to effectively use and design habits, and so we often end up with more bad habits than good ones. The Elephant takes over and the Rider gets thrown from the saddle.

So then how do we build a more happy and productive brain? The first step is the consider the challenge of habit loops.

Understanding Our Habit Loops

Most habits fall into a very straightforward process that ends up looping back around itself. Here’s how it works:

  • Stimulus: First, there is some kind of stimulus generated either from our external environment or our own internal thought processes.
  • Response: Next, our brain kicks into high gear and carries out a pre-programmed response to that trigger (also known as a routine).
  • Reward: Finally, the routine is paired with some type of reward that encourages you to perform the same behaviour again when the same trigger presents itself.

While the process of a habit loop is fairly simple, there are a number of important takeaways we need to understand.

  1. Most triggers are environmental: This often means that if you want to change the trigger you can often simply change your environment.
  2. Rewards are the basis of habits: No habit can exist without a reward. Why most people fail to develop healthy habits is simply because the reward simply isn’t worth the effort.
  3. Habits are built on routines: Our brains love routines because they’re easy to understand. Our brain thinks it knows what to do because it’s done it so many times before.

Breaking the Habit Loop: How to Build a Happy Brain

So how do we break a bad habit loop? The answer is surprisingly simple: we start small.

This seems to go against the grain of what most people believe. After all, massive change requires massive action, right? Whether we want to lose 50 pounds, write a book, start a business or achieve some other major life goal, we tell ourselves that these huge changes require some kind of huge sacrifice or shift in our mindset.

The reality is this simply isn’t the case. In fact, research shows that setting small, definable goals is really the best way to build habits.

If we improve by even 1% a day, that might not seem like much at the time. But over the course of a year, it can result in significant life-changing results.

The seed of every habit is a single tiny decision that’s often planted by our emotions. But as that decision is repeated, a habit sprouts and grows stronger. Roots entrench themselves and branches grow.

We need to think of habits and motivation as skills – like playing piano or learning to play tennis. Habits aren’t something some of us have and others don’t. Just like anything else they take time and practice to learn.

How to Build Healthy Habits & Stop Procrastinating

Top performers in every field, be they athletes, musicians, CEOs or artists all share one key trait in common: they’re more consistent than their peers. They show up and deliver day after day while everyone else gets bogged down with the urgencies of daily life and fights a constant battle between procrastination and motivation.

One great example of this comes in a usual place: a comedy club.

Brad Isaac was a young comedian starting out on the circuit. One fateful night, he found himself in a club where Jerry Seinfeld was performing. In an interview on Lifehacker, Isaac shared what happened when he caught Seinfeld backstage and asked if he had “any tips for a young comic.”

Here’s how Isaac described the interaction with Seinfeld:

“He said the way to be a better comic was to create better jokes and the way to create better jokes was to write every day. He told me to get a big wall calendar that has a whole year on one page and hang it on a prominent wall. The next step was to get a big red magic marker. He said for each day that I do my task of writing, I get to put a big red X over that day. After a few days, you’ll have a chain. Just keep at it and the chain will grow longer every day. You’ll like seeing that chain, especially when you get a few weeks under your belt. Your only job is to not break the chain.”

You’ll notice that Seinfeld didn’t say a single thing about results. It didn’t matter if he was motivated or not. It didn’t matter if he was writing great jokes or not. It didn’t matter if what he was working on would ever make it into a show. All that mattered was “not breaking the chain.”
The routine is writing and the reward is seeing the results on the calendar.

And that’s one of the simple secrets behind Seinfeld’s remarkable productivity and consistency. While most people get demotivated and off-track after a bad performance, a bad workout, or a bad day at work, top performers settle right back into their pattern the next day. The Seinfeld Strategy works because it helps to take the focus off of each individual performance and puts the emphasis on the process instead. It’s not about how you feel, how inspired you are, or how brilliant your work is that day. Instead, it’s just about “not breaking the chain.”

A Word of Warning

While the process of building new and healthy habits might seem easy, one potential stumbling block is setting realistic goals. You need to pick a task that is meaningful enough to make a difference, but simple enough that you can get it done.

If Seinfeld had told Brad Isaac to write 200 pages of jokes every day, it simply wouldn’t work.

The same applies to us. It would be wonderful if we could all do two hours of cardio every day or run 30 km before breakfast, but for most of us, that’s simply not a sustainable chain to build. Those types of goals just reinforce our negative emotions and the habit doesn’t stick. The routine and the reward fail to connect.

Instead, the key is to choose a task that is simple enough to be sustainable. At the same time, you have to make sure that your actions are meaningful enough to matter.

For example, doing one pushup per day could be simple and meaningful depending on your level of fitness. It’s all about choosing tasks that are simple to maintain and capable of producing the outcome you want.

Points to Remember

  • We need to think of habits and motivation as skills (like playing the piano or learning to play tennis). They take time and practice to learn
  • Motivation is a skill issue, not a will issue
  • Lack of motivation is not a character flaw, but rather a skill the brain can learn
  • The average person goes through 7-12 staring efforts before habits are formed
  • Working through the process of behaviour change takes as long as it takes
  • The more you focus on the process the more successful you are going to be

If you’re looking to improve your mental and physical performance or want to learn more about the habits of a happy brain, we can help. Contact Align for Performance today.

About Author

Alina Butunoi

Alina Butunoi is one of Ottawa's most respected brain training and pain management practitioners. A previous nominee for the Ottawa 40 Under 40 business leaders, she is also a certified Movement Neurology Specialist with Z-Health, a cutting-edge neuro-exercise system that helps improve health, alleviate pain and maximize athletic performance.

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