How to BEST Create New Habits Using Neuroscience Approaches

It takes 60+ days to create a new habit NOT 21 days

“The 21-day habit myth began when a plastic surgeon in the 1950s, Dr. Maxwell Maltz, noticed that his patients seemed to acclimatize to their new faces after a minimum period of 21 days.”

“This observation was reported in his famous book, Psycho-Cybernetics, and promptly adopted by self-help guru’s who forgot to inform their followers that the word ‘minimum’ was meaningful.”

“This short time frame made the idea of habit-creation seem more achievable, inspiring and enticing.”

“Yes, you do gain traction over the first few days of starting a new habit, partly from the excitement that creating a new habit provides, as the brain naturally craves novelty. However, and it can take more than 60 days for a new neural pathway to become entrenched and become part of your daily life without expending a lot of effort.”

There are a few reasons why the ’21-days’ habit myth doesn’t hold up to neuroscience.

In creating a new neural pathway you don’t simply ‘over-write’ the previous pathway. Instead:

  • You’re creating a new one from scratch, while also using conscious effort not to use the habit you’re trying to leave in the past.
  • The old neural pathway still exists and may still ‘entice’ and derail your efforts.
  • You’re likely to find yourself in similar situations where you engaged in the habit you’re trying to replace with a new one, which makes creating a new habit more challenging.

(“Ask anyone who hasn’t smoked a cigarette for years what if feels like when they’re exposed to a similar situation where they once enjoyed this bad habit. They’ll tell you that it’s as if they stepped back in time to when they used to light up. Why? That neural pathway still exists and is activated in similar situations or contexts.”)

It’s therefore critical to avoid situations where the neural pathway of an old habit can easily be activated to succumb to that old habit.

It’s easier to create new bad habits versus new good habits

“Most bad habits, like overeating, sleeping in and drinking too much coffee support the release of the neurotransmitters dopamine and serotonin. Most good habits don’t do so initially as they naturally produce less of a brain ‘high.’”

“Dopamine is known as the pleasure neurotransmitter and it’s released when we do anything that increases our chances of survival, which include eating and having sex. However, it’s also involved in our brains reward and motivation pathways. It’s therefore a very powerful neural messenger and needs to be harnessed to support habit change, formation and reinforcement and maintenance.”

“Serotonin is also a powerful messenger as its release leads to feelings of safety and security, which are also powerful and support our survival. Recent research suggests it also has an important role to play in habit creation.”

Some research suggests that eating carbohydrate rich and fatty foods stimulate the release of endogenous opioids (made internally), which lead to a feeling of calmness. This mechanism underpins why we reach for such foods when stressed.  Breaking the habit of eating these foods when we’re stressed is extra hard making it important to reduce stress when we’re trying to make good habits ‘stick.’

While you’re establishing your new habit reward yourself with something that also releases dopamine and/or serotonin, albeit in lesser amounts, in conjunction with a new habit. For example:

  • Treat yourself to a massage every week, which releases both neurotransmitters.
  • Learn to make a delicious and healthy meal quickly at the end of every day.
  • Treat yourself to some organic, dark chocolate.
  • Record your progress at the end of the day for a visual reinforcement.
  • Established routines help habits ‘stick’ and it’s easier to create a habit when you engage in the new activity daily.
  • Pair a new habit with an already established, positive behavior.  Some research suggests that coupling a new habit to an already established behavior or habit increases the odds of the new habit becoming entrenched. 

Well nourished brains are better able to create new habits versus  brains that are not well nourished

It is likely that four dietary-related factors act in combination to support habit creation and maintenance.

  1. A well nourished brain has the energy and nutrients necessary for the best cognitive functioning. This underlies decision-making, self-discipline and memory formation, all of which help you to  create and keep new habits.
  2. If your brain is well nourished, as the day wears on it can continue to be efficient at making good decisions, instead of developing ‘decision-fatigue.’ Decision fatigue is especially troublesome when starting  a new way of eating. If you don’t  feed your brain well, it is likely you will eat  comforting, habitual foods at the end of the day, because your brain is tired and hungry brain and less able to make good decisions, so it goes back to old habits. 
  3. A stable supply of  blood glucose results in good decision-making . If blood glucose gets low,  the brain will try to gain glucose quickly and so  craves foods that give a quick supply. It can’t think well with low blood glucose, so it is hard to stay disciplined. High blood glucose often leads to a drop to low blood glucose, so maintaining  a level amount is best.
  4. To make new habits the brain needs nutrients, especially omega 3s, flavonoids and vitamin E. There can be found in nuts (walnuts, almonds), leafy greens, berries(especially blueberries)  and salmon among other foods.

These ways of making habits stick lead to the creation of a ‘habit loop’ which includes creating a new cue, a new routine and adding a reward.

In summary:

  • Stay disciplined for 60+ days.
  • Use new cues AND contexts in relation to new habits to create a new routine.
  • Stimulate dopamine and serotonin release with healthy rewards for staying disciplined.
  • Support new habits with brain nourishment.
  • Couple a new habit with an already established positive behavior


2 comments on “How to BEST Create New Habits Using Neuroscience Approaches

  1. My dopamine is dopey and my serotonin needs a new tune. Seriously, there are some wonderful ideas here. Perhaps you might add to attempt only one new habit and jettison one bad habit at a time. Trying to do too much all at once is spelled: D.E.F.E.A.T. At least, that’s the way it is for me.


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