Exploring the Science Series: The Science of Habit

This is the first official post on my upcoming “Exploring the Science Series.” In these posts, my hope is to highlight the clinical research and mechanisms of action behind the evolving knowledge that we, as a species, are not just bodies capable of thinking, but instead bodyminds. In this multi-week series, I hope to answer the questions: what is the supporting science behind a regular meditation practice? How does it help improve the experience of life with cancer, and life caring for those with cancer?

After reading my previous blogs, you may be thinking this mindfulness thing sounds useful, but forming a new habit can be a BIG challenge!

In this first post of the Exploring the Science Series, we are diving into the science behind habit formation, and what better way to do so than to share what I’ve learned from 2 fascinating books presenting the science of habit formation.

You may not be in the habit of regular mindfulness meditation, or are just getting started. The question is…how do you create a habit where there is no habit? Very smart people have created a career studying this. Today, I’m going to teach you what I’ve learned (so far) about forming a new habit.  Most of this material comes from my personal experience, and the wisdom I gained from these two EXCELLENT books, Switch by Chip and Dan Heath and The Power of Habit by Charles Duhigg.

In Switch, the Heaths teach a helpful analogy for forming a new habit. Imagine a giant elephant, making his way down a path, with you as a rider sitting on his back. The rider represents your rational mind, and is the planner. The elephant represents your emotional mind. The path represents the circumstances of your situation. To form a new habit, you need to address all three: the rational, the emotional and the circumstances.  The Heaths teach that in order to form a new habit, you need to direct the rider, motivate the elephant and shape the path.

To dig into this a little deeper, let’s use this example. Let’s imagine that your goal is to form a new habit of meditating for 20 minutes every day. You know the benefits, but you just can’t seem to get going.

How can you direct the rider?

  • Look closely at the times you did meditate. What worked about that for you? Maybe you planned ahead, maybe it was the time of day, maybe you set a reminder alarm. Analyze the times that worked, and reproduce.
  • Give clear direction. Write out a plan. Script your next moves.
  • Give the rider a goal that “smacks him in the gut.” (in other words, has emotion to it.) For instance, let’s say that you are a competitive person: Instead of a goal of “meditate for 20 minutes every day”, your goal might be “prove to myself that I am up to the challenge of 40 days straight of 20 minutes of meditation per day.” You can use a tracker and make it a competition with yourself, or a friend.

How can you motivate the elephant?

  • Ask yourself, “how can you make this change a matter of identity, rather than consequences?” Our inspiration to change comes from our desire to live up to our identity. For example, if you consider yourself to be an honest person, try telling a friend that you practice regular meditation. This may appeal to your honest nature to live up to the statement.
  • Motivation comes from feeling and confidence (believing that you are capable of conquering the change and that in the end, this change will benefit you). Knowledge is not enough.
  • Know your reasons for wanting to meditate regularly. They must be greater than the activation energy it takes to get started.
  • To grow your confidence, start small and build. For instance, if your eventual goal is 20 min of meditation per day 365 days per year, you might start with a goal of 5 min/day for a week. Once you have that down, you can increase the time, and then the frequency.
  • Also, joining a group of like-minded individuals who are motivated to meditate may help with your confidence and motivation.

How can you shape the path?

  • You could create an action trigger. For instance, find something you do every day, and link meditation to that. One example would be brushing your teeth. Every time you brush your teeth, meditate right afterward. Soon, these tasks will begin to become linked in your brain.
  • You can identify other supportive habits: setting a daily alarm, making sure you are getting enough rest at night, giving yourself selfcare time regularly.
  • You can set up a home meditation space that makes it easy to begin, and the site of which motivates you to meditate.

In The Power of Habit, Duhigg teaches about the cue–>routine–>reward cycle. You can harness this to make meditating a regular habit.

Start by creating a new cue, something that will trigger you to meditate.  Cues typically fit into one of five categories: location, time, emotional state, other people, or immediately preceding action.  Then, clearly define a reward for meditating. This creates a craving for the reward that drives the habit loop.

Here’s an example:

A few years ago, I got into the habit of going to the gym in the morning. When I decided I wanted to meditate more regularly, I decided to tack it on to my gym habit that was already well ingrained. Then, at my gym, there are massage chairs. After completing meditation, I’d spend 10 minutes relaxing in the massage chair.

Cue: going to gym

Routine: meditation after my workout

Reward: chair massage

If you are someone who is motivated by accomplishment, you might benefit from setting up a challenge for yourself. Challenge yourself to meditate 85% of the days in the next 3 months. Download a counter app and keep track of it. The sense of accomplishment in achieving your goal at the end may be enough reward. Or you could reward yourself by going for a pedicure, massage or special meal when you accomplish the goal.

Duhigg also teaches that you need belief for these habits to take hold:

You must believe you can change, and believe that the change you are making is connecting you to the inner purpose of your life that is far greater than the external rewards you will receive.

Lastly, there is the power of group support. If you are interested in joining a group challenge, sign up for my email list at www.jointhecircleofhope.com to receive notice when there is an upcoming group or challenge beginning.

My hope is that in this post, you will find some useful tactics to start making meditation a regular practice.