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8/4/13 1:00 AM
Why changing habits is hard

These brain analyses suggest that going against the default in difficult decisions requires some kind of extra motivation or confidence. Otherwise, the decider in our mind is puzzled, and the doer in our mind is paralyzed.

Knowing this can help explain why changing habits can be so difficult. If you aren't sure why you're changing, don't fully believe you're making the right choice, or question whether what you're doing will work, you're likely to settle back on your automatic behaviors. That's why self-efficacy-the belief that you can make a change and overcome obstacles-is one of the best predictors of successful change. The decider and the doer need a boost of confidence.

It also helps explain why we love formulaic diets, investment strategies, and other decision aids. Formulas feel scientific, tested, and promising. They also give us a new default. We can rely on the rules (no eating after 7 PM, automatically invest X% of your income in mutual funds twice a month) when we're feeling overwhelmed. A new automatic makes change much easier.

The Self-control costs of moral flexibility

What's the best strategy, then, for making moral decisions or sticking to a behavior change? Take a principled stance that sets automatic restrictions on your behavior. Weighing the risks and benefits in each situation may seem like the more logical approach, but it's more effective for most people to commit broadly and then not reflect on each opportunity.

If there's something in your life that you want to stick to but keep seeming to talk yourself out of, try reframing the choice not as a series of individual choices. Try reframing your next choice as the choice between always sticking to your goal or always giving in. Framed this way, each choice carries not the immediate risks and benefits, but the long-term consequences of being someone who consistently makes this choice.

Neuroscience of perserverance

Dopamine is the fuel that keeps people motivated to persevere and achieve a goal. You have the power to increase your production of dopamine by changing your attitude and behavior. Scientists have identified higher levels of dopamine -- also known as the "reward molecule" -- as being linked to forming lifelong habits, such as perseverance.

Neuroscientists have known for years that dopamine is linked to positive behavior reinforcement and the 'ding, ding, ding' jackpot feeling you get when you accomplish a goal. Recently they have also discovered the specific receptors that link dopamine directly to the formation of good and bad habits.

Dopamine is the fuel that keeps people motivated to persevere and achieve a goal. You have the power to increase your production of dopamine by changing your attitude and behavior. Scientists have identified higher levels of dopamine -- also known as the "reward molecule" -- as being linked to forming lifelong habits, such as perseverance.

Neuroscientists have known for years that dopamine is linked to positive behavior reinforcement and the 'ding, ding, ding' jackpot feeling you get when you accomplish a goal. Recently they have also discovered the specific receptors that link dopamine directly to the formation of good and bad habits.

In a modern world we still get the same rush of dopamine when it comes to primal things like dating or salivating over a meal - but it becomes less automatic when trying to achieve goals that are not part of our primal instincts. We have evolved to have hard work, sweat and perseverance trigger the release of dopamine. Unfortunatlely, in a modern world these achievements are not viewed biologically as a matter of life or death and do not automatically release dopamine. Luckily, you can use your large prefrontal cortex and the 'executive function' to trigger the release of dopamine using the seven methods below:


In 1954, researchers James Olds and Peter Milner discovered that the low-voltage electrical stimulation of certain regions of the brain of the rat reinforced positive behavior and learning when they were trying to teach the animals to run mazes and solve problems. Olds and Milner realized that they had found the 'pleasure center' of the brain. When the rat achieved a goal they rewarded the rat with a jolt that triggered the release of dopamine. The rats began to associate success at a task with a biological reward of feeling good. You can do this too.

You have the power to tap your own dopamine reserves simply by visualizing yourself as having your finger on a 'joy-stick' of pleasure, just like a rat in a skinner box with a lever. Learn to associate perseverance and accomplishing a mission with feeling good. The motivation at a biological level is just to get the hit of dopamine--but in the real world this drive translates into you following through and achieving goals. Everytime you complete a task in your daily life visualize that you have just self-administered a hit of 'feel good' dopamine and that habit will be reinforced.


Perseverance is synonymous with pain and suffering to many people. Because all animals instinctively seek pleasure and avoid pain, you have to flip your perspective on perseverance 180-degrees and view struggle and perseverance as a doorway to pleasure. Stop viewing perseverance as drudgery but as an opportunity to neurochemically boost your confidence and make you feel good. When framed correctly, the process of perseverance becomes a hedonic experience. This is an explanatory style that makes certain people keep pushing and others to quit. As Henry Ford said, "There is joy in work. There is no happiness except in the realization that we have accomplished something."

Whenever I meet someone who loves to exercise I ask them how they stay motivated to stick with it and persevere through workouts. The response I get nine-out-of-ten times is: "I exercise regularly because it makes me feel good." The next time you feel unmotivated to exercise or work harder towards a goal remember the "Pleasure Principle" and the equation that SWEAT = BLISS. Laziness and lack of follow through is seductive because it's easy and requires no effort. But, over time the habit of complacency leaves your dopamine depleted and you become dissatisfied and depressed.


Low levels of dopamine make you apathetic. If you do not accomplish something everyday your dopamine reserves will diminish. Humans are designed to work hard and to be rewarded for their efforts biologically. Being uninspired and lacking self-motivation is a downward spiral that can snowball out of control. It's so easy to become bitter, cynical and hopeless when your dopamine reserves are low. But you have the power to turn this around by consciously looking at everything you achieve--from flossing your teeth, to taking out the trash--as a way to tap your dopamine reserves. Look at every thing you do in the day as a chance to create a sense of reward and deliver a rush of dopamine.

Puzzles and brain-teaser games are a great way to tap your dopamine reserves. Anytime you win at a computer game or solve a riddle you get the 'ding, ding, ding' dopamine feeling. In your down time you can use games and puzzles to make your dopamine levels swell. Playing word games and solving puzzles not only flexes your mental muscle, it keeps the dopamine pumping.


In a recent New Yorker article, Ted Kaptuchuk, who is the director of the "Placebo Studies and Therapeutic Encounter" at Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center in Boston, talks about the medical power of belief. He says that if a patient believes that a placebo drug is the real thing that it can trigger the body to endogenously produce that chemical and the subsequent healing response.

According to Kaptuchuk, neuroimaging has revealed examples of patients with Parkinson's disease who are given a placebo--but told that that it is a drug that will help their symptoms--can create a spike of their dopamine levels. Findings such as these reconfirm that creating a system of belief and an expectation of efficacy can cause changes in your brain chemistry. Through conditioning techniques your brain can "learn" to trigger biological changes that reduce pain and suffering. If you believe that persevering to achieve a goal will produce more dopamine, odds are it will.


To produce more dopamine, get in the habit of setting deadlines and completing goals in a timely manner. Create a daily schedule that includes self-imposed deadlines and stick to it! Use timers, calendars and peer pressure to keep you on track and condition yourself. Partner with a like-minded friend who has similar goals and make a pact that you will hold one another accountable to stay on deadline.

The release of dopamine is amped up when there are time constraints involved, but don't let the last minute rush of manic-panic become a habit. The use of time constraints in sports and game shows increases the production of dopamine and amplifies the thrill of having finished a goal on time--but this hastiness can backfire in real life. Structure your challenges to have mini self-imposed deadlines that will release a steady dose of dopamine. Be methodical and stop leaving things till the last minute. You want to keep the flow of dopamine constant and break the roller-coaster pattern of procrastination followed by panic.


The key to overcoming large obstacles or 'mountains' is to break them into doable doses and tackle them one 'mole-hill' at a time. An effective way to get the jackpot feeling of dopamine while you are in the process of tackling a major goal is to break the bigger challenge, which is a "Macro-Goal" into very tangible "Micro-Goals", each of which gives you a small hit of dopamine.

For example: Something as simple as putting fresh linens on your bed can be a dopamine goldmine. Each step in the process: from pulling all four corners of a fitted sheet around the mattress; to putting the pillows back in their cases; to then tucking in the sheets to create "hospital corners" are all chances to give yourself mini-hits of dopamine. When you have the bed completely made you get a big spike of dopamine and a sense of accomplishment. You can break every task you face in daily life into mini-achievements that each release a hit of dopamine.

Having a checklist of things that you want to accomplish every morning and literally checking them off your list will systematically release a hit of dopamine. One of the most important reasons to define an action as a 'goal' is that it needs to be viewed as something with a beginning, middle and end. When you accomplish the goal you will get the dopamine-based sense of contentment and satisfaction that always accompanies the act of persevering and getting the job done.


Nobody else really cares if you accomplish 99% of the goals you are striving for in your life. Be your own cheering squad. Don't base your feelings of self-worth on the praise and kudos of others. Doing this puts the release of dopamine and sense of accomplishment outside of your locus of control. This can leave you feeling dejected. Run your own race in everything you do. Having the eye of the tiger requires that you decide exactly what you are going for and then GOING FOR IT. Identify a target and hunt it down. Get in the habit of pushing towards a goal to completion. And when you succeed get in the habit of saying, "Yes! I did it!" silently or under your breath.

Being self-congratulatory isn't about ego or hubris, it is about harnessing your reward circuitry and tapping your dopamine pipeline. It's so easy to become hopeless, cynical and bitter when you feel like what you do doesn't matter. This lack of self-belief creates a biological reality and downward spiral. If you neglect to consciously acknowledge that you have achieved a goal, dopamine will not be released and you will not reinforce the habit of perseverance.


Creating a steady flow of dopamine is fundamental to creating a habit of perseverance. This incredible neurochemical is accessible to everyone. YOU have the power to tap into your internal dopamine reserves on demand. Learning and conditioning yourself to self-administer this 'reward molecule' everyday can turn anyone into a go-getter. With a slight attitude adjustment and shift in perspective everybody has the power to become more perseverant by tapping the universal power of dopamine. The ability to create a habit of perseverance isn't something reserved for a few--it is available to you!

No wonder I like the Pomodoro Technique. Everytime I clear a task I'm probably releasing dopamine. Everytime I complete a meditation session I'm releasing dopamine. All those successful people are probably breaking down their goals to smaller parts and each little victory creates more motivation dopamine. emoticon

RE: Habits
8/4/13 6:54 PM as a reply to Richard Zen.
Great stuff Richard, thanks for sharing.

RE: Habits
8/4/13 8:22 PM as a reply to PP.
Pablo . P:
Great stuff Richard, thanks for sharing.

Yeah dopamine is not bad for you, it's just if you go for big blasts and then dry up for long periods of time. Have steady goals and keep at them and you'll get a steady hit. It reminds me of the glycemic index. Steady sugar is better than sugar highs and lows. Time to put charts up with lists and start doing stuff to cross them off. LOL