Tuesday, October 15, 2013

Understand Your Habits Before You Define Your Goals

2012 Behaviour Matrix copy
2012 Behaviour Matrix copy (Robin Hutton)
by Mark R Stephens

Goal setting can only be effective if we are prepared to take the steps necessary to reach them.

This usually requires specific action steps and may involve breaking habitual behaviour, doing new things, or doing things differently to how we did them before.

That's why it's important to understand our habits and how they may try to dictate our behaviour and derail all our best-laid plans, if we are not aware of them and in control of the situation; to understand our habits we have to take a look at how the brain works.

The Two-in-One Brain

The brain has an in-built ability to switch between two systems: one is habitual and the other is goal oriented.

All of us will have experienced the "auto-pilot" nature of habitual behaviour when we drive to work without even thinking about directions, or when we brush our teeth without thinking about how to move the brush around to clean our pearly whites. It is automatic.

If we start a new job in a different city, we need to redefine our goals and learn how to get to the workplace all over again; that's when we need to utilize a different part of the brain and make conscious, deliberate, considered decisions. Habitual behaviour has just become goal-oriented.

In fact we shift between these two types of behaviour regularly during the day. You might be updating a spreadsheet automatically, as you do every day at work, without really thinking, when the boss comes in with an urgent task that needs to be done now.

You have to drop everything, start getting your brain around what the new task entails, and get moving with it.

The Brain Circuitry of Breaking Habits

A study on the capacity to break habits was performed by the NIAAA, in the USA, and the Champalimaud Foundation, in Portugal, and published in Nature Communications recently.

Neuroscientists set up a task where mice had to shift between performing the same action in a goal-directed or habitual manner. The researchers were then able to examine the brain areas controlling the capacity to break habits.

It was already known that the dorsal medial striatum is necessary for goal-directed actions and the dorsal lateral striatum is necessary for habitual actions. This study identified a third area of the brain (the orbital frontal cortex or OFC) which is involved in shifting between the two action types.

These findings have important implications for medical science in treating conditions like obsessive compulsive disorder, where the goal-oriented/habitual behaviour balance is disrupted; but they are also useful in beginning to understand how we are able to control the switch between the two and improve decision making and performance.

Switching Between the Two to Re-Set Goals

The neuroscience suggests that the better we are at switching between the two systems in our brain, the more effective we will be at doing what we do in everyday personal life, or in work life.

Some of our habits are holding us back from fulfilling potential; we may be stuck in a rut without knowing it, unchallenged and unchallenging. We may not even be able to see it due to "blind spots" in our brain, but sooner or later, we will see that we need to form new habits to get us firing again.

Raising awareness of our habits and how they can trap us in an endless cycle is the first step to breaking them; then we can effectively re-wire our brain with new forms of behaviour. But then we also need to recognise when the new behaviour has become habitual and challenge that!

This approach can drive you on to constant self-improvement - and it requires consistently reviewing and re-setting goals.

The team at NeuroPower is at the forefront of introducing new approaches to organisational development through the findings of neuroscience. We apply them to all types of businesses, developing high performing teams and enhancing leadership. Find out more at our website: http://www.neuropowergroup.com.

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