Decoding our defaults: What it takes to form positive habits

Truist Leadership Institute’s Sarah L. Coley, Ph.D., explains how understanding behavior change can help leaders develop new, positive habits.

Building the self-awareness needed to create positive behavior change has always been a part of the leader-ship development programs at Truist Leadership Institute, where I work as a senior researcher. I’ve been thinking about it more lately as the Institute has been developing a new suite of tools we’re calling Conscious Leadership+, which includes guidance and instruction for ongoing behavior change practice.

I started applying that guidance to my own life—not with anything big, but with several small things such as the foods and snacks I choose and making exercise a consistent practice. And it’s working. Here’s why—and what it takes to form positive habits.

Your brain on change

Research in neuroscience suggests that our behaviors—before they become habits—start as willful, deliberate actions. When we do them again (and again and again), the neural pathways between the brain cells that control these behaviors are strengthened. Eventually, effortful decision-making isn’t needed. The behaviors become the default, and we perform them almost automatically.

What makes change difficult? Researchers suggest it’s because we too often view it as a matter of willpower and attention, but it’s difficult to sustain that for long periods of time. Using willpower to create behavior change requires intentional cognitive action, which means we’re relying on the prefrontal cortex—the part of the brain focused on decision-making. Quickly, other parts of life spring up to vie for attention, which leads you to focus on other things, diverting your habit-focused willpower. Then, before you know it, you revert to your old ways of doing things.

One way to short-circuit this response: Use that initial burst of prefrontal cortex willpower to establish a way to automate your desired behavior.

Building better habits

How can knowing the neuroscience of default behaviors help you develop positive habits? First, it helps to understand that your brain likes to create automated responses—habits—so it can focus on important new decisions. Second, neuroscience shows that consistent practice and repetition are key to creating these automated habits. These two tips can set you on a course to building a new, positive habit.

1. Remember cue-behavior-reward

Researchers at Massachusetts Institute of Technology identified a specific positive habit loop, where a particular cue triggers a behavior that is then rewarded. This encourages the person to repeat the behavior the next time the cue appears. This loop involves a process that everyone can use to construct a new positive habit or to stop a counterproductive one: “When X occurs, I’m going to conduct specific behavior Y for reward Z.”

When we’re prompted by an initial burst of willpower to make a change, we can create a plan: First, we need to identify a reliable cue that tells us to use our new desired behavior. It helps to focus on something easily recognizable, such as a particular time like “30 minutes before I go to bed every day” or a feeling such as “whenever I’m feeling stressed.” As soon as you experience the cue, you then enact your desired behavior, which might be something as simple as focusing on your breathing for 10 seconds to destress or setting your phone on Do Not Disturb. Then, after successfully conducting that behavior, you follow it with a consistent reward. This could be an unrelated yet enjoyable reward, such as going for a short walk, or simply savoring the feeling of success you achieve by performing your new behavior.

2. Repeat, repeat, repeat

This new behavior in your cue-behavior-reward pattern is going to feel awkward. That’s normal because your brain wants to go back to its preferred default, but that will change with practice. Defining a cue-behavior-reward cycle gives you a reliable way to do just that. Over time, that loop becomes easier to enact. This is when other areas of the brain take over, in particular the basal ganglia, which controls automated behavior. As this happens, the awkwardness often goes away—and you end up with a new habit.

Changing your brain

As a new behavior is rehearsed, the brain’s structure changes to make the behavior more efficient (the brain loves efficiency). This process takes time, with research showing that it can take up to 254 days for a new behavior to become a habit.
There are ways to make this transition easier.

First, be sure to select cues for your new behavior that occur frequently. Otherwise, you won’t get enough opportunities to rehearse. Second, make sure your cues are simple and clear so you can easily spot them each day. In a 2020 study published in BMC Psychology that examined the difficulties faced by some individuals while working on behavior change, researchers found that strategies such as writing the cues down and reviewing them regularly to ensure they’re still helpful could help people stay on track.

Putting it into action

Our programs help leaders refine their self-awareness. Frequently, this results in discovering one behavior that leaders are eager to enact: slowing down and listening to their team, instead of jumping in to respond. Here’s what changing that behavior might look like.

The cue: Focus on what triggers you to respond too quickly. Do you get anxious during a certain type of meeting or become agitated when interacting with a specific person? Or are you overeager to give input during a meeting, to the detriment of others ? The benefit of defining the cue is that it could reveal other, similar situations where a behavior change could be beneficial.

The behavior: You’ll want to be deliberate in how you slow down and listen. When the cue happens, you can hold back your verbal response and instead focus on active listening. In fact, that could be the automatic response to the cue: “Active listening, not talking.”

The reward: It needs to be something you can follow up with every single time you perform the behavior. If you’re seeing your cue 20 times per day, then “a 10-minute walk” might not be ideal. We’ve often seen leaders specify rewards that are as simple as “give myself a mental high-five” or “take 20 seconds to reflect on how this bettered my relationship with co-workers.”

I like this example because it could take just a matter of seconds to enact the full cue-behavior-reward loop. Although small, these types of changes can be an essential piece in the holistic puzzle of a leader showing up as their best self every day.