Executive Function Part 3 Forming Habits

Executive Function Pt. 3: Forming Habits

For part 1 go here and part 2 go here. In this part, we work on forming habits. Toward the end of this post will be links to this information in other forms. 

The Parts of YOur Brain Involved in Forming habits

Boss Brain and Lizard Brain

When you form a habit, you move information from your pre-frontal cortex to other parts of your brain, especially your basal ganglia (lizard brain). Your pre-frontal cortex (boss brain) is the newest part of your brain, genetically. It is also the most vulnerable to stress and other issues. Because of this, it is important, whenever we can, to implant our knowledge deeper in our brains. 

I’m going to refer to your prefrontal cortex from now on as your “boss brain” and your basal ganglia as your “lizard brain” or “the roots of your brain”. This is because using a metaphor helps you to learn information and store it better.

When forming habits, your “boss brain” hands off information to the roots of your brain, where they are stored in such a way that eventually becomes automatic and also makes that knowledge easier to use when you’re under stress.

The basics of Forming a habit

The Power of Habit, by Charles Duhigg, consolidates a lot of the research on how we build habits. He defines three steps to forming a habit. First, you create a trigger to remind you to do the thing. Then you do the thing repeatedly. Finally, you reward yourself for doing the thing. Sounds simple, right? Let’s break it down. 

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creating a trigger

To create a trigger, you figure out something that works for you to remind you to do the thing. Some ideas include:

  • Setting an alarm
  • Having Cortana or Alexa remind you
  • Writing a note to yourself where you’ll see it (Refrigerator door? Bathroom mirror?)
  • Tell all the folks on Facebook or Twitter or Snapchat that you’re going to do the thing. 
  • Putting the things you need to do the thing where they’ll remind you
  • Setting up the space where you’ll do the thing. 
  • Have a partner or supportive friend or colleague help you remember. 

Experiment, persist, and evolve until you find a trigger that works for you. You’ve started forming a habit. While it’s fine to listen to other people while experimenting, if you have a trigger that works for you, don’t worry about whether it seems “weird” to other people. Roll with it.

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Create a routine

Decide for yourself whether this is an everyday habit or more or less often. Often, you can figure this out from the task. For instance, exercise is typically an everyday habit, Paying bills and balancing your budget is typically a once or twice-a-week habit. Eating three healthy meals and two healthy snacks a day (for those with hypoglycemia) is going to be a five-time-a-day habit. 

Use your trigger to remind you to do the thing. Set up your “bill paying station”. Put out your exercise clothes and have your water bottle ready for your morning exercise. Make a menu for your healthy eating and put it on your refrigerator door (and pack food for work). 

We used to believe that it takes 21 days to form a routine. Unfortunately, this isn’t actually true. It is based on the observations of a plastic surgeon by the name of Malcolm Maltz in the 1950s, but he only observed his own pattern, not a group of people. Phillipa Lally did a study in 2009 that found that it takes 66 days to form a habit, on average. Two months and a week or so. 

For people with various executive dysfunction disorders and others with neurodiverse brains, not only can it take longer, but your trigger is likely to stop working at some point and you’ll have to make a new routine. Fortunately, it often works to rotate between several routines that work for you, so you don’t have to start from scratch each time.

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Tricks for creating a routine

So the next piece is to promise yourself and anyone else who is willing to help that you will spend at least two and a half months doing the thing. Sometimes this helps to “trick” our brains into thinking it’s easier, by “promising” an end date. 

If you find that you can’t consistently do the habit in the morning, try the evening. When Fridays don’t work, try Mondays. If you need to break the BIG habit into smaller bites, do that. For example, the Eat Five Healthy Meals thing might be broken down into making the menu, shopping for the food, preparing and storing it in easy-to-grab portions, and eating it.  Each of those habits might take 66 days to develop, or you might try some or all of them at once. It’s up to you. You’re forming your habit, not anyone else’s. 

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Rewards for Forming Habits

I mean, a good habit is its own reward, right? Except that you and I both know that not everyone does well with intrinsic rewards (because you read part 2, right?) Some people (sometimes) just can’t be motivated by feeling good or liking having something done. Some folks, sometimes, need extrinsic (external) rewards.

So let’s think up some extrinsic rewards for doing the thing you’re trying to turn into a habit, okay? (These should be done only after you have done the thing you’re turning into a habit). 

  • Video game time
  • A favorite beverage or snack (in keeping with your goal)
  • Buying something for a collection (yarn, model cars, books, music, etc.)
  • Time out with a favorite person
  • A nap
  • Reading time
  • Or anything else that rewards you and doesn’t get in the way of your goal. 
https://soundcloud.com/odanu/executive-function-pt-3-forming-habits

Forming Habits: A review

  • Executive function in the prefrontal cortex (boss brain) catches new information
  • Information is then passed to your basal ganglia (lizard brain or brain roots)
  • It goes from being something you struggle to remember to something that is easy to remember and do
  • Creating a new habit has three specific parts:
    • Forming a trigger
    • Developing a routine of doing the same thing over and over for at least 66 days
    • Creating a reward that works for you

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More on Executive Function

You can find part one of this series, Executive Function Pt. 1: What is it? by clicking the link. Executive Function Part 2: Hacks and Workarounds is next, and it will lead you to this point in the series. To view all of the Executive Function videos as a playlist, go to Youtube (please like the videos, comment, and follow my channel to keep current). To listen to all of the Executive Function audio as a playlist, go to SoundCloud (again, please like the podcasts, comment, and follow my channel to keep current. )

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