In this post we will focus on the physiology of habits and how it relates to real world activities.
We all have a brain, (although that is debatable in some cases), this brain is quite demanding as far as energy is concerned. It uses up a significant portion of our total energy resources and for that reason, has had to develop some strategies to work more efficiently. Conscious thought and focus is extremely demanding, particularly during extended periods of time where we are tuned into a particular task, so our brain has a developed a unique way of countering this apparent weakness- Unconscious Habits.
When learning a new task, action or process we begin as a novice. In this stage we are beginners, as are our neurons, so the neural connections in our brain are wired loosely and depend on previous similar actions to commence with a basic level of competence. As we practice and repeat this new skill our brain starts to adapt by rewiring and refining the neural pathways. The more we repeat our new skill, the greater our performance on each occasion becomes. This also depends on the manner in which it is practiced to some extent. Wild, erratic movement will not yield the same the results as perfect practice of technique. Practice while fatigued will increase endurance, but will also slow the refinement process of this skill.
As the neural pathways develop and are refined through repetition, the brain adds a new element- myelin. Myelin is a fatty sheath that envelops the axon of a neuron. This fatty sheath increases the speed of an action potential, resulting in faster transference of energy between neurons. In practical terms, myelin increases the speed of the intended action.
This all occurs in the early stages of skill development, over a period of about 3 weeks to 3 months. The new skill, which initially required significant focus and conscious effort, is slowly becoming second nature. The skill has now tipped into the realm of the unconscious mind, meaning it requires very little focus to use this new skill. The more practice and repetition the more automatic it becomes until it happens without you even being conscious of it.
Take the example of driving a car. At first you have to pay close attention to everything, it can overwhelming for your brain. After a few weeks of consistent practice your body tunes in and you manage to drive with less effort than you needed 3 weeks prior. Some driving skills are still difficult at this stage, such as reverse parking, but you are slowly improving each time you drive. Now fast forward a few years from the first time you drove a car. At this point the habit is fully ingrained. When you drive, everything is automatic. Checking the mirrors and changing gears happens without a thought, reversing has become second nature and you are probably at he point where you can drive, eat and text on your phone all at the same time (not that you should be texting while you drive).
How can this be?
It is because of the repeated and consistent practice, that your brain has now mastered the skill of driving. The neural pathways are completely established to the point that you barely have to think at all when you drive, it just happens. After 3 weeks of repeated and consistent driving practice the basic habit was conceived, 3-5 years later you are an expert at driving and if you want to go beyond that, you can challenge your brain even further by sharpening your reflexes to the level of a competitive race car driver.
The potential of habits is profound and the best news is, this power is available to all of us.
Building Powerful Habits Part III- In Part III of this subject I will explain the practical aspects and steps involved in building habits. You will not only understand how positive habits will change your life but also learn how to start building your customised habit routine.