Your brain is a habit machine
After life-saving heart surgery, most people advised to change their lifestyle don’t do it.
After training courses, only 1 in 5 of us actually apply anything of what we’ve learnt.
Why? Because we’re all habit machines.
Habits are used to conserve energy. Some habits are useful, keeping us safe or saving us time. But habits also prevent us from changing in the ways we want.
Learning how to flex, how to change our habits, is the super-skill that puts us on a path towards our goals.
Read more about the people, the ideas, the research, and the science that inspired us to create Flex below.
Individuals who are more able to adapt their behaviour to different situations find it easier to cope with what life throws at them.
This behavioural flexibility is proven to reduce stress, increase wellbeing and develop the healthy habits that take us where we want to go in life.
use 22% of our
weight but uses 20% of our
Thinking vs doing
Research shows that thinking about things and carrying out routine tasks typically light up the same neurons of the brain. It’s doing something new that creates a new neural pathway.
So when it comes to building new habits or new ways of behaving, action is key. It’s when we actually do something different, and experience life differently, that we create opportunities to repeat what we’ve done and upgrade our routines.
It is easier to act yourself into a new way of thinking than it is to think yourself into a new way of acting.
Stepping into the unknown is an uncomfortable prospect, and for good reason. Our reptile brain (the amygdala) or ‘fear centre’ has kept us safe for millions of years. The problem is, that fear centre has a habit of over-reacting, conjuring up reasons why doing something different is a bad idea.
The good news is that our reptile radar doesn’t pick up the more subtle actions. By taking small steps outside our normal routines we can grow our comfort zones and build the healthy habits and routines we need to live the life we’re looking for.
Plant a tiny seed in exactly the right spot and it will grow without coaxing.
To take personal responsibility is to understand the direction you want your life to take, and to respond wisely whenever there’s an opportunity for change.
If you believe your life is shaped by luck, chance or fate – you’ll go with the flow, like a boat without a rudder.
When you believe you can shape your own life, you chart your own course, deciding when to go with and when to go against the flow.
Treat yourself like you would someone you’re responsible for helping.
The law of unintended consequences
It is impossible to imagine with any real accuracy what might happen when we do something different from what we normally do.
Changes don’t happen in a vacuum. The connectedness of the world means that even the smallest of changes can set us on a path towards the biggest.
Our reptile brains use fear to dampen our enthusiasm for something different. Keeping steps small reduces the fear, but at some points we have to be brave. We have to remember our previous experiences of taking steps into the unknown and making them known again.
We have to remember how we’ve grown before, and that unintended consequences are often delicious.
A step not taken is a view not seen.
Feel, explore, aim, repeat
There’s a proven recipe for growing our behavioural flexibility.
To begin, we notice how we feel. Our habits are a form of auto-pilot, allowing us to do the things we do without conscious thought. That means we’re operating without really thinking about what we’re doing – we’re not noticing how we feel or whether our behaviour is aligned with our values, beliefs and the stories we tell ourselves.
Pausing creates a window of opportunity for us to suspend judgement and notice our thoughts and feelings. These moments are fleeting and tend to depart as quickly as they arrive.
Once we have noticed how we feel, we can explore different ways of behaving, by doing something different. These opportunities to step into the unknown are present every minute of every day, but mostly they slip by unnoticed.
Stepping into the unknown may be uncomfortable, but it’s the only way to experience life differently. Shortcuts include hanging out with new people and travelling to different places, but the best way is to experiment with being a slightly different version of yourself.
Exploring these ways of behaving is a ‘try before you buy’ exercise. Taking small steps is a way to avoid the overreaction of our brain’s fear centre, and minimise the inevitable discomfort.
This process of trying on habits for size allows us to take aim. We can decide to adjust, reject or repeat a way of behaving. When we take aim we begin to make a path towards greater behavioural flexibility and a way of achieving our goals in life.
For these ways of behaving to become a part of who we are we have to repeat them. The easiest way to build them into our routines is to design cues that trigger the behaviours we want and to become clear about the rewards of doing so. We need to get good at designing routines and reactions we’re comfortable with. We need to design ways of behaving we enjoy because enjoyable means sustainable and we become what we repeatedly do.
Habits are not a finish line to be crossed, they are a lifestyle to be lived.
The stories we tell ourselves
Just as we have ‘habits of doing’ we have ‘habits of thinking’.
The sensemaking part of our brains likes to find shortcuts, rejecting or accepting evidence based on whether it aligns with the stories we have about how the world works. “I’ll fail because I’m not X enough.” “If I do X, Y will happen.” “I don’t like X, so I won’t do Y.”
When we do something different we are practicing how to pause our default storytelling, and creating space for new stories to grow. Once we break the spell of ‘how things are’ we are more open to ‘how things might be’.
Just because you think a thought, it doesn’t make it a fact
Liberal & conservative character traits
Our personalities often lean one of two ways. We may tend to prefer certainty and order in our lives, in which case we are more likely to be conservative in our political beliefs. Or we may tend to be more open and ok with uncertainty, making us more likely to be liberal or progressive in our politics.
The differences between these ways of interacting with the world are often portrayed as a kind of war. In this story each side sees themselves as right and the other as wrong. And the wrong side is pictured as a danger to the world that needs to be overcome.
However, these age-old differences in temperament haven’t always been on a war footing. Successful communities need those who are disciplined in looking out for threats and those who are open and curious about new possibilities. More yin-and-yang than for-or-against.
When we can appreciate the benefits of different ways of seeing the world, we protect ourselves from the story that that we are enemies, and grow our ability to work together to face challenges.
What if the real danger is posed by political and media elites who try to get us to think that we’d be better off without the other side?
Listen: A life done differently
The known vs the unknown
Life is a dance between the known and the unknown.
Our comfort zones can provide us with a place to relax, restore our energies and enjoy ourselves. Life would be endlessly stressful and difficult to navigate without the known.
But if we want something different in our lives, we have to be prepared to venture out, once in a while, into the unknown.
Fear of the unknown can increase when we fail to experience new things. It’s a self-reinforcing process – we avoid what we fear, and the more fearful it becomes to us the less we are prepared to explore.
Interrupting this pattern is one of the most important ways we can grow.
What you most need to know will be found where you least want to look.