But first, let’s talk some quantum physics.
No, bear with me. We’re all made of atoms. Every atom consists of subatomic particles: protons, neutrons, and electrons. Protons and neutrons stick together to form a positively charged nucleus (core), while electrons - tiny negatively charged particles spin around the core in a sort of cloud.
Now, every charged particle has a quantum mechanical property known as a spin. Think of every particle as of a spinning top with only two possible orientations but each particle spins just in one orientation - up spin or down spin.
When there are two absolutely identical waves phase-shifted 180 degrees relatively each other, their sum gives zero or nothing. Two particles (for example, an electron and a positron) can combine into nothing. Similarly, if some force changes the phase shift between particles from 180 degrees to any other, two particles can be created from nothing. Everything in the universe, including you, was made from nothing. That’s quite a tranquilizing thought.
Spins of different nuclei are randomly organized, but if you put them inside a magnetic field their spins tend to be aligned with it. Since there are only two possible orientations, their spins are either aligned or counter-aligned. If you apply a radio frequency pulse (like in radars) you can make atoms oscillate. When they oscillate you can measure their net magnetization spin. What MRI machines do is that they put your body inside a very strong magnetic field (aligning hydrogen atoms in your body), then apply radiofrequency pulse (make hydrogen atoms in different regions of your body oscillate in different frequencies), and put together all signals from your body to get an MRI image.
What do habits have to do with this?
Only after the MRI imaging became possible, psychologists could measure neurological activities and examine activity in brain systems involved in habits and addictions. This gave a tremendous rise in understanding how human brains are wired and why some behaviors transform into habits while others don’t, but what’s more importantly - how can they be changed.
In one research, a group of 22 people, half of which were “pathological gamblers” lay inside an MRI machine and watched a slot machine spinning. Every time the machine gave three outcomes: a win, a loss, and “near miss”.
Although nobody was actually winning any money, pathological gamblers showed a much more pronounced neural activity than the control group, particularly when slots showed jackpots. But what was more interesting, gamblers were also much more excited with “almost wins”. Their brains reacted the same way as if they were ”winning”. Non-gamblers were better at recognizing that the “near miss” was still a loss.
Interpreting results, neuroscientists found that gamblers got mental high even from losses triggering them into playing further, while in nonproblem gamblers same scenarios spurred entirely different reaction - a concern that they were loosing and should probably stop before it gets worse.
The Almighty Zombie Mode
Basal ganglia and brainstem are two brain areas responsible for habits. Interestingly, these areas are also responsible for motor control and motor learning. Which is not surprising if you think how you tie your shoelaces. All motor skills are automatic and you barely think about your laces at all. Now, remember how it was the first time you tried to pull this trick: rigid fingers, always forgetting the right sequence, and almost nothing seems to be done right! Right?
Habits are so powerful because most of the time you are on autopilot. This is a very useful evolutionary trait that frees up your mental capacities and puts your brain in a saving mode performing a certain task so you can allocate more brain power for something else.
Every habit is a three-step cycle: the cue - a signal for your brain to go into automode and select a habit; the routine - an emotional/mental/physical action; the reward - rush of neuromediators in your brain that helps it decide if this particular cycle was a success and should be used again.
The danger here is that our brain can easily pick simple tasks that bring instant reward. There’s barely any struggle into lighting up a cigarette or making that fifth cup of coffee, and both cases guaranty you the happy outcome - the rush of “happy” chemicals inside your brain. Still, there’s only one pinnacle bad habit that needs to be tackled for you to become the best version of yourself.
The Keystone Bad Habit
There are so many distractions today that people procrastinate all the time. Procrastination happens to the best of us and can take up many forms and disguise itself under seemingly important and even useful stuff. Like when instead of going to see doctor you suddenly become very interested in helping stray pets finding home. A good cause, no doubt, but born out of fear, all to avoid doing something that you should.
Why does procrastination pull us off so often? Because more often than not, important things make you feel uncomfortable (that visit to the dentist or SAT exam) or even scare the heck of you (medical tests, etc.). This makes procrastination the keystone bad habit. Change it, and you’ll change your entire life.
Breaking The Cycle
This is how you can overcome any bad habit and deal with procrastination. Every habit, including procrastination follows the same three-stage cycle route. It makes you feel happy temporarily (you stayed chillflixed with pizza instead of writing that thesis or attending your therapist) as it funnels your attention away from all the unpleasantness of life, but eventually it leaves you more and more unhappy about yourself. Sometimes, this creates a vicious cycle of you feeling depressed about not getting anything done displaced by momentary highs from forgetting the cause of your depression. The result - more depression. Can you see the pattern? Procrastination is an addiction.
But change is possible. By recognizing what launches your zombies, you’ll be able to repattern your actions and rewire your brain to accept new rewards. This will change your initial belief about the habit and help you replace the bad ones with good.
The key to rewiring your brain if having a plan. This plan should be in compliance with your preferences: the next time you know you will divert your attention from sitting down to your SAT exam preparation, make it a habit to lunch a Pomodoro app and work in short sprints on your task.
- Think of it that way: I’ll sit somewhere very cozy and listen to some good music and do the math for 25 minutes, then I’ll have a break.
- Use these 5-minute breaks to ponder upon the things you just learned. Then do another 25 minutes sprint.
- Never think about your goals in general - focus only on that next task at hand. You may be overwhelmed when you face something you don’t understand yet. Try not to think about your general inexpertness in the subject and make the topic at hand the center of your attention
- Eat well before the task. Hunger can ruin your mindset and serve as another unwanted distraction.
- You can also do the full body warming exercises and some mild stretching. It gives a tremendous boost of willpower and mental capacities.
A sense of satisfaction about yourself will spread through your entire body. If you make your important tasks into a joyful game, it will deepen this satisfaction even deeper. You’ll be giving yourself bigger rewards for bigger achievements and become addicted to them.
As habits create a sort of neurological craving, the bigger the reward, the stronger the craving. If you overwrite shallow rewards that procrastination gives you with more powerful rewards from accomplishments, you can rebuild your entire life!
The last and most part of changing your habits is the belief: particularly, the belief that you can do it. Undoubtable, there will be many pitfalls and downs on you way, but the belief that your new system works will get you going nonetheless. Use the mental contrast technique to help you build a powerful belief about yourself. If you’re a student, imagine yourself a mathematician at NASA or anyone you want to be and contrast this image with your current self. It’s a centuries old trick: if you want something, act like you already have it. This will help you change your reality.
- Identify the cues of your procrastination
- Eliminate obstacles and prepare a working plan
- Break your work into bite-sized pieces.
- Focus your unremitting attention on tasks in short sprints.
- Use breaks for contemplating on the material.
- Use breaks for breaks also (fuel your body with good food and/or do exercises)
- Believe that you can do it
- Use the mental contrast technique