Creating New Habits by Cutting New Grooves

Posted on November 6, 2014 by Dr. Brian K. Nichols


We all have habits, patterns, or issues that we wish to change, such as managing our relationships with others, our weight, or our work accomplishments. For many, these habits are so troubling that they wish they could have them removed from their psyche, like some sort of modern-day “psycho-surgery.”

I have long contended that as much as we wish that unhelpful habits could literally be removed from our brains, the unfortunate reality is that these habits have been ingrained in us for so long that it is unlikely they could ever be changed.

It’s as though these patterns, which consist of how we think, feel, and act, cut a groove in our brains and form circuits that get easier to access and move faster each time we repeat the pattern. It eventually happens so quickly that it feels automatic. Advances in science confirm that our actions can be traced with instruments that measure brain activity, and that many of our habits do in fact have corresponding brain circuits.

So, if the unhelpful patterns can’t be removed, what hope do we have for positive changes? I believe positive change and growth comes from creating new habits and patterns that in turn create alternate brain circuits. Over time, these brain circuits compete with the old patterns and provide powerful, positive alternatives when we are confronted by situations that normally bring our bad habits to the fore.

I like to refer to this as phenomenon as “cutting a new groove.” When we cut new grooves, we literally establish new circuits in the brain. And when we repeat the new, positive habits, we ingrain these new grooves, which is crucial if we want them to compete with our old, deeply ingrained grooves.

Cutting a new groove is hard at first. Imagine for a moment that you are a villager in the Amazon, where your ancestors have lived for centuries. For hundreds of years, your people have walked the same path to the river, thus the path is well worn. There is no grass on the path, and the thick vegetation of the jungle has receded around it to accommodate the human forms that frequently use it.

It typically takes about an hour to get from the village to the river, a fact of life that people have accepted for generations. But in one of the odd strokes of life that sometimes occurs, you are visited by outsiders who wish to learn about your village. They reach your village by helicopter and begin speaking to you about life there.

They take you up in their helicopter so you can help them understand the typical movement patterns of the villagers. However, while in the helicopter, you look down on the terrain you’ve walked for years and notice that your well-worn path to the river is incredibly inefficient and long.

It is obvious to you that you could arrive at the river in half the time if you took a left turn at one distinct point in the path. The problem is that to take this new route requires going through some very thick jungle. It is a daunting task, and to try it the first time would probably take ten times as long as usual and would be very hard work. But once a new path is established, it can cut the walking time in half.

At sunrise the next day, you go to the path with your trusty machete in hand, and at that crucial switch point in the path, you begin cutting. It’s hard, but your conviction to create something new and helpful for yourself and your village spurs you along.

Despite your motivation to make things better, you consider quitting at several points in the day because of the sheer difficulty of the labor. However, you talk yourself through these moments of doubt, and just prior to sundown you find yourself at the river. You’ve created a new path that can now make everyone’s life easier.

To your surprise, however, your family and friends don’t jump up and down and congratulate you on the amazing new path you’ve cut. People are creatures of habit and tend not to trust new things. They remain inclined to take the old path, because that’s what they know.

As it turns out, you have to do more than just cut the path to make things better for you and the villagers. You have to motivate people to use the new path. And they need to do it sooner rather than later, because if no one goes through it, it won’t take long for the path to become overgrown.

Slowly but surely, the villagers start taking the path and you notice that the vegetation gradually begins to recede. As a result, it gets progressively easier for the villagers to use the new path.

After a few months, you notice that the old path is starting to get overgrown and that it is not as appealing to the villagers as it once was. Success: You’ve created a viable alternative to the old path.

The general theory of cutting a new groove is a way of discussing and visualizing cognitive behavioral therapy, a long-standing psychological approach to behavioral change. The major components of this theory are:

  • Triggers – events or situations that happen to you.
  • Thoughts – how you think about, or interpret, the event or situation.
  • Feelings – the emotions that occur in response to your thoughts.
  • Actions – behaviors you demonstrate in response to your thoughts & feelings.
  • Results – consequences of your actions.

A key belief of this approach is that thoughts cause feelings. This is what often occurs when we are confronted with an intense trigger. For instance, if your friend curses at you, you might think, “My friend made me angry.”

But suppose you thought your friend cursed at you because he was having a reaction to a new medication. In that case, you might feel sympathy for him instead. How you thought about or interpreted your friend’s outburst is what caused your feeling. Likewise, if you felt angry at your friend’s outburst, it means that you interpreted the cursing as unnecessary, unfair, or mean, and that your interpretation is what led to you feeling angry.

The idea that how we think about events is what causes our feelings and subsequent actions gives us both choice and power. If we have responses to triggers we believe are negative, we might be able to change our responses if we can find different, and believable, ways to think about those triggers.

Finding a different way to think about a trigger is the key to cutting a new groove. But keep in mind that the force of habit is powerful. Our thoughts about triggers often happen so automatically and quickly that we don’t even recognize we have them.

This is why we need to step back, slow down, and dissect the entire process. Then, after careful evaluation, the trick is to cut new grooves by gradually building new thoughts and responses to those triggers.

Like all things worthwhile, it’s hard — but not complicated. And the rewards are immense.

Dr. Brian K. Nichols

Dr. Brian K. Nichols is a licensed clinical psychologist with a doctorate in clinical psychology from UCLA. His training and experience include men’s psychology, adoption, and multicultural identity. Dr. Nichols’s private practice in Los Angeles focuses on work with teens, family relations, and men’s issues.