Brainjo Bite: How To Break A Bad Habit (Brainjo Bite)


Welcome to another episode of Brainjo Bite. So in this episode, I will be answering a question that comes from Chris, who says:

“One of the things I’d love for you to touch on is what does the Brainjo method tell us is the best way to erase bad habits that are deeply ingrained?”

Okay, so this is a great question. How do you break a bad habit? And I know it’s one that many of you can relate to without a doubt habits are a double-edged sword. On the one hand, they are the very thing that allow us to learn any complex skill or behavior like playing a musical instrument. It’s our ability to automate motor behaviors and movements so that they no longer require conscious attention. That allows us to play things of increasing complexity, but by the same token, if our automatic behaviors don’t do exactly what we want them to do, then every time they are activated, we end up doing something we don’t want to do.

So we can literally write mistakes into our brain tissue habits can either be a huge ally or an enemy. And we recognize this double-edged nature of habits by referring to some, some of them as good habits and others as bad habits as I’ve discussed in the past. So many people’s frustration with learning music comes as a result of developing bad habits which usually rises from not being mindful of how we practice, which of course is a big reason why understanding the mechanics of good practice is so important. And that is a primary focus of this series and of the Brainjo method of instruction. And it’s why going slowly and methodically through the foundational stages of learning to play pays off so much in the long run, as it’s in those moments that we’re building the habits that we’ll be relying on for the rest of our playing days.

So it was just like the parable of the tortoise and the Hare slow and steady wins the race, the reason being that bad habits, once they’re there, it can be very hard to undo a bad habit, takes much more time and effort than forming a good one in the first place, which is why the tortoise has the advantage. I know this from firsthand experience, as I’ve talked about before I came to the conclusion years ago that I had to rebuild my three finger banjo playing from scratch if I wanted to get to where I wanted to go. So what happens when you formed a bad habit that you need to break in order to progress as was the original question, and I’m just going to cover sort of bad habits broadly speaking here that bad habit could be something within the context of a single tune, like a phrase that you make the same mistake on every time, or it could be a foundational technique, like how you pick the strings with your picking hand.

So habits are usually divided into three different parts. Sometimes referred to as a habit loop. The first part is the cue or the trigger. Something that happens that activates the habit or the routine in the brain. And this can be something that occurs externally. You, for example, see a yellow light and your foot automatically goes for the brake or for some the accelerator. You sit down on the sofa and maybe you grab the TV remote or something internal, you feel hungry and you open up the fridge refrigerator. So you have a Q a and that’s followed by the routine which is the behavior that is triggered by that cue. And the third part of the loop is a reward. So this is the benefit that you get from having executed that particular routine. So for example, if you’re hungry and you open the fridge, your reward is the relief of hunger from whatever food you find.

It’s been estimated that anywhere from 40 to 95% of our daily behaviors are habitual. So essentially these are the things that we can do on autopilot. So some days we can go almost the entire day on autopilot, if we wish. And the reason there’s a range is that how much we can rely on these automated networks depends in part on the particular environment. We find ourselves in on a given day. So if it’s, for example, a normal weekday and you have a job that has a pretty set routine, then you might be at the upper end of that 40 to 95% range. Whereas if you’re doing something like traveling in a foreign country, then it’s going to be a lot lower as you can’t rely on nearly as many of those automated programs to get through your day.

So now I’m gonna talk about three different ways in which bad habits form in the context of learning music. The first way is through reinforcing wrong movements. So repetition is how we signal the brain to change, right? And when we repeat the wrong movements or repeat mistakes, it’s usually when we’re trying to tackle material that’s too challenging. That’s too far beyond our current skill level. So we end up making the same mistake over and over again. So to avoid doing this in the first place who wants to number one, ensure that whatever we’re trying to play is appropriate our level, or kind of just in that range of desirable difficulty. And two, we want to make sure that if we do encounter something that’s challenging, slow it down to the point where, where we’re able to execute it correctly.

And if that’s not possible, then again, it’s a sign that whatever you’re trying to tackle is a little too far beyond where you’re at right now. The second reason we can develop bad habits in the context of music is when we play with tension. So the ideal here is we want to be as relaxed as possible when we’re playing music, tension tends to degrade the quality of our movements and make them less precise. The third reason is playing when we’re tired. So whenever we get tired and our focus starts to fade or playing gets sloppier. And this is another reason as I’ve talked about before, why shorter sessions are generally better than longer sessions and a reason why longer sessions can actually lead to slower progress. So if your attention fades and you start degrading the quality of the inputs, you’re giving your brain, then you have the recipe for bad habits.

So those are kind of the three things to keep in mind with respect to trying, not to form a bad habit in the first place. Okay. So now let’s talk about what to do if you have formed a bad habit and you want to break it. So a key principle in cognitive neuroscience that’s important for this discussion is that the brain is very hierarchical in how it’s organized. So the brain inside the brain, you have countless neural networks, each of which is involved in a primary function or functions. And at all times in the brain, there’s this dynamic balance of activation and suppression amongst all of these different neural networks and our behavior at any point in time is essentially whatever networks that are winning that battle, that battle of activation and suppression that governs our thoughts and behaviors. For example, there’s a neural network in my brain for walking, right in your brain to, and right now that network for me is being suppressed.

If that weren’t the case, I’d be unable to sit still for this video. I’d be walking around the room. And the same is true of all of our other habits in the presence of a trigger. The strongest pathways will be the ones that influence our behavior the most. So if we’re looking to unlearn a bad habit, our goal is to build a new one, a new pathway or new network, make it stronger and make the old one weaker. And one of the key points here is that we can’t really erase an an old habit or a habit that’s already there. And that’s one of the things that research has shown us. So again, the double-edged sword of habits is that once they’re embedded into our neural tissue, all the evidence indicates that they’re with us for good. So the way to reduce their influence over us and neutralize them if we can, is by shifting this balance of activation and suppression.

All right. So now with that background about what’s happening in the brain and these scenarios, I’m going to review a few strategies for what to do in these situations where you have a bad habit that you’d like to get rid of. And I’m just going to take the classic example of passage or phrase in a song that you’ve learned that you just can’t seem to play, right? And whenever it comes along, you keep making the same kind of mistake each time. So you’ve habituated the wrong way to do it. And in this case, the trigger is the tune itself. And specifically kind of the phrase that precedes the one you having trouble with the one that has the bad habit and the routine in this case is the sequence of movements that you make with your hands.

So in this case, we’ve habituated a routine that doesn’t give us the outcome we want. It doesn’t deliver the sound that we want. So we want to change that somehow. So the first strategy for breaking this bad habit would be to try to play whatever it is you’re struggling with by itself in isolation, very slowly. Now, it’s always a good idea. Whenever we’re learning something new to play it first, as slowly as needed to, for it to sound like we want to, with some kind of timekeeping device, whether that’s a drum track like beats for banjo, a metronome and so forth, but in these situations where we’ve developed a bad habit, then it’s likely going to be even slower than you’re requiring you to play even slower than you’re used to. And again, the key there is simply to play it as slow as needed to make, to get the sound that you want and to not make the mistake that you’ve been making.

And then after that, once you’ve gotten to that point slowly increasing the tempo to get it to your desired speed. And then at that point, see if you can reintegrate that particular passage into the broader song or tune. So in this particular strategy, we’re essentially trying to see if we can repair the motor routine itself, if we can actually fix the particular habit. If we try to do this and our old way of doing it, or the mistake keeps popping up then you can try to make an adjustment of some sort, which brings me to the second strategy in this situation, which is to change things in some way. So in this instance, one option would be just to simplify the phrase that you’re having trouble with in some way. But you don’t necessarily have to do that.

The real key is that it just needs to be different in some way, so that it’s treated by the brain as a distinct routine. So in this case, we’re trying to build a new routine or sequence of movements that we’re then going to try to strengthen so that it suppresses the old one and to do so we’ll want to practice playing it and we’ll want to practice hearing it. So one of the keys in this case is playing the tune or section in your mind the new way. And here, you can also record yourself playing it in the new way, and then listening to the recording. And this is of course, another great situation for using visualization. So practicing, hearing the tune in your mind and imagining the movements of your hands as you do, or hearing the tune out loud, imagining the movements of your hands as you do again, what we’re doing is trying to strengthen this new routine, this new way of playing through repetition so that when our trigger comes, this new routine gets activated rather than the old one, incidentally.

This is the strategy that’s been used successfully in tic disorders. Most notably Tourette’s syndrome. So Tourette’s is an extreme example of habits that we want to eradicate. So in the case of Tourette’s, you have various vocal and motor tics that are triggered by various cues. And of course, this is oftentimes a major source of distress from the people who are suffering from it. And an example of an extremely powerful habit and with with habit replacement therapy, which is commonly used in this scenario, the person chooses a different and more desirable behavior to substitute for the undesired one. So to perform every time they experience that urge to perform the the old one that they don’t want, they choose something different instead. So for example, if they feel the urge to blink their eyes really hard or clear their throat, which are two common kinds of ticks, they might instead do something more inconspicuous, like touching their tongue to the roof of their mouth.

Again the idea here just like changing what we play in some way is to reinforce a new routine that’s activated by the same cue. And if you’re still struggling after using those two strategies, then another thing you can try doing is changing the rhythm of what you’re playing. So I’ll grab my banjo as an example, but so say I have a phrase in a song and it goes like this.

But I’m struggling with it, right. I can make some mistake in it. So instead of what I might do instead is try a different rhythm with that phrase. And I try to actually keep that up, play the entire tune with that particular rhythm.

Again, it doesn’t matter kind of what rhythm, you know, what change you make to the rhythm, all that matters is that it’s different in some way. And essentially what we’re trying to do here is change the cue itself. And what you’ll typically find here is it’s easier to play it the, your desired way. If you’ve changed the rhythm in some way, because that that old habit is no longer being activated. So again, the idea there is to practice it with the new rhythm, and then if you want to try, if you want to play it back with the, the old way you were playing it, then slowly bring it back to the original rhythm. So, as I said, ultimately, it boils down to finding a way to strengthen the new habit and weaken the old one, and we can do so by number one, repeating the, the new routine multiple times, right, using the power of repetition to strengthen the one that we want.

We can, the one that we don’t want, number two, by creating a different routine, that’s triggered by the same cue and then three, by changing the cue itself, and then attaching our preferred way of playing it to that new cue. So again, three different strategies you can try all of which are grounded in the science of habits and all of which myself and others have used successfully to break bad habits. Again, some are definitely harder to break than others. A lot of this depends on how long these things have been reinforced. And that will also in part determine which of these strategies will work. But we’ve all been there. And it’s always an experience that reinforces just how much easier it is to not develop bad habits in the first place and to take care in the learning process.

All right. Thanks again to Chris for the question. I hope you’ve found that helpful. I’ll probably talk a little bit more on this topic in the future. Especially with respect to specific condition that danger players can get known as focal dystonia. So look for that in the future.

And if you enjoy these Brainjo Bite episodes you’ll likely enjoy the book, the Laws of Brainjo, which you can find wherever books are sold, including Amazon, and I will put a link to it in the description. All right, thanks so much for watching and I will see you in the next episode. Thanks so much for listening to this episode of Brainjo Bite, to make sure you catch future episodes. Be sure to subscribe to the podcast on your podcast player and consider leaving a rating interview in iTunes, which helps other folks to funding it as well, to learn more about music courses based on the Brainjo method of instruction, head over to