Changing habits is a difficult process. And we can thank our brains for making habits hard to break. It goes back to neural circuitry. As Emergenetics International Founder Dr. Geil Browning writes in Emergenetics: Tap Into the New Science of Success, “As the brain matures and becomes more specialized, neurons are recruited and reinforced through repetition. In order to learn a new skill [or create new habits], you must engage in repetitive motions that set up and sharpen new neural pathways. New habits must supersede the old ones.”
Changing habits was once described to me as having to switch from autopilot to manual mode. We have to recognize when we’re stepping back into an old habit and force ourselves to correct the action and move in the right direction. It takes conscious effort until the new behavior goes into your unconscious mind. So when you decide that you need to make a change in your life, whether it’s trying to change one of your thinking or behaving preferences, making health and wellness a priority, or just trying to find balance in your life– it requires changing habits and stepping out of our comfort zone.
Here are 4 steps to help with changing habits and switching into manual mode:
Choose a Positive Motivation
Have you ever heard the joke: How many psychologists does it take to change a light bulb? Answer: One, but he has to want to change.
Motivation and the actual desire to change is key to creating new habits. Luckily, the brain seeks positive motivations. If you say, “I do not want to be inflexible” then all your brain hears is “inflexible”. On the other hand, if you say “I want to be flexible” then your brain hears flexible. To be successful in changing your habits, start by turning your negative statement to a positive one. You’ll be in the right state of mind as you embark on the rest of your change journey.
Imagine your Goal
Try to capture a vision of where you want to be. See yourself in the context of having met your goal and take a moment to enjoy this vision. When you visualize the future you, you are helping to program your brain to make the situation real. The more vividly you imagine it- by incorporating emotions, sights, sounds, smells- the more your brain can’t tell the difference between what is real and what is imagined. In her book, Dr. Browning points to a study conducted at MIT where volunteers were shown photographs and then asked to recollect them. The same region in their brain was activated whether they were looking at actual photographs or seeing them in their mind.
I recently attended a goal planning session led by life coach Anna Goldstein who said that people look for evidence that proves our thoughts to be true. The more you visualize success with your goal the more your brain has evidence of it to be true. You have a belief that supports your goal. Your thinking impacts your feelings which impacts your behavior which impacts the end result. So by thinking about success with your goal you are impacting the factors that play into actually accomplishing your goal.
Make a Plan
The abstract part of your brain (Analytical and Conceptual thinking) desires a broad goal. That’s where the visualization comes into play. But the concrete (Structural and Social thinking) want you to count the trees…. or in this case steps. There are conflicting reports as to whether you need a 21 day plan, a 66 day plan, or if it just needs to be an ongoing, adopted lifestyle. The timing will continue to be a source of debate, and to quote this How Stuff Works article, “The reality is, habits are easier to make than they are to break. If you repeat a behavior often enough, those synaptic pathways are going to get worn in. The human brain is a very adaptive piece of machinery. But does that take 21 days? Who knows? Everyone’s brain is different, and habit formation also relies on aspects of experience and personality.”
For our purposes, the point is just to get started moving in the right direction. To achieve any goal, you’re more likely to stick with it by breaking it into smaller, achievable points that can be benchmarked along the way. Connect your goal to an action you can do each day. Think about it chronologically- is there a logical starting point? Are there steps that naturally lead into others? Tie each action to specific dates.
Keep in mind that all action plans are different. One person might adjust plans as they go and have a different activity every day (they’re probably on the welcoming of change end of the Flexibility spectrum). Other people might not deviate from their steps once they have been established (they’re probably more on the firm and focused side of the Flexibility spectrum). The one thing everyone should do though, is to write the plan down. You’ll be 33% more likely to achieve your goals if you do.
Enlist Others to Help You
Identify people who can and will help you to achieve your goal. When you tell others it makes you more accountable for your successes. This article in the Chronicle has some great steps around starting and maintaining accountability. My favorite step is the last one- celebrating! When you tell others about your goals then they can be there to help you celebrate your accomplishment. Celebrating small victories along the way (and rewarding yourself too) can keep you motivated and excited about your end-goal. Enlisting others just makes the celebration even more enjoyable.
Changing habits takes time, practice, and perseverance. There’s a famous quote, “I’m a great believer in luck, and I find the harder I work, the more I have of it.” I wish you lots of luck changing habits and creating new ones.