Category Archives: Lasting Change

Positive Change in 5 Simple Steps

I like to watch a good, trashy TV show occasionally.  Recently, I became engrossed in The Bachelorette.  I know that there are healthier and more enriching ways to relax, like going for a walk or reading a good book.  Numerous times I even picked up a book, attempting to make a positive change.  But I ended up watching almost every episode during this past “Andi and Josh” season.

Whether it’s reading more, losing weight, becoming a more patient parent, or engaging more in uninspiring work, we’ve all been there.  We want to create positive change in our lives, and yet our efforts often prove useless.

Why Is Change So Difficult?

The answer lies in the way our brains form habits.  A colleague of mine, Braco Pobric, recently released his newest book Habits and Happiness on Amazon. He defines habits as:

“…rituals and behaviors that we perform automatically, allowing us to carry out essential activities such as brushing our teeth, taking a shower, getting dressed for work, and following the same routes every day without thinking about them.”

He says that these unconscious habits free up resources for our brains to carry out other more complex tasks, like solving problems or deciding what to make for dinner.   In other words, our habits exist to make our lives easier.

The problem is that we’ve all formed habits that make our lives more difficult.  For example, consuming too many unhealthy calories leads to health concerns and weight gain.  Expressing anger inappropriately causes relationships to suffer.  Disengaging at work reduces productivity. Many conflicts in our lives are actually rooted in our very own habits.

Wouldn’t it be nice if our bodies would reject harmful habits?

Unfortunately that’s not how habits work.  Habits begin with our thoughts and actions.  These thoughts and actions form tracks in the brain.  Through repetition, the tracks become deeper, wider, more groomed.  Well-groomed tracks represent our habits.

In the NY Times Bestseller The Brain That Changes Itself, Dr. Alvaro Pascual-Leone, Professor of Neurology at Harvard Medical School, explains this grooming of mental tracks and thus habit formation.  He suggests picturing a wintery scene – a fresh blanket of snow on a hill, a sledder at the top of that hill.  If that person spent the entire afternoon sledding down, walking up, and sledding down again, at the end of the day she will have created well-groomed tracks which are in fact hard to get out of.

Whether positive or harmful, our habits are like those tracks – well-groomed and hard to get out of.  That’s why any type of change, even when it leads to better health, relationships or work, is so difficult.

Positive Change in 5 Simple Steps

Fortunately, everyone can learn how to change his or her brain and form positive habits.  Below are 5 simple steps to get you going.

1  Focus first on who you wish to become, not on what you need to do.   A powerful question to ask yourself is who do I want to become?  Someone who eats more healthfully and takes care of myself?  A parent who is patient yet firm with my children?  An engaged employee at work?  Focusing on who you wish to become is more empowering and motivating as a starting point.

2  Start small.  Next, define one small step towards becoming that person.  Ask yourself the following:  If I could be just 5% better at eating healthfully, 5% more patient, or 5% more engaged at work, what would I do?  Perhaps you would commit to eating more vegetables, to counting to 10 before responding angrily to your kids, or to utilizing a personal strength more often and in new ways at work.

3  Practice daily.  Grooming your new track requires many trips down the slope.  Practice your new small habit for at least a few minutes daily over 30 days, or until it becomes automatic.

4  Remind yourself.   Set a daily reminder on your smart phone, block out time on your calendar, or check in daily with a trusted friend for accountability and support.  Remind yourself regularly to groom those new tracks in your brain to increase the likelihood that you’ll follow through on your practice.

5  Return to the practice.  I promise that you will miss a day here and there.  Your reminder will fail.  Other priorities will distract you.  Better-groomed habits will take over.  Understand that this is a natural part of habit formation.  Give yourself permission to be human, and return to your practice.  Returning to the daily practice when you miss is key to your success.

After one small habit becomes automatic, add another one and keep building from there.  Over time, you’ll find better health, satisfying relationships, and fulfilling work.  Although it’s not always easy, it’s completely within your power to bring about lasting positive change.

With gratitude for the amazing ability of our brains to change,

Jane

To learn more about Habits and Happiness, click here.

To read my review of Habits and Happiness, click here.

REFERENCES

Pobric, Braco (2014).  Habits and Happiness – How to Become Happier and Improve Your Wellbeing by Changing Your Habits.  NJ: High Impact Consulting LLC Publishing Division.  p 14

Doidge, Norman, MD (2007).  The Brain That Changes Itself.  New York:  Penguin Books.  p 209

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Create New Year’s Habits To Enjoy Lasting Change

Enjoy lasting, positive changes in your life by creating New Year’s Habits rather than a New Year’s Resolution. 

read time:  about 2.3 minutes

Happy New Year!

Did you make a New Year’s resolution this year?  Whether you did or not, you’re probably familiar with the most common ones.  Lose weight.  Get organized.  Spend less.  Save more.  Stay healthy.  Fall in love.  Spend more time with family.  Live life to the fullest.

I gave up making them years ago.  It’s not that I failed entirely –  I did manage to become a more patient parent one year and lose a few excess pounds in another.

The problem was that my results were temporary.  My renewed patience lasted only a few weeks.  I gained back the few pounds I lost.  Like a majority of people who set New Year’s resolutions, I didn’t enjoy any lasting changes.

Research shows that most change efforts, whether personal or organizational, yield only temporary benefits and aren’t sustained over time.  Consider the billions of dollars we spend annually on weight loss, personal training, skills training, and leadership development to get a sense of how important, and difficult, it is to achieve lasting positive change.

How is lasting change possible?

This question is not insignificant.  Our individual health and well-being, and that of our relationships, families, organizations, and society depend on the answer.

We know about strategies that increase the odds of success.  Set clear, value-based goals.  Work with an accountability partner.  Break larger goals down into smaller, more manageable parts.  But that’s not enough.

Lasting change requires an actual behavioral change.  Our behaviors form habits.  Our habits govern everything we do and don’t do.  We need to actually create a new habit and do things differently to see a different result.

According to brain scientists, healthy and unhealthy habits create connections that form neural pathways in the brain.  The more ingrained the habit, like brushing our teeth after meals, the stronger the neural pathway.  Picture a channel of water that deepens and widens as it rains.

Unfortunately, an unhealthy habit like reaching for a soda instead of water also has a fortified neural pathway in the brain.

Change is hard.

Habits are hard to break.  But when we form new ones, new neural pathways emerge and strengthen with the repetition of practice.  The old ones weaken and eventually cease to exist.

So this year, instead of a New Year’s resolution, try creating a New Year’s habit.  Instead of “losing 10 pounds by April 1″ work on adding more vegetables to each meal or replacing one daily soda with water.  Instead of “living life more fully,” work on using a strength in a meaningful way each day at work or expressing gratitude daily at family mealtime.

In other words, live the change you’d like to see. 

Below are some tips for making lasting change easier:

  • Repetition is key, so remind yourself to practice a new habit.  Set a daily reminder on your phone.  Schedule your practice into your calendar.  Create a visual reminder.  It takes about 14 days for the brain to begin changing and longer to strengthen the new neural pathway.
  • Give yourself permission to struggle as you create a new habit because change doesn’t usually happen on the first few attempts.  Picture those developing neural pathways.
  • Expect to struggle, but focus on returning to your practice when things aren’t going so well, not on berating yourself or giving up.
  • Work on only 1 or 2 things at a time to avoid stress and getting too far outside of your comfort zone.  Then move on to 1 or 2 more habits.

Over time, these small changes will snowball into many healthful habits you’ll carry into your relationships and daily activities.  This year, commit to living the change you’d like to see as you practice the habits of lasting positive change.

With gratitude for putting happiness first,

Jane

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References

Doidge, Norman, MD.  The Brain That Changes Itself  New York: Penguin, 2007.

Senge, Peter M.  The Fifth Discipline: The Art and Practice of the Learning Organization  New York: Doubleday, 1990.

 

 

 

 

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