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