If you really want to make a change in your life or break any old habits or behaviours that may be holding you back, then you need to understand what is happening in your brain when you try (and often fail) to make those changes.
When you are trying to break an old pattern of thinking, feeling or behaving, you are creating a new neural pathway in your brain. I see it like a woodland pathway – in order for that pathway to become a well-trodden route, you need to walk down it again and again. When you are creating any new habit (for example, getting up early to run in the morning), you are not only creating a brand new pathway, but you are also having to resist the urge to go down an already well-trodden, easier pathway (staying in your nice warm bed).
This all takes a lot of brain energy and effort.
These patterns are laid down in the prefrontal cortex or PFC; this is the part of the brain that is concerned with conscious thought, strategizing, goal-setting and motivation. It only has a certain amount of energy available at the beginning of each day, so when you are tired or stressed, or just have too much on, there is not enough energy left to create new habits.
This is when your brain reverts to the limbic system, which controls your instinct for survival. It is automatic and uses much less energy but in this state, there is little chance of making the best decisions or creating any new habits. Change requires a lot of energy, attention and consistency, so when you don’t allow for that, you will not succeed. On the following pages are some suggestions of how to create new and lasting habits.
‘Commitment leads to action. Action brings your dream closer.’
01. Create space and reduce stress
Clear the decks and let go of something – whatever is using up your brain energy. Remember, your brain only has so much capacity each day and there are only a certain number of hours. For every new thing, you take on, get into the habit of asking yourself what you can let go of. Aim to perform any new actions in the morning or after a break to minimize the amount of ‘mental load’ on the brain. In addition, take care of the basics – sleep, exercise and nutrition – in order to reduce stress.
02. Focus on the benefits
Being human, you will naturally avoid situations that cause pain or discomfort and seek out the ones that give you pleasure. This is another ancient survival mechanism, which at its most basic level, is designed to keep you safe. It does not care whether you live a happy and fulfilled life – just that you are physically alive. If you really want your brain to make the extra effort to create a new neural pathway, you need to focus on the benefits and the pleasures it will bring you.
Using that early morning run as an example, focus your mind on the high it will give you, how good you will feel about having done it, and how much better you’ll look (if that’s your goal). You will also need to stop focusing on the bad – the aches and pains, the cold mornings, the perceived monotony – this all takes practice! List the benefits, gains and pleasures of creating a new habit and put them up somewhere you will see them every day. Create a vision board of what your life will look like as a result of this new habit.
Regularly reward yourself for performing your new behaviour – psychologists call this positive reinforcement.
If the habit itself doesn’t bring natural rewards, add in an extra feel-good factor – such as putting your feet up and reading your favourite magazine afterwards. Also, be clear on the drawbacks of not making or creating this change – what it will cost you.
For example, if you don’t stop smoking, you may not be around to see your kids grow up. When I was in my twenties, a doctor did this very effectively. He told me that if I didn’t quit smoking, as an asthmatic, I would be living in the hospital in an oxygen tent by the time I was 40. It worked!
03. Keep in familiar
When they are ready to commit to their new behaviour, most of my clients want to go all-out: ‘I will go to the gym five days a week for an hour – at 6am every morning.’ Every time I hear this, I have to stop them in their tracks and reel them back in so that they start with something smaller and more manageable.
This is because doing anything too new or too scary activates the amygdala (commonly known as an amygdala hijack), which pushes us back to our old, ‘safe’, known ways of operating – or ‘homeostasis’ as it is called by neuroscientists. When this happens, we are unable to evaluate the situation rationally, or make the best life decisions. It is helpful for your brain in that moment not to have to make any difficult decisions or think too much about any new behaviour.
This is why doing something every day is much better than having to ask yourself, ‘Is this a day on or a day off from my new habit?’ Doing something at the same time in the same place is also extremely helpful as it makes your brain feel ‘safe’.
04. Make changes gradually
To avoid activating the amygdala, we, therefore, need to implement any change or new habit in small and regular steps, and stick to a familiar routine. For example, when starting a new exercise routine, it is much better to start with 15 minutes of running every day instead of aiming for much longer runs. It is also best to keep the situation or location as similar as possible, to give your brain the feeling of familiarity and safety that it needs.
05. Allow plenty of time
Depending on what else your brain is dealing with, and the difficulty or complexity of your new habit, you will need to allow plenty of
time for it to become your ‘new normal’. There are a number of theories about how much time this takes but my very rough estimate is to allow at least three months of consistent effort (again – a small, daily action is preferable to sporadic large acts) for any new behaviour. Remember, during that time you will need to keep your stress levels down, stay focused on the benefits, and make the action as easy and familiar as possible.
You may be replacing a very well-trodden old behaviour of 30–40 years, so this will take time. Allow for this, be patient, and give yourself all the help you can. Create a system where this change is being supported and rewarded for at least the three months I’ve suggested. Schedule and monitor your new behaviour or habit – the same time every day is best. Smartwatches, activity trackers and apps with rewards along the way are all great for keeping you motivated. Be accountable – publicly via social media, or on a smaller scale within a group if that works for you.
Alternatively, buddy up with a friend or someone else wanting to achieve the same thing as you. If you do all of this and the change is really important to you but you still feel blocked by something you just can’t identify, then seek some personal support through coaching, therapy or group therapy – whatever it is you need to make this permanent change in your life.
If motivation is a problem for you, then you need to acquaint yourself with the Kim Kardashian of neurotransmitters – dopamine. It is dubbed as such because it’s the sexy hormone – the one we’re all chasing through addictions such as caffeine, alcohol, sugar, shopping, sex and gambling – things that give us a high. It is also known as the ‘motivation molecule’ because it boosts levels of drive, focus and attention. With low levels of dopamine, you will feel a lack of joy and zest for life; you won’t feel motivated to do or achieve much at all, and you will be prone to procrastination and apathy.
Many of us have low levels of dopamine due to poor diet and nutrition. It’s made from the amino acid L-tyrosine which is commonly found in protein-rich foods, such as almonds, avocados, bananas, eggs, beef and chicken, as well as in dark chocolate, coffee and green tea. Alongside what we eat, what we do can also have a huge effect on our dopamine levels. Top dopamine boosting activities include exercise; sex and physical contact; meditation; listening to music (dancing to music will give you a double boost); and creative hobbies, such as crafting and knitting.
Focusing on the benefits
As I have said before, as humans we are hard-wired for pleasure – it’s our brain’s way of getting us to do things to survive. That is why eating, sex and making money all trigger dopamine, which controls our brain’s pleasure/reward centre. What will motivate us and keep us motivated, is focusing on the benefits of what we want to achieve, the good stuff we will get as a result of all of this effort and energy (dopamine is also released after any effort we put in). For example, in one of my early Change Your Life in 5 videos you can see me put all of this to the test by attempting to get into the North Sea for the first time in winter. For this task, I focused on how I would feel if I completed the challenge.
I did my research and knew that I’d gain the added benefit of a natural high via a shot of endorphins, serotonin and dopamine. I also knew it was thought to be good for my immune system, great for skin and cellulite, and was said to improve your sex life by releasing an extra dose of oestrogen. All of this helped me at the moment when my skin came into contact with that very cold North Seawater! If what you are wanting to achieve isn’t that rewarding in itself (but just has to be done), then add on something that is – and that will give you that help boost.
Making it easy
Your brain constantly evaluates how rewarding and how difficult something is – so to effectively control your brain you need to make whatever you’re doing feel as easy as possible. As part of my preparation for going into the North Sea, I bought myself some neoprene gloves and booties to keep my hands and feet from freezing, and on the day my partner made a fire on the beach to sit in front of as soon as we got out. This is why people talk about breaking things down into small, manageable chunks and just taking one small step at a time – if you make something easier you will actually do it.
‘Commitment is the little choices every day that lead to the final results we’re striving for.’
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