Your current habits are stronger than any intentions you may have to incorporate a new one into your life. Why do we find it so hard to change? Our brains are great at maintaining what they know, meaning keeping the status quo. Efficiency and safety are critical responsibilities of the mind. The good habits we want to follow, as well as those that don’t support us, have deep tracks in our brains and take little effort to retrieve them. Also, the brain is on constant watch to see if things are happening out of the ordinary.
Even if you don’t like the habit, the brain will recall it quickly. If you want to start an exercising program, it’s a new pattern, and the brain doesn’t have easy access to it, so it stops immediately and resists bringing this new behavior inside.
You have great intentions but the amygdala (reptilian) brain has only survival in mind and any change not tested is not accepted. When you try to make a change, the amygdala is activated, and it draws energy away from your intentions as it needs the strength to fight or flight. How many times have you tried to change and have failed and just don’t understand why you can’t do it.
We tend to evaluate our inability to change as being lazy, stupid and believe no matter how hard we try it’s impossible to change. Negative self-talk doesn’t build new tracks in your brain, instead makes you think that change is unlikely. Well, you can change your beliefs and become successful in making the changes you want in your life. You have to be smarter than the amygdala. How can you do this?
Most of us think big when we want to change; for example, exercise every day for 30 minutes. Your brain doesn’t recognize exercising every day and will see this as a threat to your safety. I know it sounds funny, but that is the function of the amygdala, and it does its job well.
Most of us are not patient; instead, we want to make a change as soon as we think it. I use to joke “I wanted a Ph.D. but didn’t want to go to school.” It was my way of saying I want the change though not willing to put in the effort. If you are serious about making a change, start small, be fully present each step of the way and celebrate each accomplishment (no matter how small).
It’s more useful to create small changes to get past your survival brain and start to lay new tracks down in your brain. When you do the small steps, the amygdala doesn’t pay attention, and you get past it. If you do this every day and slowly build up your behavior, it doesn’t set off any alarms in your brain. Instead, it starts laying down new tracks, and this new behavior becomes routine for your brain.
For example, if you want to exercise each day, forget the 30 minutes and for that matter even the 15 minutes, instead start at the lowest amount of time you can do it and know you will be successful. Consider this your daily bar. So if 5, 4, 3, 2 or 1 minute is your bar, then you plan this every day. Maybe it’s one pushup, or walking in place for 1 minute. It doesn’t matter as long as it’s doable and you are creating a habit. In the beginning, it’s a good idea to do it at the same time each day, so you remember to do it. If you watch TV at 8:00 p.m., at the first commercial you do steps in place for one minute. When you do this new behavior at a specific time of the day, you have the best chance of success in your change.
You may think this is silly, and that it’s not even worth the effort, though not true because your goal is to create a habit of exercising. Have some fun and think of it as being devious and getting around that gatekeeper “THE AMYGDALA.”
Before you know it, you are no longer procrastinating, but rather you are making a new habit on a daily basis, and you find you are adding more time to your workout. If you commit to 1 minute a day to exercise, by day 30, you will no longer resist this change, instead, start to build on it.
Keep your steps small and celebrate every day you meet your goal. Your celebration can be a calendar where you check off the day that you exercise.
Let me know if you feel small changes can work for you, or how have you used small changes to make a difference in your life.
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