First 30 Days Blog

19 dec

Work with Your Brain for Lasting Change

MJRyanIt’s that time of year again. New Year’s resolutions.

Experts tell us that fewer than 10% of us make resolutions that stick. Is it because we don’t really want to change? I don’t think so. It’s because most of us have not been taught how to change. We don’t know how to get our brains on our side. A few basics from brain science can really help.

Practice Makes Permanent
To bring new behavior into being takes work. Our brains have enormous “plasticity,” meaning they can create new cells and pathways. But our brains create strong tendencies to do the same thing over and over. Here’s why: The brain cells that fire together wire together. Meaning, they have a strong tendency to run the same program the next time. That’s why lasting change takes lots of practice. You’ve got to create a pathway to the new options. (This lasts six to nine months, say many brain scientists–so much for those seven-day wonder programs.) The process is not about getting rid of bad habits—the pathway to your current behavior is there for life, baby—but building new, more positive ones. Even stopping doing something, like procrastinating, is really about creating a good new habit, starting sooner.

The lack of brain hardwiring is also why you’ve got to put external reminders in place, at least in the beginning. Unless you have a trigger from the outside—an email reminder, a buddy–it’s very likely you’ll keep defaulting to the old behavior because it’s automatic. That’s also why it’s so important to be willing to start over no matter how often you blow it or get discouraged.

Most of us are also not concrete enough about what we want and unrealistic about what we can reasonably ask ourselves to learn. Here’s what an executive client of mine said he wanted to learn in three months: “to be more positive with my people, to be more creative and productive, to take better care of myself.” “How about create world peace while you’re at it?” I replied. “And what does “more” mean anyway? Even if it were possible to focus on all of this in that time frame, how will you know if you are more of any of these things?”

As this client demonstrated, we expect too much of ourselves and we expect to change overnight. When that doesn’t happen, we resign ourselves to staying the same, convinced that we are hopeless, weak, or unmotivated, which makes us even more stuck.

To truly change requires three things: desire, intent, and persistence. You have to identify what you desire enough to be willing to stick to it, make SMART goals (Specific, Measurable, Achievable, Relevant and Time-bound), “leave the computer at the office and don’t look at the Blackberry after 9:00” rather than “having more balance,” and not turn goof ups into give ups.

Get the Bunny on Your Side
We have more than one brain involved in change. One is our neocortex, our “thinking brain.” That’s what we use to decide what change we want to make. But we also have an emotional brain, the amygdala, that we share with all mammals. This is the brain concerned with feelings, instincts, eating, fighting, and sexual behavior. The emotional brain isn’t very smart. Think bunny rabbit or squirrel. It understands “pleasant” or “painful,” and “safe” or “danger.” It propels us toward pleasure and away from pain. That’s why we so often “sabotage” ourselves—our emotional brain overrides what our thinking brain has decided in favor of immediate pleasure or perceived safety.

If you are serious about succeeding with your resolution, this information is crucial. You’ve got to get your emotions on your side. We create lasting change not because it makes sense to do so from the perspective of our thoughts—I should go to the gym—but by engaging our feelings—it’s going to feel fabulous to be thinner. If the change seems too scary, too hard, or no fun, your emotional brain is going to work against it. And because the bunny doesn’t have a long-term memory, you’ve got to keep the feeling reason alive every day! For instance, I helped a guy stop smoking permanently by having him put pictures of Hawaiian beaches in his office, car and house because his feeling reason to stop was to live long enough to retire to a beach in Hawaii.
Armed with these brain basics, you can create lasting change and become a greater master of your fate rather than the victim of old choices. How’s that for a Happy New Year?

—M.J. Ryan is an executive coach and the author of THIS YEAR I WILL…How to Finally Change a Habit, Keep a Resolution or Make a Dream Come True. Go to her website ( for more help.

Posted by MJ Ryan on December 19th, 2009 in New Directions | 0 comments Read related posts in

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