Have you seen them? The magazines, online programs, and self-help gurus promoting their New Year, New You promises again this year? Get skinny and organized, fall in love, and make oodles more money with just “5 Simple Steps” (or seven or 10 or whatever).
The sad truth about New Year’s resolutions is only about eight percent of those who make resolutions actually achieve them. You might be jazzed in January, but you’ve fizzled by February.
There’s a better way to get the changes you want, without feeling crappy by Valentine’s Day.
Habit Change Means Changing Your Brain
If you do the same things you’ve always done, you’ll get the same results you’ve always gotten. Right? Right! So, yes, you must do things differently.
But simply changing behavior without changing the belief system behind it almost always ends badly. Take weight-loss for example. More than 95 percent of dieters gain all their weight back within a year, and most dieters gain more weight back than they initially lost. This yo-yo experience keeps diet companies in business, but that’s no good for the rest of us.
When you behave a certain way over time, a habit forms. Your brain becomes hardwired by a set of neural connections and pathways that keep that habit going. We brush our teeth, drive our cars, and make our coffee—things we’ve done thousands of times—without much thought at all. These habits are wired in.
Change Sets Off Neurochemical Alarm Bells
Just try to initiate a change to your normal way of doing things and your brain sets off alarm bells (in the form of neurochemicals) that read as error messages. Your brain will scream, “You’re doing it wrong!”
Even if the new behavior is good for you, such as cutting out sugar, exercising, sticking to a budget, or even just speaking up for yourself, your brain reads this change as a threat.
In fact, neurochemically speaking, your brain reacts as if it’s supremely risky, possibly deadly, to make this change. “You could die—die!” (Your brain is a bit of a drama queen.)
Your brain chemistry goes into high gear to convince you with compelling urges and impulses that you must go back to your old, familiar ways. “Just eat the chips. You know you want to!” These urges can be intensely uncomfortable and, after a while, most of us give in.
So, another New Year’s failure has come to pass, and now we feel even worse. What to do?
Instead, Focus on Changing Your Thought Patterns
I’m talking about the negative, automatic, almost imperceptible, rapid-fire thoughts you have when engaged in your habit. Think about those thoughts for a minute.
These thoughts, repeated skillions of times until they seem normal, created the neural wiring in the first place. Once you discover them and bring them into the light of day, they can be changed. Now, I’m not saying this is easy, just that it’s critical.
“Thoughts lead to emotions, and emotions lead to actions.”
That’s because thoughts lead to emotions, and emotions lead to actions. (You should probably read that last sentence again. It’s so true and so powerful, once you get it.)
Real Change Begins Between Your Ears
Once you realize you actually create your emotions with your own thoughts and that those emotions lead you to behave in ways that don’t serve you well, the pathway to real change becomes clear. Change your thoughts to change your habits.
My client Linda’s coworkers constantly peppered her with requests for help on their projects, things outside her responsibility. Although she needed to focus on her own job to get the promotion she wanted, she felt guilty saying no.
When we traced the thought behind her emotion of guilt, Linda discovered she was thinking, “It’s selfish to say no.” Her underlying thoughts revealed a belief that being a good person meant always saying yes.
As long as she kept that thought, she was trapped by guilt and put her own priorities on hold. Thoughts lead to emotions, and emotions lead to actions.
Linda worked hard to change her mindset. Eventually, her behavior changed, and she was able to focus on her own job performance. And yes, she got the promotion.
Examine Thought Patterns With Compassion
Your old thought patterns may have been there a long time. Perhaps they were created for a good reason and served a vital function earlier in life. But now, not so much.
For example, one client used food as a child to comfort herself when her parents were neglectful or angry. Sadly, this happened often.
As an adult, even though her home life was peaceful, stress at work set off sugar cravings she couldn’t resist. She struggled with diet after diet, without lasting success.
Behind her habit of emotional eating was the thought, “I’ll feel better if I eat a little something.” That thought was based in an emotionally charged history that had nothing to do with her life as an adult. Nevertheless, she kept gaining weight until she dealt once and for all with the underlying beliefs behind her actions.
Have a little curiosity and compassion with yourself as you try to change the thought patterns behind your habits. You may find surprising keys to freedom from unwanted behavior.
What You’ve Wired In, You Can Wire Out
You’re not stuck with bad habits or the thought patterns behind them. You can wire out the neuropathways you’ve wired into your brain. But, it only works if you stay focused on identifying and challenging the way you think.
Most experts say it takes an average of two months of intentional re-learning to change a habit. This is just an average, and it could take a lot longer, depending on how ingrained your old habit patterns have become.
Can you do it? Of course! But it won’t be because you took “5 Simple Steps to a New You.” It will be because you went to the source of the problem, changed your mindset, and changed your brain.