I am not a neuroscientist! I’m just sharing what I’ve learned and find helpful. If it helps, great. If not, don’t sue me. 🙂
I’ve been doing a lot of reading and research over the last couple of years on how we really learn and change. If you’re outside our 6:8 church circle, you may not realize my obsession, although, many of you have probably had to endure a passionate rant or two. As a church (and the pastor of that church), we are sold out on transformation. So, I’ve been trying to learn how to best help lead people in that process.
I came across this quote from John Maxwell, which is true, but doesn’t quite paint the whole picture:
There’s definitely truth there. Most people would are way more comfortable with familiar problems than they are with unfamiliar solutions. While that may be true, there’s some brain science behind it that can help us change.
So, I thought I’d share some of what I’ve learned and condensed in the hopes that it helps you in your journey as well.
One of those things being this: When it comes to change, your brain is fighting you.
A primary purpose of your brain is to steward the use of energy (calories) in your body. Because of this, your brain is constantly at work to do things more efficiently. We were designed by God to work in the garden. Which, even in the perfect and ideal scenario before the fall, required a lot of energy in the form of calories. So, if your body needs 5,000+ calories per day to work in the garden (Prior to machines, it was not uncommon for farmers to burn 15,000 calories a day working the land), and you can only consume a 3-4k calories, you literally don’t have the energy to waste on other mental tasks which also require energy.
So, If your dad worked a hard, manual labor job where he burned massive amounts of calories per day, came home exhausted and lost it because the remote control was in the wrong spot, this is why. His brain relied on the routine of having the remote in the right place, and literally didn’t have the energy to try to track it down.
So, the way God has designed our brains is to automatize the most important functions. Those things we have to do every day become automatic. Why? So our brain doesn’t have to waste energy on it. The most popular modern example is brushing your teeth. For most of us, that’s automatic. We don’t expend a lot of mental energy on the task of brushing our teeth whilst we brush our teeth. We daydream and plan our day and think about purple elephants and what not. Automaticity. Also known as habits.
Your brain will turn anything you do on a regular basis, over a long period of time into a habit for this very reason. Your brain doesn’t wants to use less and less energy doing the same things.
Here’s the kicker: It doesn’t matter whether or not the habit is good or bad for you.
(I’m trying to think of a non-politicized/hot-button topic habit to use as an example without offending someone, but there aren’t very many…)
So, let’s just say that negative thinking is bad for you. Being a pessimist has a lot of negative effects on your brain and even your DNA. It makes you less enjoyable to be around, and even less likely to have good relationships. So, even though pessimism can lead you into isolation, (something that is bad for us all because we were designed for community), if you persist in pessimistic thinking your brain will make it easier and easier for you to do so. Why? So that it doesn’t have to waste as much energy the next time, and even less the next. Until eventually, negative thinking is automatic/habitual for you.
Now comes the fun part! When you then try to change this habit (like I have been working at doing for years), your brain will actually fight against you. You brain has already created the systems and super highways in your brain for thinking negatively. Your brain rewards the negative thought cycle and will work against the implementation of a change to that cycle because that consumes more energy.
So, let’s say that you’ve decided to make a change. And you’re even excited about the change. Maybe you watched an inspiring TED talk about it, and you’re ready to do it. But, shortly after this, your start experiencing things like fears, memories of failed attempts in the past and a whole host of other things that might “sway” you away from the change you want (and probably even need) to make.
Why? Your brain is doing its job. It already expended a lot of effort to adopt the old behavior and doesn’t want to expend energy to adopt the new one. Your brain is fighting you. Josh Assaraf calls this the brain’s “error detection mechanism.” Your brain is saying, “hey, something isn’t right here, so let’s fix it and get back to normal.”
So, if it feels like change is difficult, you’re right. If it feels like every time you try to make a change, it’s way easier to go back to the old way of doing things, you’re right. It is difficult to change old habits.
But, not impossible. And the good news is, once you’ve “installed” a new habit (as Michael Hyatt puts it), your brain will do the same thing to defend this new habit.
So, then how do we “install” a new habit? Well, since this post is already kind of long, I won’t get into to much of the nitty gritty today. Other than to say this: it takes Time, Invariability, Dedication & Effort. T.I.D.E. If you want to turn the tide, that’s that you have to do. And that’s not all. But, that’s for later.
TIME: It takes time to change. It takes a MINIMUM of 21 days to install a new habit. The more sophisticated it is, the longer it takes. And if you’re replacing an old habit, it takes longer. It takes 63 days for form a long-term memory. So, yeah, you have to do it for a while.
INVARIABILITY: In other words, consistency. Do the same thing, every time, over and over again. The same thing in the same way. A routine as Duhigg says in “The Power of Habit”
DEDICATION: You have to be committed to the change. No one can do it for you. If you’r not dedicate, you won’t make it.
EFFORT: It won’t come easy. Especially from the 2nd to 5th-6th weeks. That can be a grind. You will have to expend more effort than you’re used to expending during that time frame. It will take more energy. You will probably be more tired and drained.
If you do these 4 things, you can change the tide and create that new habit you want. Like I said, there’s more to changing than that, but this is a start.
But, the good news is. You can change. Your brain can change all the way up until the day you die. The longer you stay in a bad habit rut, the harder it will be to change, but it’s still possible.
Also along the good news line: If your brain is fighting you, that means it’s working. If it wasn’t fighting you, then you wouldn’t be changing anything. But because it’s working against you, that means you’re working against it.
So, get in the ring with your brain. Don’t let your brain bully you back into that old habit you’re trying to break. You can go the distance with it. You can do it! You can install this new habit and uninstall the old one. It is WELL within the realm of possibility.
At least for a while, turn your brain into the enemy that you need to conquer. And keep fighting the enemy until you make it your slave. Once you do that, your brain will be your biggest accomplice in helping you be the person you know you can be!
Don’t let your brain bully you back into the old broken habits you want to break. Get in the ring. Fight for the life you know you’re capable of.
If I can do it, so can you!