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How to change any habit permanently

If you ever tried to start the New Year with a strong resolution to eat healthier, exercise more, or quit a bad addiction, you already know it’s easier said than done. Usually, it takes up to two weeks for the brain to sabotage the idea of changing the existing habit or establishing the new one. Yet, you are not doomed to fail! Since you understand the science behind creating any sustainable improvement in your lifestyle and behaviour, even the most challenging change will be possible for you. 

What real change means?

95% of who we are comes from our automatic and unconscious thought, emotions, and behaviors that we acquired through repetition (saying we are creatures of habits is very true!). From a neuroscience perspective, habits are not some intangible psychological characteristics, but physical synaptic connections that have been forged in the brain through frequent repetition. To change any habitual behaviour or belief means to break these old connections (the old habits), and to building new brain connections through the process of thinking, feeling, and acting in a way very different than so far.

The real change then is not about self-motivation, willpower, or strong declaration to improve ourselves, but about producing physical evidence of change in the brain. In other words, to be able to say you make a change in any area of your life, the result of this change has to be measurable in the number of new synaptic connections and new neurons that have been produced in your brains (brain imaging techniques allow to observe the change).

Outsmart your brain

Your victory in creating a habit that lasts requires defeating your number one enemy: yourself. Start with reframing your current beliefs on your capability to change. Chances are, you have a lot of self-limiting beliefs that may sabotage your effort to change the habit or establish a new one. How often do you say to yourself: ‘This is who I am’, ‘People my age doesn’t change’, ‘It’ll be too hard’. Be a mindful observer of your own habitual thinking (most of our thoughts during the day are also habits!), and don’t allow your disempowering self-talk to stop you.

Remember: from the brain perspective, any change equals a threat to your existence. Because your brain’s main role is to keep you safe and secure, it’ll resist any change or new goal and will find all sorts of excuses why you should stick with what’s already known and familiar. Understand these fundamentals, and don’t let your brain talk you out of your decision to change your life!

 A simple path to change

Make the change too small to fail. The vision of doing workouts for an hour every day may be a bit overwhelming, but scheduling exercises for 5- 10 minutes three times a week won’t scare your brain that much. At a neurological level, small successes reward us with dopamine so we are more likely to repeat the behavior. And through repetition, the brain connections of change are strengthening.

Also, remember about the need to stay consistent. Make a contract with yourself to stick with your new habit for at least 66 days (studies show this is a minimum period to create lasting change in the brain). To make it easier, split this two-month period into one-week units. The vision of not eating after 6 pm for two months may not sound like the easiest thing to do, but just a week is way more acceptable for your stubborn brain. After the first week, commit yourself to one more week. You’ll be surprised to see it really doesn’t take much to stop having any cravings late evening.  

And finally, praise yourself daily for sticking with your new habit; write a positive sentence about yourself in your journal, or share your success with your loved ones. This tiny reward will give you another surge of dopamine in the brain, and because behavior that is rewarded is repeated, you increase your chances of success even more. 

 

Written By Dr. Anna Kaminska

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