Here we are in 2019. Already heading into February. If you created one or multiple resolutions for this new year, now might be the time that you’re losing a little bit of steam. The shine might be starting to wear off just ever so slightly of that big picture goal you envisioned for this year. You haven’t given up, you’re still working at it, but you’ve noticed your motivation waning. You know what that means? You have a human brain. Congratulations!
All joking aside, trying to create lasting change is hard. Our brains don’t like it. Or more appropriately, our automatic brains, or animal brains, don’t like it. Let me break this down.
What’s working against you.
We have three main sections to our brain. The reptile brain (thank you sun bathing lizard), the mammal brain (looking at you Koko), and the human brain, which is just a larger neocortex compared to other animals on this planet. Because of this larger cortex, we humans have the capability to create some pretty incredible things, and it also gives us the ability to be critical of our own thinking (which will come in handy later on in this post).
“You’re welcome.” (photo credit)
Our reptile and mammal brain magically creates automation. This is why you don’t stop breathing. This is also why you can get in your car and drive to work without really being aware that you’re driving to work. You can think of other things, fiddle with the radio, and drink a cup of coffee. The action of driving is so automated, you don’t need your full attention on it to perform the task. But being the uber smart creatures we are, we’ve created a gazillion (that might not be the precise number but it feels like it is) things that our brains have decided are beneficial to our survival, that we access over and over, creating a hardwired neuro-pathway in response (automation). Beer everday after work at 5:30pm. Automation. 2 hours of TV before bed. Automation. Compulsive phone checking. Automation. Doing nothing out of fear of failure. Yep, automation.
The sole purpose of the automated brain is to keep you alive. Anything, and I mean ANYTHING it perceives as something good for your survival results in your brain then using the magic of chemistry to drive you back to said thing, over and over again if possible. Think about this: before we had engineered our world as we have, the things that would create the good feeling chemicals wouldn’t last. Finding fruit to eat in our environment would likely result in a huge good feeling chemical reaction, and our brain would use dopamine to drive us back to it over and over. But fruit only lasts so long since fruiting trees and shrubs have their cycles, so eventually the object of our chemical affection would disappear, and we’d have to go through the discomfort of withdrawal, but we’d get past it because we had no other choice.
Not so in modern times. So when we make a resolution to change something about our behavior, we’re working against ingrained subconscious thinking that has automated the very thing we want to change. And that animal brain ain’t no dummy. It knows the cookies are still there. It knows the couch with the TV in front of it is still there. It knows the discounted Allen Edmonds are still there, just waiting to be added to your killer shoe collection. And it knows that your favorite cocktail at your favorite bar has your name on it, and is ready to celebrate that shoe purchase with you.
You know you want me.
One of the key things that people don’t take into consideration is the discomfort, sometimes extreme, that comes along with change. Your body was made to produce this discomfort. Without discomfort, we’re not warned to get back into a “safe space.” As long as we’re alive and there is still the possibility of passing our genes on through offspring, the brain thinks things are A-OK. When we make a resolution, we’re shaking up the status quo of our body, and asking it to change things. (Our brain and body like that just about as much as a Dappered reader would like pop-up ads on the website. As in not at all. Which, subsequently, is why we don’t do it.)
Our minds have tricks up their sleeves to try and get us to stay the same, and here are 3 examples:
The Motivational Triad – this is the operating system that the reptilian and animal brain work by. The triad is comprised of 3 guidelines:
- Seek pleasure
- Avoid pain
- Conserve energy
A resolution, at least early on, is usually not pleasurable, likely painful (if not physically then mentally), and takes a lot of energy, since your brain has to literally create new circuits for this new behavior or habit of yours. Plus, if you’re not answering the call of your neurochemicals to go back to your old ways, energy is being wasted. Energy to your body is like the ring is to Gollum. PRECIOUS.
The operating system of the lower brain.
Dopamine – this is the neurochemical that drives urges. As an anticipatory chemical, your brain creates dopamine to make you feel uncomfortable enough that you have to take a certain action in order to relieve the discomfort, and cause the dopamine to back off. So that uncomfortable feeling you get when you’re driving home from work to eat your resolution salad for dinner, and you realize you’re about to pass by the McDonald’s drive-through and you can’t think about anything else and all of a sudden you’ve pulled into McDonald’s and you’re placing your order? That’s dopamine getting the better of you. But here’s the thing about dopamine. Resources in your body are finite, so the dopamine push your brain releases will not last forever. You just need to be willing to let that discomfort wave roll on in, break on the shore, and then go back out to sea.
Oxytocin – this is the neurochemical that bonds us to others. When you go out with a group of friends after work to drink, you’re all working towards a common goal, and your brain rewards you for that. Now if you go out with them, and your resolution is to not drink, and you don’t get your normal beverage, and they see that, all of a sudden there is difference. Albeit small. If you don’t pivot and bond over something else (like, oh I don’t know, your friendships or work or whatever, not just the bourbon barrel aged stout in your glass) then you risk discomfort. The thing (booze) that bonded you before, that created the oxytocin in both your brain and their brains, is gone. And that’s uncomfortable, since your brains are used to getting that feel good hit from oxytocin when everyone is doing the same thing in a group. Now, in a small way, you’re the outsider. So guess what might kick in to try and get you to change your behavior? Dopamine. Gaaaaaahhhhhhh!
So as you can see, our brain and body like to keep things steady, and a resolution rocks the boat. But not all is lost.
Successfully keeping a resolution.
The first step to understanding how to change is understanding why you haven’t been able to do it in the first place. Hopefully some of what I explained in the previous paragraphs has shed some light on why up until now you’ve not been able to change. But if you truly want change in your life, there is a path to success.
Identifying how you’re truly thinking about your goal is key. (photo credit)
This is where the use of your neo-cortex, specifically your prefrontal cortex, comes into play. Our gift, compared to other species, is that humans can actually watch ourselves think. We have the privilege of observing our thinking, applying understanding to it, and then changing it if we want to. (Meditation is the best way to practice this daily.) Now if you’ve been living primarily through your animal or automated brain, which a lot of people do, this may seem like a tall order. And truth be told, it kind of is. But it’s not impossible.
Step One – Find the thought(s) working against you.
Thoughts create feelings, feelings create actions, actions create results. This is how the machine of you works. If you have a resolution, say to meditate every day, but you have an underlying, subconscious thought that says “Meditation is hard”, that’s going to create a negative feeling. Perhaps something like discouragement or anxiety. Those feelings, which are just chemical reactions in your body, will then drive actions that create the result you get. As long as you keep thinking that thought, it will always be “hard” to meditate.
Or, the same thought could cause another person to feel relieved, and in that feeling they take the action of giving themselves a break, an excuse to not meditate regularly, with the end result that they never improve their meditation skills, and it remains “hard.” So taking the time to actually dig in and discover what you truly think about your resolution can reveal why it is or has been hard to keep.
Step Two – Chose a new thought.
If you identify that you’re having negative thoughts about your resolution, it’s time to use the power of your human brain to chose a new thought. Yes, you can do that. And you can chose a thought that’s going to get you a better result. Back to the meditation scenario, what if every time “meditation is hard” popped into your head, you consciously switched to thinking “meditation helps a lot of people and maybe it can help me.” A thought like that might produce a feeling of curiosity, which could drive the action of continuing the meditation process in order to find out. And simply by thinking a thought like that, you’re helping rather than working against yourself.
Change requires managing your thoughts. (photo credit)
Step Three – Keep thinking that thought.
Even though you found a new thought to think, the old thought is still part of your subconscious. So, here’s where the work really comes in. Now you have to pay attention to when that original thought comes up, put the brakes on it, and intentionally think the new one. What will eventually happen is the old thought pathway will get weaker, and the new one stronger. This takes time though, and remember, you’re working against those tricks your brain/body have up their sleeve to try and drive you back to an old way of being. But there’s something magical about actually discovering thinking patterns, and calling them out into the light. They somehow quickly lose some of their influence and power. It’s like the wizard behind the curtain being exposed.
Step Four – Visualize your results.
Everyday take some time, even if it’s just 60 seconds, to visualize yourself having successfully obtained or kept your resolution. Really see it, and FEEL IT. Let your body create emotion during the visualization. Emotion is what cements a thought into our brain. Think of your most powerful memories. They stuck because there was a big emotional response involved. Your brain doesn’t know the difference between something actually happening, and a visualization you have in your mind. See the success you want everyday in your minds eye, so your brain will start to believe it’s real, and conjure up the emotion you’ll feel having achieved it. If this requires a fist pump or two, you go.
Step Five – Make your Motivation.
Motivation is not a starter, it’s an accelerator. In other words, if you wait around for motivation to get started, or to start back up, you’re screwed. Motivation comes after you start. As Ralph Waldo Emerson said “Do the thing, and you’ll get the energy to do the thing.” This can be one of the most painful parts, just getting started. Allow the discomfort, and just push through. Remember, even though it might feel like something bigger, all that is in your way is a thought and the chemicals of emotion. Competency creates confidence, so just keep chipping away, knowing competence will come with repetition.
Just get it started, and motivation will kick in. (photo credit)
Step Six – Buddy up or create a support group.
See if you can round up a group of friends to go after a goal or two at the same time you do. Remember, our brains love oxytocin, the bonding chemical. Working toward a goal within a group that supports one another can create some feel-good chemicals and take the edge off of the changing brain. If you can’t find someone you already know, guaranteed there is an online group you can join that’s working towards the exact same goal you are.
A lot of people shy away from making resolutions after several failed attempts. Or they say they don’t make New Year’s resolutions because if they want to change something they can do it at any time, and this is completely true. But if you never actually get started with the change, then perhaps resolving to reach a goal at a specific time of year isn’t that bad of an idea. You can use the momentum that group think creates to get over that starter speed bump. Then you can start to look at your thoughts, manage your mind, and keep yourself on a successful mental path towards your goals. Because thought is where it all begins, and thought is what keeps it moving along.
About the Author: Sarah is a long time member of the Dappered team, typically working behind the scenes editing posts, taking some photos, and keeping the books in good standing. She is also a certified health and life coach. Occasionally she’ll come out from behind the curtain to offer her two cents. You can follow her on Instagram. If you’re interested in learning more about self coaching, send an email to firstname.lastname@example.org.