Healthy Change in Three Simple Steps


Why is change often so hard?

The answer is simple: We aren’t wired for change. Our brains are wired for security, routine, efficiency and consistency. Change is inefficient because we have to learn new stuff and create new neural networks. Change also represents uncertainty. Change breaks our routine too, and since we are creatures of habit with roughly 95% of the same thoughts we had yesterday, change takes extra energy and isn’t within our comfort zone.

Your brain and change

Our brains are designed to detect changes in the environment and then alert us to anything unusual. Error detection signals are generated by a part of the brain called the orbital cortex (OC), which is wired in with the brain’s fear circuits in another structure called the amygdala (AD). This explains why change brings so much fear and uncertainty.

It also explains why it is often hard to power through change with sheer will, because the OC and the AD compete with the prefrontal cortex (PFC), which is the part of the brain that stores our willpower reserves. The PFC also helps us make rational decisions. This is why when change is detected, we act more emotionally and impulsively than rationally.

Our habits and routines are stored in the OC and AD. Additionally, the OC and the AD feed the basal ganglia (BG), which is a big part of our subconscious brain.These areas aren’t just there to divert us from rational thoughts and make it harder for us to accept change however. They do serve a very useful purpose. By storing routines for us so we don’t have to think them through every time we need them, they help us react faster and save us time, energy and computing power.

When the brain detects that a behavior is changing, it sends out strong messages via powerful hormones and chemicals that are designed to keep us out of our PFC (the part of the brain that helps us change) and instead stay efficient with our same old routines that we find so easy, fast and comfortable. This phenomenon is especially true of deeply ingrained and routine behaviors. The OC and AD, assisted by the hormones and chemicals, essentially prevent the PFC from “thinking about it” and accepting change because it’s a logical, rational idea. Hopefully, this helps answer that question we have all had; “Why can’t I just do what I know I should to do?”

Don’t worry. We are done with listing brain parts and assigning initials, so stay with me here. We are getting to the good stuff now…

Since those “bad” habits we have now (and find so hard to change) got formed somehow, doesn’t it make sense that we can adopt new habits with the right strategy? Of course it does, and knowing how to rewire the OC and AD is the key and this post will tell you how to do that.

Energy and change

Our PFC (our thinking, rational brain) requires a lot of energy. Really, a lot.  As much as 25% of your caloric intake is used to fuel your brain. This is why willpower often goes out the window when we are tired or have had a tough day mentally. Alternatively, since the BG ( a big part of the sub-conscious brain) runs in the background, it doesn’t require much energy at all. This further explains why routines are so easy, and is the preferred method when we are tired.

For example, do you experience the same routine when you get home from work each day? Is that when you consume most of the food you shouldn’t be eating and do most of your “laying around,” even though you know you should be exercising or getting things done? This is a classic example of the PFC checking out and the BG taking over.

Programing healthy habits

What if you could have a BG that was programmed with a routine involving healthy fat burning food and exercise? That way, even if your PFC has checked out, you still do what you should be doing, but automatically, without the need for herculean feats of willpower. That’s what athletes do, and frankly, it’s just as easy for them keep their healthy routines as it is for Johnny Six Pack to crash on the couch, turn on the TV and break out the beer and pizza.

How did the athlete get that way? Well, any activity that we do repeatedly, eventually gets pushed down to the BG to become an automatic pattern, so the PFC doesn’t have to waste its high energy resources on it any more. Learning to drive a car is hard at first, but after a while, it becomes second nature, even to the point where we don’t remember the drive home! This is because the BG can take over. Rent a car in Japan or England however, and you’ll find even a simple switch like driving on the opposite side of the road a very challenging task because the PFC has to stay engaged.

Cutting new circuits in the brain is like cutting through a dense forest rather than following a well worn trail. We have to go much slower, and put a lot more effort into every step. Changing any ingrained habit requires a lot more energy and attention than many people are willing to put in, so we do what we can to avoid change, even if this means staying fat and unhealthy.

The power of focus

So how do we reprogram the BG and rewire our subconscious brain to make new healthy habits easy and routine? It’s all about your focus. Where you focus your attention is where you make new connections. New connections form new neural pathways. New neural pathways result in new habits, which if repeated, get relegated to the subconscious brain as an automatic routine.

Step one – Be the boss of change

The first step is to tell your brain every day that change is good and change will make everything easier. You must decide that you want change, and state this out loud every day. Your subconscious brain is the boss of the automatic you. It also operates at the level of a 3 year old, so programming it is actually quite easy if you know how. Since it doesn’t understand the past or the future, speak to it in present tense terms. Something like, “Today I welcome change” or, “Change is exciting” will be quite effective. Opening your subconscious to the idea of change will cause it to tell the OC, AD and BG all to butt out and let the PFC tell it what to believe and what to do.

Step two – Actively expect success

Once your subconscious has been told that change is good, it is ready to accept new habits and routines without the fear or anxiety. This opens the door for the next step: tell your subconscious what to expect. Since the subconscious brain is the boss of the automatic you, all you have to do is to tell it what to expect, and that will be your experience. If you tell it to expect success, it will make sure you succeed. If you fear failure and focus on that instead, it will make sure you fail.

Your subconscious will manifest the dominant theme in your life. This is why proclamations and “Askfirmations”  are so effective. Proclamations and askfirmations are solution-based programming instead of problem-based (which only make things worse). Remember, if you expect success and embrace change as an exciting way to see new possibilities and opportunities for growth, it will make that happen for you. If you expect fear and failure, that is what your subconscious will continue to make happen by controlling all your conscious and unconscious actions.

Step three – Keep at it

The bottom line is, your brain will never “feel like” it wants to change, so it’s imperative to perform these two steps every day, whether you feel like it or not. Your brain may make it difficult for you, especially when it starts working and new pathways are being formed. Just plug ahead and keep at it. Eventually, repetition drives it home to your subconscious, and pretty soon you will have new automatic pathways that help you instead of hold you back.

“Winners must learn to relish change with the same enthusiasm and energy that we have resisted it in the past.” — Author and speaker, Tom Peters