The process of changing habits is a topic of huge interest to me. It is a large part – arguably the largest part – of helping people get healthier. For this reason, earlier this month I found myself at an all-day seminar on the subject.
One piece of new information has been rattling around in my head ever since I heard it: Habits are permanently stored in the brain. Wow! That really amazed me. Does that mean that we cannot change habits? Of course not, but it can be very difficult without the knowledge of how it happens. Truth be told, it is still going to be hard with better understanding, just not as hard. Considering the health consequences of everyday habits, every advantage is super important.
This morning I learned something about habits in the best way possible – I observed it in myself. I was driving home down a road I use at least once every day. Once in a while – the once or twice a week I put a few miles on my running shoes – it is also a part of my usual running route. So here’s what happened.
I was daydreaming, driving a routine (habitual) route. I do not need to think about where I am going or how to get there. I would have to think, however, if I wanted to use the road to go somewhere other than my house. This would require that I use conscious, as opposed to automatic, thought processes. It is the weight loss world’s equivalent of “will power” (Read “conscious thought, deliberate, time-consuming”).
Here is where things got interesting. My mind wandered to the running path that parallels the road, and I found myself recalling the run I took yesterday, how good it felt, how far I might be able to go next time . . . . As I followed the path with my eyes, I did an amazing thing. I turned onto a street I never turn on when I am driving! I mean NEVER – not once during the 7 years I have lived in the neighborhood. But I almost always turn there when I run.
Isn’t that interesting? I started thinking about the concept of “mindset”, and I began to see different stored habits as clusters of linked thoughts and actions. When I am in the driving mindset, I follow distinct habits. When I run, I follow others. Driving = one route. Running = another route. Both are automatic when I am in that particular mindset.
Let’s look at how this relates to eating. I know there are lots of us who carry different clusters, or mindsets, of eating habits. Probably all of us do. The ones that I see causing trouble for people are the ones that are dramatically different: the “dieting/sacrificing/deprived mindset” and the “I can’t do this anymore!” mindset. Both are well-practiced and automatic, and even the switch from one to the other is automatic.
Think about it for a moment. The Thanksgiving holiday provides a perfect example. I am guessing – not really guessing, because I hear it over and over – that many people went into last week’s big meal with their usual mindset (“It’s time to eat everything I don’t usually allow myself in quantities I would not normally eat.”). Then they woke up the next morning feeling disgusted with themselves, and there was an automatic switch to the dieting mindset. “Only carrots, celery, and water for me today!”
This is an extreme example, but the swings from high to low ends of the eating spectrum are common AND automatic for many dieters. This does not work well in the long run. For real and lasting lifestyle changes, a new cluster of automatic thinking needs to be adopted – one that is more consistently realistic and comfortable. Then the thoughts and actions contained within it have to be practiced again and again. There is no magic number of times – FREQUENTLY until it is automatic.
Then it will feel easier. That is the reward for your effort. If and when the old habits pop up – remember they are always stored in your brain – just consciously change your mindset. Your new, more healthy habits are still there. They just need to be reawakened. Eventually the old ones that are rarely used will lose their power and become more permanently dormant.
Recognizing what is contained in the cluster of thoughts and actions that make up your good habits, you can develop a predictable system to return to that mindset. A new habit will have distinct thoughts and actions associated with it. If you can break it apart and identify pieces, you will be able to shift your mindset by thinking about them when you struggle. This might mean getting back to the gym if, like so many people, working out drops off along with better eating. Once the workouts are reestablished, the eating will follow.
Just like my experience with driving, the key is tapping into the linked cluster of positive thoughts and actions that lead to better results. The brain can be a wonderful tool if you know how to use it!