“How many more days to I need to train for this ?#@& thing?”
Let’s face it, the path to change is rarely a straight line. More likely it’s a zig-zag, or two-steps-forward one-step-back kind of trajectory.
Because change can be hard, it’s understandable that we’d like to know when the heck all our efforts are going to pay off.
Why we want answers
We want answers because the brain craves them.
Part of the brain’s job is to categorize and make sense of the abundance of information in the world, and then plan accordingly. So the brain would definitely like to know what the end game is – and just when that end game will happen.
Also, uncertainty can be unsettling and requires extra energy for the brain to process – don’t worry, we’ll give it some clarity in a moment.
Why we resist change
If you find yourself resisting the process of change, it’s not just you. Our brains also prefer to take the well-worn, comfortable pathways.
Never mind that our brains are gifted with the ability to grow and change (i.e., neuroplasticity) – they can literally build new neural pathways! – still they prefer a well-known route.
Need some evidence? Try right now to say your name, age and where you live, but in reverse sentences (e.g. Massachusetts in live I)…. Did your brain like that? Did it just skip the exercise?
Doing something new takes more energy, literally. The brain needs more calories to create a new neural pathway than to follow the old ones that have become automatic. (Do I hear a new workout regime brewing? 😉
But all is not lost! Now that you know what you’re dealing with, let’s throw the brain a bone and calm the resistance with some answers and ideas!
Time to create a new habit
Although I’ve heard different numbers thrown out there, I’ve seen only one credible study on how long it takes to create a new habit.
Research from the University College of London (alma mater shout-out!) has shown that the average time for an action to become automatic is 66 days. Of course there’s a wide range (from 18 to 254 days) and where that number falls depends on a few factors.
Changes or actions that involve greater complexity will take more time. Also, the study found that habits like physical exercise take longer to form than something that requires less effort such as adding a fruit or vegetable to a meal.
I think of it like this: the greater the effort involved, the greater the energy spent, the longer the change will take.
But on average, if you take the same action every day, then after about 10 weeks it will likely become automatic. That’s not bad, especially if we consider how long we’ve probably been creating our old habits!
The other good news is that failing to take that new action one day does not have an effect on the outcome. So missing a day, slipping back to your old ways, is not cause for desperation or throwing in the towel. (Of course if you miss the next week, that’s a different story.)
6 ways to support your brain for change
OK, ready for that plan?
1. Know why you want this change. Without motivation, you are much less likely to make a change. Plus, connecting with what really matters also connects you to a part of the brain that helps with goal-planning (i.e., the pre-frontal cortex).
2. Support yourself and your brain with sufficient sleep, a healthy diet, and low stress levels. If your life is in turmoil, it’s probably not the best time to embark on a big change – better to start small (e.g., improving self-care).
3. Tie to a trigger. Research shows that changes stick more easily when they are coupled with a regular trigger or cue such as a before or after a daily meal.
4. Start small, work up to the big stuff. The brain will adapt more easily to small changes at first. If you want to eat better, start by adding 1 item like water or fruit with each meal rather than attempting a complete overhaul right away.
5. Give yourself a break if you’re tired, stressed, or not feeling well. Your resources will be low and your brain may need to prioritize where to spend depleted amounts of energy.
6. Celebrate success. Set milestones to celebrate (e.g. 3 days, 1 week) and notice when it becomes easier – and remember that it will get easier!
It’s all worth it
As I said recently at the Maine Women’s Conference, this work of change is worth it. Not only can you change a habit, but you can change your brain and your future!
Years ago, I was a stressed-out lawyer who didn’t like to speak in front of groups. Now, I lead workshops and 3-day professional development retreats.
Big changes can happen for you, too. And if you’d like some help with that first step, keep an eye out for my first public webinar coming next month on the critical first step to creating change.
Photo by Ryan McGuire at gratisography.com.
Thank you for this! #3 makes a huge difference.
QUESTION. Relative to PTSD , is it possible to create new neural pathways to combat traumatic memories by constant repetitive affirmations?
Reply appreciated. GLEN
Hi Glen. Thanks for your question. Studies have shown that it is certainly possible to create new neural pathways relative to PTSD through certain mindfulness practices. I don’t know about the use of repetitive affirmations specifically. Please go to my contact page if you’d like to discuss further. Best, Jennifer