One of the most difficult challenges my coaching clients face is behavioral change. There are many factors that go into real, long-term personal transformation but if we look at the biological roots of change, it’s easiest to compare our brains to computer programs. Despite the relative grand size or our brains compared to other mammals, there’s a great deal of miniaturization that occurs to get the most bang out of our cerebellum buck.
If our brains had to “think” out each element of every common task we perform, they would have to be more than twice their physical size. To minimize the physical capacity necessary for us to perform so many complex neural functions, our brain reduces our most commonly performed tasks into optimized synaptic transactions, essentially what would be macros on your Word program – little efficiency buttons that show up as habits and routines in the real world.
So, if you begin to work out every morning at 5:30 a.m., over time that routine will link several synapses together and whittle them down into an efficient habit loop requiring little thought to complete – therefore more easily overcoming any mental resistance to exercise. Which is all good and well until you realize that the same is true for that trip to the bathroom or break room that takes you by the reception desk with the candy bowl: now every time you want to stretch your legs or use the john, you’ve hardwired your need for a hundred sugar calories.
The wonderful thing about habits is the bitch about habits: the efficiency that enables us to do so much amounts to a well-worn little brain path trod upon time after time, until that path is free of rocks, grasses and obstacles…your own little shortcut through the forest of never-ending distractions and potential choices or decisions, arriving at a decisive action or habit. That well- worn path is in your brain permanently unfortunately, which may account for my late-night sugar lust, where despite doing my very best at the grocery store to avoid shitty processed foods, instead finds me raiding the chocolate chips my wife bought to make cookies or drinking the orange juice designated for weekend breakfasts.
Neuroplasticity is the brain’s ability to create and realign synaptic connections in response to knowledge gained, a new personal experience or injury to the brain (a stroke victim who’s lost use of their left arm can be retrained to call upon those synapses usually used to actuate their right arm). While its study is useful to many disciplines including occupational therapy for stroke victims, in coaching we use neuroplasticity to gain greater control over the habit trails we’d like to abandon and the new healthier ones we’d like to explore.
While the science is in its infancy, what’s pretty clear at this point is that we can’t just “undo” these wonderfully efficient, albeit unwanted synaptic habit trails – we have to write over them with a new habit trail and keep those better habits up, lest our old trail begin to rear its darker path to Skittles, tasty little Snickers bars and those individually wrapped Swedish fish – damn them and their sweet, sublime, squishy jellyness to eternal hell. Our old habits, even when effectively written over with flashy, healthy new ones, still lurk underneath our new, more desirable pathways.
So how do we bury the habit trails that shall not be buried? Well now when I go to the fridge for my late-night sugar fix, I survey the landscape longingly, then reach in and grab the filtered water jug and pour a glass of cool, refreshing H20. I can tell you my water intake has definitely skyrocketed. Instead of reaching for the crackers and cheese, I grab a baby carrot or two. Now this original period of change is no joke – sugar withdrawal is real, but if you can get through the first couple weeks, your cravings will vastly diminish.
Because my new habit has many links in relation to my old, unwanted behavior (going to kitchen, opening refrigerator door) it’s an ideal replacement path to overwrite my unwanted bingeing. Now I still have to make the decision to go for that water or those baby carrots which is another challenge too complex to include in this column. In brief, I use the same mindfulness methods I teach my clients facing similar sugar addictions or emotional eating challenges – taking the time to truly see my behavior as if a spectator or audience member to my own show. I’ll go into this in more detail in following columns.
This powerful habit science isn’t limited to sugar highs and cracker binges. One of the principle mechanisms at work behind the higher success rate for AA over other addiction programs is that members are replacing drinking with meetings. “If you had time to drink, you have time for a meeting” the saying goes. Replacing one habit for another is simplifying the process, for sure…there’s a great deal more that goes into effective addiction treatment and transitioning to a healthy diet for that matter, but understanding the brain science behind our most common habits, good and bad, is essential to begin to build a more positive path toward our life goals.
In the next column, I will explore how you can leverage the power of neuroplasticity to take on new, uncomfortable challenges you’ve been avoiding and create an atmosphere that allows you to forge a new, more productive and fulfilling path while mitigating the accompanying risk and uncertainty necessary to finally realize effective, long-term life change.