I start out the beginning of each year excited about what’s possible. I make New Year’s resolutions and I have great intentions. I’m going to get healthy, work less, enjoy life more. Sound familiar?
I pick out my word for the year. In 2018 it was ‘kindness.’ As I experienced challenges throughout the year, focusing on my word centered me so that I could practice kindness in that moment.
But I didn’t get much traction on my New Year’s resolutions. By the end of January, it was business as usual. And I was disappointed in myself until I figured out why.
It’s all about the brain.
The brain hardwires everything it can[i]. New ideas, behaviors or actions use more ‘working memory,’ which is a very limited resource in the brain. As a result, the brain prefers to hardwire any behavior, thought or activity that is repeated so that you literally don’t have to pay it any more attention. This explains why my almost daily lunch selection of processed food is done on autopilot rather than by deliberate choice. Autopilot allows me to preserve brain power. If I instinctively grab a sandwich and chips, I then have more energy to strategize about an upcoming client meeting.
It’s easy to create new wiring. The brain creates new connections all the time. Every time we meet a new person, find a new solution to a problem or discover a new hobby, we create a new ‘map’ in our brain. Creating new circuits is easy. However, if we want to create a long-term (hard-wired) circuit, we need to pay it a lot of attention. Attention, in the form of quality and quantity (seconds) of focus, is what changes the brain over time.
It’s all about habits – not willpower…..not motivation. Habits are patterns – unconscious ways of behaving, thinking or feeling. They are the way the brain conserves energy by moving actions we repeat frequently into deeper, non-conscious regions. Without habits, we’d be forced to engage our working memory to process every event as though it were brand new.
It’s much easier to build a new habit than to change an old one. New habits generally don’t take very long to develop. Just doing something a few times begins the process of creating long-term memories in the brain. However, new habits do take time to become fully automatic. The key to success is attention, positive feedback and repetition.
Knowing this, here’s how I plan to transform my New Year’s resolution of ‘getting healthy’ into the habit of making healthy lunch choices.
First, I need to create the ‘why’. This is my vision. It’s knowing that, by making healthy lunch choices, I’ll feel better. I won’t be dehydrated at the end of the day from too much sodium intake. I won’t experience that all too familiar mental fog that comes from a drop-in blood sugar once the high fructose corn syrup wears off. Longer term, it’s the lower number on the scale and a slightly looser fit in my clothing. It’s a vision of feeling better, having more physical and mental energy and being happy with my appearance. I can get excited about this commitment and make it a priority.
Second, I need to design ‘the how.’ These are the steps I plan to take to turn this priority into a habit:
- Use an online meal planning resource like Eating Well or Cooking Light that has suggested fast and healthy lunch options.
- Dedicate 30 minutes weekly to selecting a few recipes and create a grocery list of items I need.
- Dedicate 30 minutes every few days to preparing a healthy lunch.
- Take a few minutes mid-afternoon to quietly focus on how great I feel……and to recognize how my new habit has contributed to it.
- Share my success (and my favorite lunch recipes) with my colleagues.
- Repeat. Repeat. Repeat.
So, what new habit do you want to create in 2019? What’s your ‘why’ and your ‘how’?
Let me know so that I can celebrate your success with you.
And before I forget, my word for 2019 is ‘discipline.’
Every brain needs a coach.
Are you IN?
[i] This and the following key insights about the brain are taken from Quiet Leadership: Six Steps to Transforming Performance at Work by David Rock, 2006.