Changes that Stick

“Spotlight On: Making Changes that Stick

Change for good – overcoming old habits isn’t easy but it is possible. Here’s how.

By Cynthia Moore, MS, RD, CDE and Certified Solution Provider

Why is changing behavior — such as following a diet or exercising every day — so hard to do?

This is a big question! Our current behavior is often the result of recent habits, environmental cues and early-life influences, as well as our current level of stress or joy.

Two key reasons change is hard:

1. Our whole brain needs to buy into the project (often our cognitive/thinking brain wants the change but the emotional/feeling brain doesn’t)

2. We expect to jump from wanting the change to making it happen without allowing ourselves the necessary preparation steps.

To make changes stick, we basically have to establish new brain cell connections and then practice both the new thoughts and new behaviors until they become the dominant brain pathways. More challenging is that the primitive (limbic) part of our brain is designed to seek pleasure. In order to “give up” the pleasure from say extra wine, dessert, cigarettes or spending, we have to ramp up the natural joy or pleasure the brain receives in other ways.

How long does it really take to hardwire a new routine?

Generally, it takes 3-4 weeks of regular practice.

An ancient text about behavior change, the Yoga Sutras notes: “Practice becomes firmly grounded when well attended to for a long time, without break and in all earnestness.” (Satichidananda, The Yoga Sutras of Patanjali, 1990.)

Modern science validates that change is possible but hardwiring the new and sturdy brain networks that govern behavior may require regular practice. Until we change “business as usual” in our brains, the “same old, same old” is how our brain interprets what we need.

What steps can I start today to change a behavior?

I like using a ladder metaphor. Break down all the “steps” to get to the top of the ladder (the desired change). Focus on today’s step today.

  • The brain needs to get reward or pleasure – so ramp up exercise for the endorphins, connections with yourself or people you enjoy. Play, spend restorative time.
  • Raise your awareness (for example, keep a food log or wear a pedometer.) Awareness can strengthen motivation and clarify if/why the change is what you want.
  • Consider what you need in the way of information, support or companionship to prepare for the change. Get it.
  • Begin! Be accountable.
  • Keep up the support, accountability, exercise and stress management.

What tips do you have for keeping on track with goals and measuring milestones?

Often people set overly harsh goals (all-or-nothing type plans like losing 20 pounds). This squeezes the fun out of having the adventure of change. It’s helpful to add novelty, play and reinforcement. Set small enough goals to make them achievable. (Example: write down your ladder of change steps, buy a pedometer, wear the pedometer for 1 week, celebrate when you get to 5,000 steps a day!)

Steps to help keep on track

  • Monitor your progress. Track something related to your goal at least 2-3 days/week.
  • Remember every day is a new day. Today’s steps matter!
  • Get the support you need. Be accountable. Set loving limits with yourself. Pause and celebrate each small step.
  • Have a plan for what you will do when you get “off track” & then when this happens, enact your plan. (for example, when eating out of bounds, go back to keeping a food log and making a weekly meal plan).

I get so discouraged if I slip once or twice. How do I get back on track?

Relapse is the technical term for a slip. The good news is that relapse is its own stage of change. Higher levels of life stress can take us “off track” temporarily or make change more difficult. To get back on track, re-evaluate what you most want, have compassion for what got in the way, and start again.

  • Breaking the cycle of isolation is important. Seek connections within and with others.
  • Do what “brings you back to yourself” (journaling, talking with a favorite friend, spending time in nature or with animals, etc.).
  • Put the critical voice on mute. Seek the nurturing inner voice that is kind and cares about you. Remind yourself of past successes.
  • Health professionals may be useful support.
  • Re-direct and focus on what you want. Recognize the role of stress and do your best to gain skills to be more resilient to life’s stressors.

Our primitive brain is set up to deal with scarcity, respond to short-term stress, and be soothed by community or tribal closeness. In modern life, by contrast, stressors are longer lasting, abundance is the norm and isolation is common.

Remember: all is not lost in “relapse”.  Start over and write down your ladder and the rungs to get you there. Take today’s steps. Even past attempts at behavior change (such as quitting smoking) are not lost; they ultimately help pave the path to long-term change.” – Cynthia Moore

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