• Change your habits, change your life

    June 2, 2016 | curtrosengren
  • habit trail

    When it comes to changing your life for the better, big, dramatic leaps get all the press. But if that’s all you’re relying on to improve your life, you’re stacking the odds against you.

    Here’s a fresh dose of reality. Most change that sticks doesn’t tend to be the giant leap variety. It comes from decidedly less sexy and dramatic efforts. I’m convinced that two of the great quiet powerhouses of personal change are small scale changes (which I wrote about in my last post) and habit creation.

    I’m such a fan of the life-changing power of habits that I’ll be writing about them frequently in future posts. Today, I want to start with some super-simplified context about how your brain works and how that relates to using habits to change your life (I’ll write more about the details of how things work, the research behind it, etc. in future posts, but for now I’m just going to present an ultra-simple picture.)

    Your brain is energy-hungry. Your brain is around 2% of your total weight, but it consumes an estimated 20% of your energy.

    Your brain is an efficiency seeking machine. It seeks the easiest most efficient, least energy-consuming way to get the job done. When you have developed a habit, it requires less processing power.

    Your habits enhance efficiency. A habit is like a path of least resistance in your brain. It allows you to do things with the least amount of mental effort and energy expenditure. (If you ever learned to drive a stick shift, think about the difference between the focus it took when you first tried and the effort and awareness required once you were used to it and driving down the street to the store. That’s the efficiency of habit at work.)

    Your brain is malleable. You’re not stuck with the brain that you have. Neuroplasticity means you can rewire your brain, creating new neural pathways much the way walking through a grassy meadow regularly will create a path. And the more traffic that path gets, the more well-worn it be comes. When you create a new habit, you’re essentially creating a new path in your brain.

    Your willpower is a limited resource: Willpower is like a mental muscle. It can only be used so much before it needs to take a break and rejuvenate. That means, if you rely primarily on willpower to gut it out on the path to positive change, there’s a good chance those change efforts will go splat.

    OK, so what does all of that mean?

    It means that one aspect of positive change is engaging in energy management for your brain. In other words, how can you make it easier for your brain to take the paths that support the life you want to create?

    Change is inherently about jumping out of the status quo, which means your brain has to take a path of more resistance. Add to that the fact that gutting things out with willpower has limited potential and you can see that dramatic wholesale change can be a huge challenge in your brain.

    You can take advantage of the neuroplasticity of your brain to develop new habits – new paths of least resistance – that support the change you want to make. And habits require less energy, which means both that you are more likely to stick with it even when you’re tired or stressed.

    What does that all mean in the real world? You can use habit creation as a tool to create an ecosystem in your life that supports feeling energized and alive. For example, here are some habits that I have worked on over the last few years that all contribute to a better experience of my life. They are all products of my efforts to have a positive impact on both my mood and ability to focus.

    • Morning meditation, no exceptions (I haven’t missed a morning since August 1st, 2012)
    • Drinking enough water (I drink a big glass first thing in the morning, and then keep a big thermos of herbal tea at my desk and drink it throughout the day.)
    • Eating more fruits and vegetables (The key for this one is making it easy, like always having cut up veggies available to snack on throughout the day, and always having a container with my favorite green smoothie sitting in the refrigerator.)
    • Exercise (I aim for 4 – 5 days a week.)

    None of these things are exciting and sexy. But they all create an environment in my brain and in my body that helps me have a better experience of life, whatever happens in my day-to-day world.

    There are plenty more habits that I need to work on (e.g., those related to being more focused and productive in my work). But that’s the great thing about habits. There is an endless opportunity to make life better, one habit at a time.

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