It’s said by social scientists that we make thousands of decisions, some big, some small, every day. The truth of the matter is, though, that we don’t really make a lot of those decisions, at least not like we think we do. We make decisions, sure, but most of the time we don’t really realize we’re making those decisions. Our deeper brain takes care of a lot of basic choices before our thinking brain really gets into the action.
Think about this from a brain perspective. Your brain, through your various sensory organs, receives a massive amount of information all the time. Most of this information you honestly have no idea about. Your brain catalogs every bit color, sound, sensation, etc that comes across its path. If you had to try to analyze all that consciously you’d either lock up like an old computer or you’d lose your mind. That doesn’t happen, though, right?
Fortunately there’s a part of your brain that grabs this info, figures out what is useful or important, and sends that along.
Your brain then takes that info and makes decisions.
But wouldn’t that still be a huge amount of decision-making? It sure would.
So most of the time, the brain has a set of sub-programs, we call them habits, that it runs when it gets some useful information that it has seen before. This is as opposed to pushing it to the top in order to have the boss (your consciousness) make the decision.
This is sort of like a factory. To make a car, someone needs to choose to put a certain bolt in a certain place on a chassis moving across the assembly line, but this isn’t a novel idea. Lots of bolts just like that have been put in that hole on lots of chassis with noted success before. The assembly line worker doesn’t need to go ask the engineer where to put the bolt every time. The engineer (your consciousness) figured it out once, tested it a bit, and then when it worked delegated the process. That way lots of cars can be built with only one engineer.
Ok, so why am I telling you this?
Because just like the assembly line, you run almost entirely on habits.
What you eat, where you go, how you train, how you sleep, and so on is almost entirely habit driven.
In his great book “The Power of Habit“, Charles Duhigg breaks down how a habit loop works, which basically is: Trigger -> Action -> Result? If the result is positive, the brain bets that it’ll work again and adds another layer of strength to your habit. If it didn’t work out then the next time you’re faced with that situation you’ll actively think of another thing to test. This will repeat until you get something that works and then that’ll become the habit.
Since your brain wants you to be safe, warm, and have a full belly, you can see where habits can easily get set in that are contrary to your (thinking) goals. Things like stress eating, skipping leg days, swinging through drive-throughs, etc all can become such habits that you almost do them without thinking about them, and that can get in the way of your progress.
So, how do we fix it?
First of all, you need to identify the habit you want to change. My recommendation is to pick only one or two habits at a time and to start small. If you try to change too much or make a major shift right off the bat the body will often go into stress mode and lock down even harder.
Once you’ve identified the habit you’re targeting, look for the trigger.
What is it that you do right before you do the thing you’re trying to change? Is it a stress response? Do you always grab a handful of candy when you go by the admin’s desk? If you work late do you always swing through the drive-through?
Once you’ve found the trigger, focus on what you can do to make a small change in your habit.
For example, take a different route past the admin’s desk so that you won’t be able to reach the candy jar. Bring a snack with you when you’re working late so you won’t be hungry and thus won’t be as inclined to go through the drive-through (I have a protein shake about an hour before I leave work or this reason), or if you’re feeling stressed go for a quick walk before you reach for the cookie jar.
You’re going to have little luck as an adult by just “stopping” doing something that’s become a habit. Our brain doesn’t just do dead-ends like that very well. Instead, if you’re going to take out an undesirable habit then it needs to either be tweaked or substituted with something else. This is one of the reasons why you’ll rarely see recovering addicts who don’t get “hooked” on something else, be it exercise, art, helping others, or whatever. They need to fill the time and complete the urge to do something somehow.
I love a good hardcore gym meme as much as the next trainer, but honestly just bashing on those who are “too weak to change” or “don’t really want it” is not a useful way to coach. Instead, armed with this info, it becomes a lot easier for our clients at Relentless to create positive change in their life, versus “just doing it”, as the memes say.
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