Making Change that Sticks

Making Change that Sticks

The reality of life is that the way you age has very little to do with chance or genetics. Sure, chance plays a role.  Anyone who has been in an accident, lost their job, fallen ill, or otherwise faced the hard luck of life knows this well. And sure, if Mum was obese, and dad was obese, and your brothers are obese, then you have to work a little bit harder to turn the dial.  But overwhelmingly, research is stacking up behind the very simple proposition that almost every cell in your body can be altered through a concerted effort towards diet, exercise and lifestyle.  You can’t beat aging, but you can defer it, and you can certainly create a version of it that allows the flexibility to live your life exactly how you want to live it. 

Did you know its takes 3 weeks to break a behavioural habit? 

Making change is hard.  The reason for this is that habits help in so many parts of our lives.  We wake up, we shower, we brush our teeth, we put on our socks without even being aware most of the time that we are doing it.  Creating automatic behaviours allows our brain to avoid conscious thought and allows us to focus on other things.  They also help us to group and seek activities and patterns around events that help us make our way in the world.

Unfortunately, the machinery that creates and sustains bad habits is the same as for good habits, with one important complication.  Habits tends to be created around activities which are ether functional, or those which give us pleasure – good or bad – which in turn encourage the brain to produce and release dopamine.  Dopamine is a neurotransmitter that is used by the nervous system to send signals between nerve cells – it plays a very important role in how we feel pleasure.

The problem of course, is that we tend to find ourselves in a cycle; we seek events that give us pleasure, we create habits around those behaviours, and then we find ourselves indulging in a cycle which ultimately causes us damage.  It also means that when we decide that the way we are is now not the way we want to be, we need to overcome a systemic drive by our body to habitually create behaviours that push in the other direction.  A contest emerges between the willpower and drive we feel to change, against the programming we have written for ourselves.

Breaking habits is hard, and three weeks is an estimate that won’t work for everyone and won’t work for every habit. Three tips for making it through the grind of the habit breaking phase:

  1. It is more powerful to run from something than run to it – studies have shown that becoming aware of the implications of not breaking the habit – for example understanding completely the risk of diabetes, obesity or alcoholism, and the implications of the linkages between the habit and the outcome – can increase the will to change more than the fantasy of the perfect body. 
  2. Understand your triggers – habits are often linked in our minds to places, people, and feelings. Identify what causes your behaviour and when it is most prevalent. 
  3. Replace a bad habit with a good one. People like habits, and if the one you have created isn’t working for you, maybe its time for a new one.

It takes 6 weeks to make a habit

After three weeks of exercise, your body has been through the hurting phase, and maybe that split second decision to stay in bed versus getting out for a walk is getting that little bit easier.  The key message is don’t stop.  It takes 6 weeks – so no matter how locked in it feels, there’s three more to go.  Remember that just because you have created a new habit, you haven’t lost the old one.  Its waiting there, patiently stalking you, waiting for that trigger, that weakness, that familiar sign that all is clear.  A few hard days at work, when the emotions are low, and bang.  Its back in business.  In these mid range times, the key is connection. Make that extra effort to get to know people in the crossfit or BJJ club if thats where you are going, join a running club, get involved in activities at the gym. Whatever it is, make it part of your life.  You are almost there.

It takes 36 weeks to hardwire a habit.

The neuroscience of behavioural change is a story of communication.  When brain cells send signals to each other, they create pathways and over time - if those signals are sent more frequently, they move faster and faster until they become automatic.  Hardwiring habits is about training the cells of the brain to open up with each other, creating pathways and then turning those pathways into a highway.  It takes 10,000 repetitions to get achieve mastery, and so too with neural signalling.  

The bottom line is that getting out of bed and training, or walking at lunch, or skipping that beer, or doing that lifting session, no matter how hard you find it, is the first step in a neural brain training program.  Treat it like a rep – be happy when you do your first one and keep going.  Over time, the benefits will become clear and life will gradually change for the better. 

There are many skills we learn in life, and choices we make, and aging well is no difference.  Choose old man strength and live. 

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