Being SMART About Making Positive, Sustainable Changes, Part 2
Many of us started the New Year with resolutions for positive change – and to keep these sustainable, it’s helpful to know that your brain is a powerful tool to help you stick to new habits!
When it comes to changing your habits, there’s a key process in the brain that is involved: it’s called neuroplasticity. Neuroplasticity is the process by which your brain develops new connections, strengthens existing ones, and prunes out the old ones that are no longer in use.
The “connections” are more formally known as synapses – these are where two neurons connect and share information. Synapses spur learning, store memories, and – important for our purposes today – create our habits!
Neuroplasticity is important when it comes to your new year’s resolutions because it allows your brain to become familiar with your new habits; it sets them in stone as a new part of your neural hardwiring. Neuroplasticity lets your brain grow, develop, and adapt to changes in your life and schedule. In other words, neuroplasticity is how an old dog learns new tricks!
Think of changing your brain through neuroplasticity like working a new muscle – your bicep, for instance. Let’s say you do 15 bicep curls each day. At first, they may be challenging; perhaps your arms aren’t your strongest muscle group. However, as you keep at it, you find those bicep curls getting easier and easier. With time, the bicep curls become a habit – and you’ve successfully grown and strengthened the muscle.
Repetition of new habits and skills follows a similar process in the brain. The brain is not a muscle; it’s actually mostly made of fatty tissue! But strengthening the synapses in the brain, and consequently the habits they support, is a repetitive process. When you sufficiently strengthen these synapses with repeated action, then the habit begins to feel like a regular part of your life, rather than an uphill battle to incorporate into your daily life. This is the neural process occurring as you take on a new habit – your brain’s hardwiring is literally changing with your habits, lifestyle, and schedule.
With a better understanding of how your brain changes as you take on a new habit, let’s review ways you can better stick to those habits and spur neuroplasticity. Below we’ve outlined a few tactics to help you stick to your 2023 goals!
1. Become aware of where you typically fall off
Start by reflecting. You’ve probably tried to take on new habits in the past and both succeeded and failed. Consider:
- When I incorporated a new habit into my life in the past, what helped me succeed?
- When I failed to stick to a new habit in the past, where did I go wrong?
- Specifically, when I failed in the past, did I see a form of self-sabotage arise? (eg: procrastination, deciding “it’s not worth it,” avoidance, perfectionism, etc.)
Creating awareness of the patterns you fall into when you fail or succeed can help you work smarter, not harder! Thinking back to neuroplasticity, our specific patterns of failure or success are often hardwired in our brains. Thus, obtaining clarity on the ways we typically sabotage new habits can be extremely helpful. For example, some of us opt for procrastination when the going gets tough, while others do a mental 180 and say to ourselves, “Well, it wasn’t going to work out anyways, I should just give up now.”
Once you have an understanding around your default mechanisms to sabotage or avoid new goals and habits, you can call yourself out when you see them arise this year! If you’re a procrastinator, what are you going to do when you see yourself procrastinating on your new habit? If you have those thoughts of “it’s just not worth it,” what are you going to tell yourself instead? In other words, what is the new neural pathway and pattern you’re going to create? You can utilize anything that’s helped you be successful in the past to help you get out of a rut here, too!
First build awareness. Then create a plan. We’re all human, so take some of the pressure off yourself by realizing it’s not if you fall off the wagon, but when. So when it happens, be prepared: what are you going to do instead to break the old pattern and create a new, healthier one?
2. Use SMART goals
SMART goals are goals that are…
Check out our last blog post on SMART goals for a deep dive on how to incorporate them into your new year’s resolutions. They provide an outline to creating goals and habits that are genuinely manageable and set yourself up for success!
3. Link your new habit to something already in your schedule
There’s a process called habit stacking – outlined by James Clear, the author of Atomic Habits – where you link your new habit to something that already exists in your regular schedule. Your brain has already laid the neural networks to support the existing habit, and you can take advantage of this hardwiring when incorporating something new into your life.
For example, let’s say you want to add more movement into your schedule. You decide that after dinner on the nights you eat at home, you’ll take a walk around your block. Dinner is something already bound into your schedule, and adding a walk to it simply builds on that daily task, rather than adding a totally new time block and habit into your schedule.
4. Get clear on why you want to change
Knowing your purpose behind a new habit is vital to its success. Dr. Kate Hays, a performance psychologist, recommends knowing the personal reasons why your new habit or goal matters to you. When the going gets tough – when you fall off the wagon, when those bicep curls are just too grueling, when you keep forgetting to take your medication – recalling your why can be massively helpful to motivating you towards continuing on your path, or restarting if you took a break. Because taking on a new habit – and changing your brain along with it – can take time, energy, and practice. You need to have ample reasoning and purpose behind your desired change. This will keep you motivated and moving towards your goal in the long run.
Habit change can be challenging, but remember that you’re building new mental “muscles” each time you practice your new habit. Acknowledge that the process can and will take time – and that is completely okay. You’re building new ways of living and being – down to the smallest neural levels – that support your ultimate health and habits. Keep going, and use these tips when the going gets tough!