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Want to change something in your life? Here’s how to train your brain.

How do you become that person who works out three times a week? The one who doesn’t get distracted when she’s trying to get something done? The one who manages to read for pleasure or get enough sleep or start a new side hustle? You get there by building habits. 

When you turn exercise, going to bed early, or carving out time for reading into a habit, that’s when you end up sticking to it. Getting there, however, is the tricky part because change is hard, even if it’s good for us. Sometimes especially if it’s good for us. We spoke to Julie Jones, Mental Performance Coach and Institute instructor, to get some insight into making those positive changes a little easier. 

“Change happens for three reasons: chance, crisis, and choice,” she says. “Right now, we’re overwhelmed with crisis changes like job loss, health issues, childcare, isolation, financial challenges. COVID has thrown a ton of them our way, leaving us feeling anxious and out of control. However, making positive changes that are in our control – and building habits that make us happier, healthier, and more resilient – can help us cope with the crisis-based ones.”

First, we have to get past our own brains. 

We are creatures of habit. Our brains are programmed to keep us alive, and to do that, they want today to look like yesterday. From a survival standpoint, doing something different is a risk. So even if we’re trying to eat healthier or try something we’ve never done before, our brain is naturally inclined to say “no thank you” and keep us on the couch watching Netflix instead of going for a run or finding excuses not to talk to our manager about that stretch opportunity. 

Julie compares our struggle with embracing change to a person riding an elephant. The rider is our “thinking brain,” the part of us that wants to start going to the gym or being more productive at work. The elephant is the part of our brain that isn’t a fan of change; it’s the subconscious, the emotional side of things.

The rider looks like she’s in control, but the elephant is big and hard to steer – and it weighs a lot more than she does. She can’t force it in a direction it doesn’t want to go. To get the elephant on board, the rider has to motivate it. 

So how do you motivate the elephant?

You have to make it want to walk down that new path instead of automatically choosing the one it’s used to. And you can do that in a few ways: making it easy to go that way, making it harder or less appealing to take the old path, making it fun or interesting, or offering a reward for the right behavior. 

The trick is to get it to go down that path enough times that it becomes a habit, and the elephant will take the new path without even thinking about it. The trick is knowing what your elephant will react to … and that boils down to knowing yourself and how to make the change easy, interesting, or fun for you.

Let’s say your goal is to exercise three times a week. It might be something you used to do, but then your gym closed and you couldn’t work out on your way home from the office anymore. Unfortunately, you didn’t build a new habit in its place, so… goodbye exercise and hello couch. The good news is you can build a new routine that’ll become just as automatic as that post-work sweat session. You just have to convince your elephant. Here are 9 ways to get it going down a new path: 

  1. Define your why. What is your reason for wanting to exercise? Is it to manage stress? Fit back into your clothes? Have arms like Michelle Obama? Figure out what motivates you. Doing it because someone else thinks you should or for a reason that doesn’t really drive you won’t sustain you for very long. It needs to be something that’s a fit with your goals and values.

“My son was why I changed my career,” says Julie. “I missed a whole lot in the first seven years of his life and I wanted to be home more for him. It was a huge change, but he was a good motivator for doing the hard work of starting down a new path.” 

  1. Make it easy to succeed. Identify what your triggers are for avoiding a good behavior or defaulting to a bad one. If you want to eat healthier, put fruit on the counter so it’s within easy reach. Have a bunch of hard-boiled eggs ready to eat in the fridge. Plan out your meals for the week during the weekend. Do what you can to make it easy to default to the right decision in the moment. 
  1. Make it hard to do things you want to stop doing. Make whatever tempts you invisible, unattractive, difficult or unsatisfying. If chips are your kryptonite, but your family insists on having them in the house, buy the flavor you like least. If your Instagram habit is derailing your productivity, turn notifications off and install an app that blocks social media during your workday so you’re not constantly interrupting your flow.

“Try making your bad habit 20 seconds harder,” says Julie. “Force yourself to reach the highest shelf to get the Oreos or keep your phone across the room if it’s a distraction. Or try putting your phone in grayscale. Making it less appealing to look at works surprisingly well for me.” 

  1. Make the change extra appealing. If you hate yoga, but love Zumba, pick the option that’s more fun for you. Want to eat more veggies? Stock up on the ones you like the best. Find daily walks boring? Use an app to pick interesting new routes, listen to stand-up comedy or an interesting podcast while you stroll, or use the time to call a friend. 
  1. Anchor your habit to something else. Can’t remember to take your vitamins? Connect them with something you already do each day, like putting on deodorant or brushing your teeth. Want to meditate for a few minutes every day? Do it while the coffee is brewing. Doing one will soon be a trigger to do the other.

“When I sit down to dinner, I think of three things I’m grateful for,” says Julie. “It’s how I built my gratitude habit. Dinner has become the anchor that triggers the behavior.” 

  1. Have a plan for when you mess up. No matter how much we plan to not eat the cake, there will be times when we eat it anyway. Decide in advance, what does “next best” look like? When you eat something unhealthy or skip your Monday workout, don’t beat yourself up. Do the next best thing instead, like having a small slice of cake instead of a big one or fitting in a gentle 15-minute stretching session instead of an all-out high-intensity interval training (HIIT) class. A smaller win will keep you motivated, even if you haven’t quite hit your goal. 
  1. Build in accountability. Write down your plans and track how you want to achieve them every day. Share your goals in real life or on social media to make your commitment that much more official. 
  1. Celebrate your wins. Whether it’s a mental “you rock,” a trip to Starbucks or a few bucks towards something you really want, when you’ve done what you set out to do, reward yourself. Did you kill that workout even though you were tired after a long work day? Give yourself a pat on the back (or order that lululemon gear you’ve had your eye on)!
  1. Do it now. There’s never a perfect time. Don’t put it off until tomorrow: the sooner you start, the closer you’ll be to your goal! 

This blog is based on a session hosted by Julie Jones called, Thriving in a Pandemic: Simple Actions for Immediate Change. Want to see how a few small tweaks to your physical, mental, emotional and spiritual performance can boost your personal energy? Access the replay of our Energize & Shine webinar from February 16. The recording can be accessed via this link and can be watched at your convenience.

About Julie Jones: Julie Jones knows about building habits. This former Division I softball coach has inspired countless athletes to make the changes they need to perform at their best. Julie is a Certified Mental Performance and Mindset Coach and Positive Performance Visualization Specialist.  As an instructor in the Institute’s Mental Performance Training for Coaches program, Julie focuses on enabling others to affect positive, lasting change with tools, research and practices. She is also the founder of SSB Performance, LLC.

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