We are nerdy neurobehavioral neurologists, so of course, we have to break it down. In order to intentionally create good habits, you have to have a plan for how you’re going to get somewhere. And generally speaking, it takes some time. Seven days isn’t long enough to form a habit. Two weeks isn’t long enough to transform a habit. Based on our experience, thirty days is long enough to create a significant core set of fundamental habits upon which you can base the rest of your life.
One step is action. Three steps form a pattern. Nine steps build a habit. Twenty steps create a behavior. And after that? It’s character. This is now who you are. If we can teach you to identify your successes and continue to change, then our work is done, because that’s all you need. It becomes a positive addiction.
The way to get this positive snowball effect started is to set some goals. But they can’t be vague, long-term goals like “lose thirty pounds” or even “don’t get Alzheimer’s.” Remember how your brain feels about long-term planning. Instead, you have to be SMART. Make sure your goals are:
S = SPECIFIC. Instead of the vague “be healthy,” try “avoid adding refined sugar to my coffee for thirty days,” or better yet, “follow the rules of the NEURO Plan for thirty days.”
M = MEASURABLE. Your goals have to be quantifiable. “Eat more vegetables” is virtually meaningless, while “eat three servings of kale a week” is something you can measure and know you have achieved.
A = ATTAINABLE. If you can’t succeed at your goal, it won’t do you any good. Is “I will run a marathon at the end of these thirty days” possible if you’ve never jogged more than 5 miles in your life? Nope. That goal is not attainable. Try “I will jog 1 mile three times a week for a month.”
R = RELEVANT. This is about setting goals that are connected to your higher purpose. If your higher purpose is ultimately achieving a whole-food, plant-based diet, then your goals should include eating meals for a week that are consistent with that higher purpose. If your higher purpose is to exercise one day for ninety minutes, then a ten-minute walk every day for a week will serve that higher purpose.
T = TIME BOUND. Each of the above examples has set a time limit. When your goals have no specific end time, you have no way of knowing whether you’ve achieved them. Now, it’s true that our goal for you is to live a lifetime following the NEURO Plan, but these SMART goals are intended to help you build the habits that will make that possible. Set appropriate time limits for yourself, knowing that you will create new goals once you have achieved these.
When you’ve achieved a goal, take a moment to celebrate your success. This is extremely important, not just because you deserve it (although you do!) but because your brain needs to experience that success. In order to change your behavior and move past your habits, you have to do more than just repeat new behaviors. Your default system—your habits—is already in place, and it has been formed by repetition over so many years that it will take at least as many years to overcome it through repetition alone. There has to be a reward system that turns on your dopamine and lets your brain know that these changes actually feel good. You will become addicted to that dopamine rush, and that will be enough to change your habits.
So what’s a good reward? Well, it shouldn’t be food. If you treat yourself to a cupcake after a week of kale, all you’re doing is digging into your old habits. Sure, overall you’ll be healthier, but if you’re trying to create new habits, that cupcake will only undo all the good work you’ve done. Instead, you’ll create a kind of dysfunctional mindset, teaching your brain that the rest of your food is not pleasurable. You need to allow your brain to develop a taste for healthy foods.
Instead, choose a reward that is behavior-based. Celebrate by going on a hike with friends, taking a yoga class, or reading a good book. And if it just so happens that your reward helps you engage in some of the other aspects of the NEURO Plan, then all to the better!
Once you’ve taken the time to celebrate, it’s critical to reassess and re-create new goals each time you complete one. Start thinking about this right away, because if you let some time elapse, it will be more difficult to keep building on your accomplishment. Create a SMART goal that is the next logical step from your previous success, so you can keep your momentum going.
How long will it take for these goals to turn into patterns and then to become habits and finally a way of life? We wish we could give you a concrete answer, but the reality is that everyone is different. These thirty days will get you going toward establishing a strong foundation—and for some of you, even a habit—but remember that it does take time beyond that. This is a kick-start, but when the thirty days are up, you will still have work to do. How long it will take beyond the thirty days depends on your history of habit-creating, on your previous level of self-discipline, and on all the other factors in your life, such as medical conditions, family demands, work demands, and so forth. But remember: no matter what those factors are— and no matter how overwhelming you believe them to be—this program works every time, even if it might take a little longer, as long as you stay consistent and maintain your goal-setting behavior.
These thirty days will allow you to create fundamental changes in your behaviors and habits, changes that you can build on for the rest of your life. This is a habit-creating period covering all aspects of the NEURO Plan, and once you’ve created these new, positive habits, changing your life becomes easy.
Excerpted from THE 30-DAY ALZHEIMER’S SOLUTION by Dean Sherzai, MD, Ph.D., and Ayesha Sherzai, MD, reprinted with permission from HarperOne, an imprint of HarperCollins Publishers. Copyright 2021