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Why Change is Hard and How to Hack Your Brain to Get Results

Learn how to hack your brain to create change that lasts.

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Beth Barnett-Boebel of Path Nutrition

Change is hard, y’all. 

We’ve all tried to break a habit or create totally new skills and, in doing so, have felt the full roller coaster of emotions. And we ask ourselves… Why IS change so hard?  First, let me make something clear. It is NOT because we aren’t good enough, disciplined enough, or any of the other terrible things we think about ourselves when we aren’t immediately, perfectly, and eternally doing the new change. Change is hard because brains are incredibly complex and there are processes happening in there that make change hard. BUT if you understand a bit more of how your brain works, you can make your brain work for you, not against you. 

The brain feature we are highlighting today is that of “association-maker”… there are two parts to this. First, HOW the brain makes associations. And second,  WHY the brain will (and desires to) choose what is most charming.

As an association-maker, the brain takes information from data it receives and makes associations to be used for future reference (both positive and negative). For example, if you ate something and got food poisoning and threw up… the brain makes a negative association with that food and you might never eat it again.  In our wild and natural days, this association was often the difference between life and death. 

On the flip side, if you eat a piece of candy, get a release of dopamine, and feel great… the brain makes a positive association and you will likely want candy again soon. If you continually have the same input with a positive association, then it becomes effortless to think about that input. You simply do the action and get a good feeling (what we would call a “desired output”).  

Let’s think about it this way… why do you not think twice about eating a piece of candy from the jar of a front desk at an office? Because you had candy growing up or had a few pieces from a jar at the front desk, you have a continued positive association. So now, there’s no thought involved anymore. You do not think, “there is a candy bowl. I should decide if I want a piece of candy.” The association and decision have already been made in your brain. There are candy jars on front desks of offices everywhere and now you can see why we find it impossible to not grab a piece every time we walk by!

On the flip side, if a food or restaurant made you sick and you got food poisoning, you would dismiss that option with little consideration. For a neutral example… driving your route to and from work also requires no thought because it has become a routine and is automatic. Your daily shower routine is likely the same. All ingrained patterns are a super bullet train. A fast track to decision making. Little effort to the desired result.

As we mentioned above… a natural — and not always helpful — thing about the brain is that it will (or desires to) choose whatever is most charming. You might recognize some things in your life that are “charming” as procrastination, doing what “moves you at the time”, or anything relating to a “passion project.” 

“Charming,” to your brain, is what is whatever creates the least resistance, feels effortless (even if work is involved), and is usually enjoyable.  For example… doing your taxes? Not charming. You likely find yourself easily distracted and having to force yourself to finish the task! Binge-watching, scrolling social media, drinking alcohol? Charming.

So let’s get down to why you’re here… what does this have to do with nutrition?

When you want to create changes in your eating habits, it is typically challenging because you are probably choosing food that your brain does not find as charming as the food you are trying not to eat.  This becomes especially hard after the gung-ho “I can do this!” mentality and willpower have worn off.  Change is not charming. Change is not a super bullet train. Change is doggedly slashing through a forest of not charming decisions to create a new dirt path to where you want to go.

When the gung-ho and willpower have waned, you leave the dirt path because it’s hard work clearing that forest. And so you go back to the super bullet train; because, frankly, it’s easier.  

I realize you might have feelings like doubt, fear, and discouragement running through your head right now. So here’s where we get POSITIVE. I am here to tell you that you CAN create lasting change! 

Here’s how…

FIRST.

Ask yourself this question: Is your “change” compelling enough? 

Here’s how the conversations go in our office…

Q: What is your goal?

A: To lose weight.

Q: Why do you want to lose weight?

A: To be healthy.

Q: Is just “to be healthy” compelling enough over the long-term?

A: …… *crickets*……..

For most of us, simply “to be healthy” is not. This is when we drill down further. 

Q: Why do you want to be healthy?

A: Because… I want to be there for my kids when I’m older, because I want to be able to do these types of vacations, because a certain active hobby is my passion, etc. 

And then keep going… keep drilling.

Keep asking yourself “WHY?” until you are crystal clear on your reason for creating change. And then, you will need to use this compelling reason a lot. Whenever it seems more charming to sleep-in instead of going for the planned walk. Whenever it’s easier to choose picking-up dinner from fast-food instead of making your planned dinner. Tell yourself your answer. Which brings us to the SECOND critical step in change.

SECOND.

PLANNING. Changes require planning.  

We have to use our prefrontal (the planning, computer part of our brain) because if we leave it up to the other parts of our brain we will choose whatever is easiest and more charming.  The best way to keep emotions out of it is to plan 24 hours — or more — in advance.  

ALSO (and this is key), don’t do all the planning in your brain and leave it there. You must write it down or put it in your digital calendar. Planning and leaving those plans swimming around vs. planning and getting it on a calendar makes an enormous difference. Plan and document your plan for everything… charming AND not-so-charming included. 

THIRD.

When you arrive at your plan, DO IT. 

This seems so obvious until you realize how hard it is to stick to the plan. Your brain, remember, likes charming and will tell you a thousand reasons why you don’t want to do what you planned.  At first, it may feel uncomfortable. You may have some resistance or rebellion to the plan. Totally normal. Do the hard thing, allow/process/feel the feelings, and do what you planned.  THIS is how you go from dirt path in the forest to brand new and shinier super bullet train.  

FOURTH.

Know that failures are inevitable. 

It’s what you do these failures and what you make the failures mean that matter. If you ate something that you didn’t plan (that office candy jar is a tantalizing trickster!), you don’t turn that into evidence that you are a complete failure and you can’t change AND change is impossible and on and on and on that brain will go.  Pause. Take notice that you did something different than the plan, note how you feel, and examine the thoughts that enter your mind about your action. Then start the plan again. Keep going.

FINALLY.

Blow your own mind when you see the new super bullet train you built and get to ride every day! 

Let’s do the dang thing.

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