I envy people who have great willpower—you know, those who have this remarkable ability to simply decide to stop eating sugar or start exercising more and then follow-through for weeks, months, and years to come. Too often, my intention to change a behavior is met with inner resistance.
It is as if there are two parts of me—the conscious self who is determined to be healthier, and the unconscious self who sabotages my efforts. As a result, the more I try to push myself to stop eating sugar, the stronger my urge to indulge. I find that I end up doing even more of the very thing I am trying to stop doing!
It wasn’t until I discovered research on the new brain science that I realized why willpower so often fails us. It seems that determined efforts to force ourselves to change familiar habits are actually working against our biology.
Each of us has an automatic “default mode” of functioning that is based upon our life experiences, especially those from our early years, and encoded in the older structures of the brain which govern motivation, emotion, and memory. Trying to make ourselves change automatic behaviors by using willpower alone is like trying to get our computer to function differently without changing its settings.
So, how do we change our brain’s default mode settings? It is much easier than you may think! All it takes is being willing to practice some new ways of thinking. Here are the steps:
First, establish the intention to make a specific change in how you feel, think, or behave. Maybe you want to feel more grateful, have increased self-confidence, or get rid of the clutter in your life. Or perhaps you would like to prepare healthier meals, activate your creativity, or visit the gym more regularly. Note that it is important to focus on how you want to be, not on what you don’t want to be feeling, thinking, or doing.
Second, write down how you want to be as if you have already succeeded in making the change. For example, “I enjoy preparing and eating fresh, nutritious, delicious meals.” Or, “I feel light and free as I clear my life of what I no longer need.” Continue to work on your sentence until saying it gives you a good feeling. Then begin declaring your sentence (or sentences) out loud to yourself many times every day.
The third step is the most important for reprogramming your brain. Your default mode is encoded in the part of the brain that is highly responsive to images and emotion. Take five minutes one or more times a day to close your eyes and imagine yourself engaging in the new behavior. Be playful and have fun with it.
As you envision yourself feeling, thinking, and acting differently, allow yourself to feel happy, excited, enthusiastic, peaceful, or whatever positive emotions that you associate with making this change. Using your imagination, try to make it feel as real as you can. How will it be when you are actually living this change? For example, picture yourself enjoying an exercise class and feeling energized, vibrant, and fully alive. Imagine your body feeling strong, healthy, flexible, and balanced. Picture what it is like to move in your body with a new level of confidence, grace, strength, and agility.
The fourth step is the hardest. Be prepared for your critical self to try to derail your new ways of thinking. It may remind you of previous times when you have tried to change and failed. It may warn you of the dangers ahead, should you be successful in activating a new you. It may tell you that you are not good enough to make this change—not smart enough, young enough, old enough, educated enough, good-looking enough, motivated enough, experienced enough, blah, blah, blah.
Basically, it will say whatever it knows is likely to stop you dead in your tracks. For example, as I write this blog the voice in my head is telling me that I have nothing of value to say that hasn’t already been said.
So, what do you do when your critical self tries to sabotage your efforts to change? Realize that this part of you is just trying to help keep you safe by preventing you from stepping out of your comfort zone. Arguing with that self just gives it more power. Instead, recognize that it is just the voice of your critical self and that it is normal for it to show up when you are closest to a personal breakthrough. And then refocus on the change you are intending to make.
Remind yourself that everyone has a critical self: The only difference between successful and unsuccessful people is that the successful ones don’t let their critical selves paralyze them. They continue to move forward in pursuit of their goals and dreams in spite of the voice in their heads that tries to stop them.
Fifth, continue to tune inside and notice when you feel inspired to take some kind of positive action. Perhaps you feel an inner urge to read a book, take a class, visit a particular website or call a friend. It is important to follow your inner guidance, for chances are the action is bringing you one step closer to your goal.
Be patient and realize that it can take up to a month (or sometimes longer) to reset your default mode. Don’t get discouraged if you are not feeling inspired to change your behavior right away. Just continue to visualize yourself demonstrating the desired changes and know that your efforts will pay off over time. Eventually, you will find yourself motivated from within to make new, healthier choices in a way that feels natural and struggle-free!
For more information on how you can reset your brain's default mode, see New Science, New Brain, New You.