Scientific advances reveal the real reason why changing is so difficult, and how you can (finally) make those “new year, new me” promises a reality using brain science
It’s time for a reset. After a year like no other in recent memory, most of us have made up our minds that 2021 will have to be the year 2020 couldn’t be.
This will be the year we’ll finally start working out.
The year we’ll get organized.
The year we’ll learn that skill for work we’ve been putting off.
We all want to be better versions of ourselves. That’s why most of us put ourselves through the process of making and (temporarily) committing to dramatic change.
Unfortunately, it’s not that simple.
According to the Journal of Clinical Psychology, nearly 54% of people who make resolutions make it to the six month mark. The same study suggests that the average person will make the same life resolutions 10 times without success. 1
You might be tempted to think, “maybe I just don’t want it enough”. However, brain science research would disagree. Turns out, it’s not so much an issue of wanting to change, as it is willingness to commit to the rules of change found in brain science.
The science of change
If you’ve ever taken a course in psychology, you might be familiar with the phrase neuroplasticity. If not, here’s a brief introduction.
The term is a mashup of two words: “neural”, or relating to the nervous system, and “plasticity”, describing the ability or capacity to change.
Thus, neuroplasticity is defined as “the capacity of nerve cells to biologically adapt to circumstances—to respond to stimulation by generating new tendrils of connection (synapses) to other nerve cells, and to respond to deprivation and excess stress by weakening connections.” 2
In other words, your brain is made to rewire itself. Constantly.
With each new experience, challenge, or change in your environment, microscopic parts of your neurons shift and change to accommodate you. Tree branch-like structures called dendrites become bushier, connections become more efficient, and new habits eventually become like second-nature.
It’s this ability that allows you to change patterns old of thinking and behaving and to develop new mindsets, new memories, new skills, and new abilities.
This brain science process is most obvious in children, whose brains are constantly growing, developing, and changing in response to the world. At birth, each neuron (neural cell) in an infant’s brain has 7,500 connections with surrounding cells. By their second birthday, that number is more than twice the number of connections of the average adult brain. (Mundkur, 2005)3. Hence, why children seem to be so much better at picking up languages and learning new things than their adult counterparts.
Scientists haven’t always agreed on the idea of a constantly changing brain. Just a few decades ago, it was commonly agreed upon that our brains were fixed after a certain age. However, advances in medical imaging techniques have shown mounting evidence for lifelong brain plasticity. (Pauwels, 2018)4
So you can, in fact, teach an old dog new tricks. But the question begs to be asked – if our brains are programmed for change, why is it so difficult to stop bad habits?
The challenge of change
As much as our brains are programmed for change, they’re also programmed for efficiency.
Remember dendrites we mentioned earlier? Each time you repeat a behavior or a thought, those connections become more efficient and stronger. The stronger and more frequently used the pathway, the more your brain favors using it. Behaviorally, we see these reinforced pathways as habits, or sequences of actions, that we follow without a second thought. Using this brain science knowledge will, in essence, get you where you want to go!
Waking up for work at a certain time.
Switching the lights on when you enter a room.
Turning on the TV after dinner.
Checking Facebook whenever you feel a tinge of boredom.
Simply put, your brain behaves a lot like a person riding a bicycle off-road: it’s much easier to peddle down a deep, well-worn path than fresh, untouched grass.
Another way to visualize this brain science process is to compare it to pathways left by running water. If you’ve ever watched a child play with a garden hose in a patch of dirt, you know that running water can create patterns in soft soil. Leave the hose running in the soil for a few minutes, and you’ll notice that the water has cut pathways in the soil. Leave that hose running for say, a few days, and you’ll notice those pathways have become deeply ingrained.
New habits, even when started with the strongest intentions, will inevitably lose to older, more-deeply ingrained ones.
Again, great for the overall efficiency of your brain. Not so great for someone trying to make a habit of going to the gym on Monday nights.
A recently published research from the University of Warwick further proves the difficulty of changing behaviors once they become second-nature.
Using a computer simulation using digital rodents, researchers designed an experiment where subjects were given a choice of two levers. One lever – the ‘correct’ one – came with a reward. The other did not. During the experiment, the two levers were swapped, randomizing the rodent’s chances of choosing the ‘correct’ one.
The result? The group of subjects that were trained for a short time (too briefly to develop deeply ingrained behaviors), managed to choose the new, ‘correct’ lever when the chance of reward was swapped. (Miller, 2019)6
The other group, who were trained extensively on one lever, stuck to the ‘wrong’ lever – even when it clearly no longer yielded the reward they wanted.
Clearly, habits are powerful.
So how do you intentionally retire those old pathways, in favor of new ones?
By using the same mechanism that created those pesky old pathways – repetition.
Repetition – the real secret to success?
We are what we repeatedly do. Excellence, then, is not an act, but a habit – Aristotle
Decades of psychological research have consistently shown us that the key to making new behaviors dominant is to simply repeat them in a consistent context. (Lally, 2011)5
You’ve likely seen this in practice many, although probably in a different context. Consider for instance, the way athletes train for a high-performance sport.
A basketball player shooting one hundred baskets a day.
A soccer player kicking the same goal again and again.
The marathon runner training on the same path, week after week.
For the aforementioned, these movements quickly become almost subconscious – just from repeating those desired actions again and again, within the same context.
Similarly, a person who is trying to make a new action a part of their weekly schedule, such as waking up an hour earlier, replacing an hour of TV watching with reading, or going to the gym at the same time every evening, would want to take the following approach:
- Decide on a simple new habit you’d like to adopt
- Choose a daily action that will support this habit
- Plan when and where you will consistently perform the action
- Every time you encounter that time and place, do the action. No exceptions.
In as quickly as 10 weeks, you’ll notice that what once felt uncomfortable action, now feels difficult not to do. You may also notice that your desire to perform the previous habit – the “old path” – has dissipated.
Harnessing the power of your thoughts for change
Your thinking also plays a huge role in changing behavior.
Like our habits, our thinking patterns are a product of years of reinforcement.
Do any of these sound familiar?
“I’m not good at learning new things”
“I’m terrible at giving presentations”
“I always quit when things become difficult”
“I’m just not smart enough to keep up”
“I just love junk food too much to ever give it up”
Often, these thought patterns play in the background of our minds, hindering our ability to fully embrace new habits and behaviors. However, if you’re able to harness these thinking patterns for your own positive development, you’ll find that habit-forming becomes exponentially easier using this brain science approach.
But first, you must identify these thinking patterns for what they are.
Developed through a study of the principles of neuroplasticity, the Think-X Discover Profile is designed to help you identify the hidden thought patterns– or “root source thinking”– that either empower or obstruct your efforts to grow. Our ability to change is rooted in this brain science.
Unlike a traditional “personality test”, where persons are categorized according to personality, intelligence, and behaviors, Think-X actually helps you measure, and correct counterproductive thinking.
Here’s what some Think-X users have had to say:
“It’s a win/win in each column: Diagnostic tools combined with great coaching for someone looking to improve.”
Lew Walker, SPHR, Principal, KL HR advisors
“Think-X gives everyone a systematic way to level up their thinking to enable more productive behavior and results.”
Beth Davis, Founder, The Llewellin Groups, LLC
“I now believe that people can change from any state…Think-X helps because it gives a viewpoint of definable performance drivers to set goals to. These are the keys to get from where you are to where you want to be. Most people never get the tools to make change happen.”
Jim E., Zebra Technologies
Want to learn more? Check out the Think-X Discover Profile here.
- Norcross, J. C., Mrykalo, M. S., & Blagys, M. D. (2002). Auld lang syne: success predictors, change processes, and self-reported outcomes of New Year’s resolvers and nonresolvers. Journal of clinical psychology, 58(4), 397–405. https://doi.org/10.1002/jclp.1151
- Psychology Today. “What Is Neuroplasticity?”
- Mundkur N. (2005). Neuroplasticity in children. Indian journal of pediatrics, 72(10), 855–857. https://doi.org/10.1007/BF02731115
- Pauwels, L., Chalavi, S., & Swinnen, S. P. (2018). Aging and brain plasticity. Aging, 10(8), 1789–1790. https://doi.org/10.18632/aging.101514
- Lally P, Wardle J, Gardner B. Experiences of habit formation: a qualitative study. Psychol Health Med. 2011 Aug;16(4):484-9. doi: 10.1080/13548506.2011.555774. PMID: 21749245.
- Miller, K. J., Shenhav, A., & Ludvig, E. A. (2019). Habits without values. Psychological Review, 126(2), 292–311