Most everyone knows New Year’s Resolutions don’t last yet we insist on continuing to make them only to resolve to one thing…breaking our resolution.
In fact, studies show that despite knowing we will likely fail at keeping them, most Americans continue to make a resolutions at the turn of each new year with the number one resolution made being to lose weight and get healthier.
Sadly, however, most all resolutions fail by the end of January and most don’t even see the 15th of the month. And so, another year passes and our health once again gets put on hold.
Well…science is shedding new light on how we can actually make changes in our life AND make them stick.
Making Change Stick
One of the most difficult things to do in the world is to change people’s behavior.
If you don’t believe me, just think of God’s perspective. Take a visit through the historical accounts in the Bible as God routinely gave mankind another chance after we repeatedly turned our backs on Him.
Regardless of the number of times we suffered the consequences of turning on God, we still didn’t change our behavior AND, every time God bailed mankind out, we went right back to our old ways of behaving.
So, to think that we can set a resolution at the turn of the year and magically undo years of behavior overnight is asking for the near impossible in most cases.
The good news is, research in neurology and behavioral sciences have shed light on brain function related to habits and behavior. This has given us new insights as to how we can not only make changes to our behavior but also make it stick so that it becomes a part of our life.
IF we want to make change in our life that will move us closer to losing weight, improving our health or for that matter changing any habit, then wouldn’t you agree that we would be wise to work WITH the wiring of our brains rather than against it?
Simple Does Not Mean Easy!
Having worked with patients and clients for over two decades I can tell you firsthand that what seems to be a simple, no-brainer decision to change a person’s behaviors affecting their health often times can be the most difficult and frustrating undertaking of their life.
What research is teaching us now though is an approach to behavioral change that seems so simple on its surface that one might have a tendency to discount it as too simplistic but, when we look at the neurology behind the process and implement tactics that work WITH our brains rather than against, then we can tap into the enormous power of focus that God has given us.
Changing YOUR Life
There are two ways our life changes; either something new comes into our life or something new comes out of us. When it comes to health I think you would agree that making the decision to change your health ON YOUR OWN is a better alternative to having the decision made for you by something like a massive heart attack, developing diabetes, or finding out you have cancer.
In other words, let’s do this on our terms, not because we encounter a crisis. Problem is, we have formed such strong, well developed habits around behaviors affecting our health that to make a change voluntarily can sometimes be a real challenge.
I mean, who doesn’t know we should eat more fruits and vegetables, drink more water, be more active and avoid the bad stuff? Yet, we persist in continuing to do what we know we shouldn’t rather than doing what we know we should largely due to the habitual nature of our life.
Roughly half of all our activities each day are a habit. In other words half of what we do each day we don’t even have to think about. Like driving to work, getting there and not even remembering that you left the house…scary. That also means much of our behaviors affecting our health are habits as well. The trick is to have habits that support better health become habitual.
The Habit Routine: Trigger → Action → Reward
How often have you engaged in a routine similar to this…
It’s 3:30 on Wednesday and it seems like you have been at work for an eternity. The only thing that seems longer than your day thus far is the last 90 minutes you have to tolerate before quitting time. So, you reach for the usual Diet Coke to help you get through the rest of your day because 5:00 just seems like an eternity away. As you sip on those first few drinks and let the bubbles dance across your tongue and down your throat you feel a new sense of energy and tolerance for the people and world around you. Now, you think to yourself, it’s only 90 minutes to quitting time…I can handle that…
Habits are simply behaviors we engage in with little to no thought. Those behaviors are initiated by a trigger and then re-enforced by a reward. For example, reaching for that Diet Coke every afternoon around the same time is triggered by the same condition or feeling most every day. There is a trigger that initiates your reaching for the Diet Coke such as a sense of boredom, feeling lethargic and tired or maybe a sense of entitlement because you have almost survived one more day putting up with the people you work with. Whatever it is, it is likely the same trigger every single time. Identifying that trigger can help you kick a bad habit and replace it with a more healthy one.
That trigger spurs you to take an action. In this case it’s putting that bubbly brown nectar down your throat and enjoy the satisfying reward of all those bubbles, the pick me up from the caffeine and the break in the mundane routine of your day. And so, your brain registers the “feel good” you received from the daily treat, the reward, and starts to create a habit loop in your brain’s wiring that can soon become an addiction. And before you know it, you would rather peel off a finger nail than say goodbye to your daily Diet Coke.
Your brain has become so focused on getting that feel-good hit each day that no matter how hard you try, NOT having the Diet Coke is simply NOT an option. The power of your brain to focus on getting something has struck again, only this time it’s your health that suffers.
But how do we develop such strong habits that seem to have a hypnotic power over us? And, is there a way we can harness the power of this phenomenon to our benefit?
The culprit behind the development of these “automatic” behaviors is called the Trigger → Action → Reward (TAR) Loop and it has the power to make our life amazing or miserable. In fact, it is so powerful that it literally controls half of our life and sometimes even more!
What we need to do is learn how to use the power of the TAR Loop to create behaviors that help us. If we can figure this out, we can take those resolutions and literally change our life in ways we never thought possible.
Fortunately, with what we now know about human behavior and neurology we can harness the power of the TAR Loop to turn those Resolutions into Real-Solutions.
- Decide on one healthy action you want to start making a habit. Make it simple and small. An example would be to drink more water during the day, or move more, or practice being grateful.
- Identify a trigger. A trigger is something that you will tie or link your new healthy behavior to. The best triggers are something that you already do on a regular basis without thinking about. A great example is going to the bathroom, or your phone ringing at work or simply entering the door to your office.
- Reward yourself. To make any habit loop stick, there MUST be a reward for your brain to latch on to. It’s the release of the “feel good hormone” dopamine in our brain that re-enforces our behaviors. This doesn’t need to be a big deal, in order to get your brain to take notice. Some of the most effective ways are to keep score on a scorecard for yourself. I will show you an example of this later.
- Combine steps 1-3 into your own Trigger → Action → Reward loop!
Here are two real life examples of patients that have used this with great success:
Tom wanted to start doing more stretches for his back and neck and in general wanted to move more during his day rather than sit so much. He decided that every time he used the restroom (trigger) he would then do some stretches for his back (action). Everytime he did this he would place a check mark on his scorecard and say “good job Tom” (reward). Mary wanted to drink more water during the day because she knew if she did she would gradually stop drinking so much coffee and soda. So, she decided that every time she checked her email at work (trigger) she would take a drink of water (action). She would then keep a tally sheet right by her computer that she would keep score on every day (reward).
Below is an example of Tom’s scorecard that he would simply place a big X in the box when he did the stretches or a dash sign “—” when he didn’t.
|Week of: / /||Monday||Tuesday||Wednesday||Thursday||Friday||Saturday||Sunday|
|WEEKLY GOAL:||ACTUAL %___|
The trick here is to make the scorecard meaningful to you. If you prefer to give yourself a star or an A+ when you succeed and a sad-face or F when you don’t, then do that. The point is to reward yourself with a pat on the back each time you win.
Look, change is simple, but it most certainly is not always easy, especially when it comes to our health. Learning how to tie new behaviors to things we already do and taking small steps is most times the easiest way toward making massive life changes.
Rome wasn’t built in a day and, it didn’t fall in a day so, don’t discount the impact small steps have over a period of time. If you put into practice the strategy of the Trigger → Action → Reward Loop, then by next year at this time you will have not only accomplished a number of resolutions but, you will have implemented a lot of real-solutions!
Remember, it’s YOUR health…FIGHT for it!
Mason Orth, DC
HealthSource Chiropractic and Progressive Rehab & Wellness