Have you ever tried to change a behavior or habit and failed? It’s because you must first reprogram your brain.
Because behavior change has been based on an idea that ‘something’ needs to change – losing weight, exercising more, procrastinating less – we assume we merely need to, well, change the behavior. But I’m here to tell you it’s not possible to change a behavior by trying to change a behavior. You won’t stop smoking by trying to stop smoking. Or lose weight by trying to lose weight.
It’s not because of your intent, or your dedication, or any unconscious issues. It’s because your brain is already programmed to cause the behaviors it’s programmed to cause and your intention does not change your brain. Indeed, as soon as your brain hears ‘It’s time for a diet!’ Or ‘I’m going to schedule a lunchtime walk into my day this time!’ it goes down the existing ‘superhighway’ of neural connections and delivers the same outcomes you’ve always gotten. Let me explain.
Before a behavior is a behavior it’s a series of signals sent from an initiating idea down your existing neural pathways that get translated, ultimately, into a final action. In other words, a behavior is an output, the final stage in a series of steps that begin with an input. And as an output it cannot be changed. I know that’s blasphemy. But hear me out.
Let’s say you purchase a forward-moving robot and after a while you’d like it to also move backwards. You tell it to move backwards, you push it backwards, and you even show it a video of other backwards-moving robots. Nope. To get it to move backwards it must be reprogrammed.
And so with a behavior: to end up with a new output we must enter a wholly new input that will create new neural circuitry.
Using the conventional thinking – that merely wanting to change, telling ourselves to change, creating disciplined approaches, will cause change – there is no way change. Trying trying trying and pushing pushing pushing to get the new habits or actions to take hold doesn’t work. Research has shown Behavior Modification to be 3% effective.
But it’s possible to reprogram your brain and create new neural circuitry that creates any new behavior you desire. And it will be permanent.
THE IMPORTANCE OF SYSTEMS
I’ve been unpacking brain change my entire life. When I was a kid with undiagnosed Asperger’s, I couldn’t figure out how to change my behaviors to do what others did. I tried for years. Eventually I realized I had to change my brain first. So I devoted my life to figuring out how to change my brain to get whatever output I desired.
Early on I realized the importance of systems in change: all cultures, individual and group environments – the status quo – exist as a system of rules and norms that keep the status quo in place. Indeed, a system is just a group of elements that adhere to the same rules. I’m a system, you’re a system, our families are systems, our workplaces and companies are systems.
For any change to occur, for new behaviors to take hold, the new must match the norms of the system it lives in or the system will resist. If you attempt to change an old habit your brain will merely go down its historic circuitry and offer the same results you got before as the route has become a superhighway.
Changing habits and behaviors requires new neural circuitry and a (new) route to generate new output. As I’ve said, once there’s an output, it can’t be changed. If you program a red table to emerge from a plastics machine, you can’t change it into a chair unless you start from the beginning with new programming. Once it’s a table it’s a table.
And so it is with brains. The point to remember is that systems do NOT judge ‘right’ or ‘wrong’. The path between the input and output is merely circuitry – signals, axons, dendrons, synapses – and there is no meaning involved outside what we give it. So the results of your last diet are built in and set up with no judgment as to whether or not it was successful or not. The status quo is merely what has been used and agreed-to.
Once I realized new programming was needed to create new neural circuitry, I spent quite some time figuring out the steps all brains take when a thought enters our mind.
Some of it is based in neuroscience. But ultimately neuroscience omits the underlying ‘how’ and insists on merely addressing the output. Here are the steps to the creation of new neural circuitry to achieve permanent behavior change:
The most vital factors to include in any change are the underlying beliefs and norms. These actually form the foundation of the rules the system adheres to. It’s obvious when listening to someone’s political views – you may disagree, and have the actual facts to prove the Other wrong, but those will not sway them and your facts will be misinterpreted, ignored, or denied in service of maintaining the status quo. It’s the same reason you end up ‘failing’ on a quest to lose weight because your system will maintain the existing pathway.
For change to occur, it’s necessary to begin with the baseline norms. Unfortunately, most of us aren’t consciously aware of ours. I’ve broken them down in a How of Change™ program so it’s possible to create a hierarchy of norms to choose from during the pathway creation process.
This link provides a program syllabus and a one hour sample video of the 5 part program https://sharondrewmorgen.com/the-how-of-change/) that leads you through every step necessary to consciously build a new neural pathway.
As you’ll see, it’s far easier to develop a new neural pathway to provide a different output than it is to try and try to change one that already exists and provides historic outputs.
Doctors and healthcare providers would do well to learn this model and enable patients to design new pathways to new permanent, and more healthful, behaviors instead of attempting to push their own agendas onto patients; leaders and change agents could lead groups through to their own brand of success rather than bias the change with assumptions that don’t work for that group; coaches could go beyond their own ‘intuition’ (which I define as biased judgment) and pose Facilitative Questions to lead Others to their own best answers.
For those interested in discussing the topic further, please contact me: firstname.lastname@example.org.