Behaviour change is hard. Anyone who has ever tried to stick to their New Year's resolutions knows how difficult it is. 25% give up within a week. The chance of sustainable change is 20% at most. That means 80% of us will never change. Why is change so hard?
Change is hard because it takes energy. 95% of everything we think, feel and do is automatic. The reason is that automated processes cost less energy.
Our brain does everything possible to conserve energy because it is needed to survive. As a result, only 5% of our choices are conscious.
How can I change?
Just because change is difficult does not mean it is impossible. Change becomes more manageable when we understand how our brain works. Only then can we influence our brains. This gives us more control over what happens to us and ultimately more grip on our lives.
Three brains that's shape our lives.
Our brain is made up of 3 brains:
- The reptile brain/survival brain
- The mammalian/limbic brain
- The human brain/thinking brain/neocortex
Each brain affects behaviour differently. In a nutshell:
The reptile brain does what it is used to.
The mammalian brain does what feels good and is palatable.
The neocortex brain justifies what the other two do.
It sounds like our brains do what they want with us. And it does! Until we become aware of it and start expanding the influence of our human brain.
But first, we learn precisely how each brain influences us.
Our brains do what they want to us. Until the moment we become aware of it and take control.
You will only get optimal and lasting behavioural change if you make the change on three different layers. These layers correspond to the three different parts of your brain.
The reptile brain
The reptile brain is 500 million years old and includes the brain stem and spinal cord. The same brain as a snake, crocodile or turtle, for example.
The reptile brain regulates all automatic processes, such as:
- body temperature
In doing so, the reptile brain ensures that humans do not go extinct. In the reptile brain, we also find the survival mechanism:
and strangely enough, also all our habits. Habits are automatic processes. We have repeated certain actions so many times that they now come naturally.
Habits are actions stored forever in our reptilian brain. We always do it the same way. We are used to it. We don't have to think about it. It happens automatically. The reptilian brain takes over from us. We are programmed for certain behaviour.
A small trigger can activate this programme. We don't control it. We keep repeating this behaviour even though it has negative consequences for us. At least, until we become aware of it and intervene in time.
The mammalian/limbic brain
The mammalian brain, also called the limbic system, is 200 million years old. The same brain as a dog, cat or horse, for example.
The mammalian brain regulates:
- social behaviour
As a result, it is sensitive to punishment and reward. If something feels good or is tasty, the mammalian brain will be motivated to repeat it. If it does not feel good or is not tasty, the mammalian brain will stop doing it. It does not matter whether something is healthy or unhealthy. When smoking feels good, our mammalian brain will motivate us to smoke. When broccoli tastes gross, we will ignore it.
The reptile brain and the mammalian brain act subconsciously.
They go for immediate satisfaction of needs so that the species survives. They know no language and cannot think. So reptiles and lower mammals are not aware of what they are doing, and they do not think about it. The same happens to us when we don't use our human brain. So in 95% of all cases.
The human brain/thinking brain/neocortex
The human brain is officially called the neocortex and is 100 to 200 thousand years old. It is a man's computer. The human brain enables us to use language and to think.
It controls complicated processes such as analysing, structuring and ordering. It allows us to delay gratification. Thanks to the human brain, we can set goals and have opinions, norms and values. If the behaviour fits within our norms and values and feels good, it is repeated, otherwise not.
When health is essential to us and eating vegetables feels good, we keep repeating it. When not, then not.
Returning to change processes, we need to take three steps to ensure that a change is implemented effectively and permanently.
- First, we must activate our neocortex to set a clear, measurable, positive goal. Indeed, motivation is crucial. The attitude we need to change is: It doesn't feel right, and I'll do it anyway. Because it won't always feel right. Change is mental fitness training.
- The limbic system does not work based on rational arguments, but it does work with feelings. So to make a change in our lives, we need to anchor our limbic system with a 'good feeling' that evokes the adjustment. So not just the head should speak, but your heart should feel. What helps is to keep a picture of the future (a kind of Postcard) in front of you, which you can recall, when you are having a bit of a hard time
- The above two tasks are NOT enough to anchor lasting change. This is because we need to convince our reptilian brain that the adjustment is good for you. We can only achieve this by repeating the change many times. To help my students, I speak here of three separate steps.
a) Find a time when you want to practise (e.g. Tai Chi), which could be in the morning, afternoon or evening. Choose one time of day, it doesn't matter which one.
b) Then find a ritual that you already do at that time anyway. For example, you brush your teeth before bed. You do this automatically without thinking about it. This is an excellent existing ritual.
c) Then decide that you will do your exercises just before or after the existing ritual. After a while, the movements themselves will also become a regular ritual.