It’s the evening of January 2. You come home from work. No reason to be exhausted, as you’ve been sitting on your butt doing administrative paper work all day. Last night’s mental hand shake with yourself to put your new year’s resolutions to work right away is still ringing in your head. But when you open the door to your home, your one hand magically finds the TV remote control, and the other hand grabs the bar of chocolate from the fridge. Two minutes later, the reliving sound of your latest Netflix addiction makes an intriguing background noise to the sound of Zin you’re pouring into a wine glass.
Sounds familiar? Here’s a fun stat that might make you feel less alone with this: Although 62% of Americans make some kind of New Year’s resolutions, only 8% are successful in constantly achieving them! You might wonder why I’m talking about all of this more than a month in advance. Well, if you want to be amongst the 8% next year, you will need to start getting ready now! There’s a fairly high chance that your current setup will not even allow for your resolutions to be successful from the start. Willpower has no chance without you being ready for it with the right shape and the right habits. And you will need every bit of the next six weeks to build these very rationally to be prepared.
Before I get into more detail, I will make a basic assumption that I hope most of you will agree with. Our body is a vessel for our soul. This vessel is regulated and managed by the most powerful thing in the human experience: our brain. Now here’s the dilemma. According to studies, only 5% of our brain is conscious thinking, while 95% are automated. That means that most of our brain’s activity is absolutely beyond our conscious control, and guided by its most important job: Protect the vessel, and ensure survival.
Much of what we think we are as a person is actually a protective shell of learned reactions. Our brain has subconsciously created powerful control mechanisms through fear, cravings and emotions to guide our behavior. But here’s the catch. This primeval part of our brain has not kept up with the recent changes in our environment. We’re still primed to run from the tiger! And without wanting to go into too much detail on this, one thing becomes absolutely clear. The subconscious “ego” that our brain has built with great effort and the best intentions over many years is actually working against us in today’s world.
Let’s tie it back to how we can consciously generate change and make our brain our friend again. You need to take conscious control of the top three most important things you can do to influence those 95%. And, you need to do it before you can actively initiate change.
(1) Shape up the vessel yourself! Lessen the brain’s burden to ensure survival by consciously caring for your body. That means firstly to follow a very thought-through diet to nurture your body and protect your brain. Avoid dairy and processed carbs, eat only few grains and sweet fruits, consume tons of veggies, protein and unsaturated fats. It’s tough to change, I know, but take it step by step, and as much as you can! And secondly, get that body moving! Aerobic exercise is the number one thing to ensure brain health and functioning! It doesn’t necessarily have to be boot camps or weight lifting. 30-60 minutes of simply fast-walking will already get you in the right spot.
If you do this consistently every day, two things will happen: You educate your body to crave the right diet and become very efficient with food and metabolism. You put an end to your body constantly being in survival mode, craving sugar and carbs. And finally, your body will feel strong and save, your mind calm, energized, and your brain is freed and healthy to concentrate on the right stuff.
(2) Create the right habits consciously to help your subconscious! It’s as simple as this: If you don’t create habits consciously, your subconscious will do it for you. Your choice! We are primed to automate as many of our decisions as possible to keep our brain and will power for the important things. Choose wisely what and how you automate!
The trick is to first realize the trigger-response mechanism* and everything that works in between. Let’s take the chocolate bar. What are the triggers that push your automated behavior? What happens in your subconscious mind when the automated response is generated? You probably want to make a certain feeling stop. The chocolate and wine is a fast and easy way to do that, but it’s not sustainable and it causes you harm. So how can you substitute the subconscious response with another? Take a walk around the block for example?
This approach can literally change your life, and the best thing about it is that you get better at it the more you practice. Start with small things, but remember, you need at least 21 days of constant follow-through to establish that practice.
(3) Expose your subconscious to the right influences! Avoid passive and shallow relaxation like public TV, it does you more harm than good. Build a meditation practice to be able to detect and be aware of your subconscious auto-pilot. Learn to love your monkey mind and come to peace with it! Use the right music to get your brain into the right mood and waves. Expose yourself to positive influences including the right environment, the right people, the right job. Do the right things, and feel good about them. And read, read, read!
Last but not least, allow enough time to dream and to be grateful. One of the most powerful brain hacks is that the subconscious can’t differentiate between reality and imagination. So make sure it’s constantly fed with the right input from both ends! Everything you can do to make the brain feel positive about your life and the world – do it! It’s not about being unrealistic or naive, but about managing the way your mind will deal with reality!
One more thing about willpower. It has long been treated as a finite resource, but a recent HBR article by Nir Eyal sums up ground-breaking new insights into the nature of it. If we think it’s finite, it is. But if we don’t, we immediately have more willpower at hand.
It’s all about if you can get your brain to work for instead of against you. If you keep to these three basic things, you will enable your mind and brain to create a fantastic life for you. Shape the vessel, build powerful habit, and feed your subconscious mind with the right information.
Best of luck, and see you on the other side on January 1!
* For anyone that is struggling with building habits, I can highly recommend Charles Duhigg’s ‘The Power of Habit’, or Jeremy Dean’s ‘Making Habits, Breaking Habits’