It’s that time of year when many of us reflect on the past and make our intentions for the future. Some call them New Years resolutions while others just use the start of a new year to make changes in their lives to address areas they feel could improve. More popular collective approaches are cropping up every year, from ‘dry January’ were you avoid alcohol for a month, to going vegan for a month and the ever-popular commitments we make to do more physical activity.

One of the most effective ways to set yourself up for a more productive, prosperous and pleasurable 2020 is to embark on a 30 Days of Change challenge. The idea is simple: Do something different in the way that you think and behave, every day for the month of January. It’s not as easy as that, however. The change needs to work on a subconscious habit or bias and change it. Depending on how meaningfully you do this, the effect could range from ‘interesting’ to ‘extremely uncomfortable’. Below is some insight into why this might be a better way to train your brain…

Whilst many are cynical of these approaches because they often do not result in long term change (over 70% of gym memberships bought in January are no longer used by March), there is an interesting element to the January changes that could work effectively if we understand the basic science a little bit more.

Our brain as a muscle

Our brain is neuroplastic, which essentially means that it can create new pathways and deconstruct broken or unhelpful ones through consistent action, behaviour and thought processes. This idea comes from the recovery of brain injuries, where the individuals brain works ‘around’ injured parts to regain function. The same principle is also behind the idea that we can reshape bad habits and create new ones, build ‘muscle memory’ as a movement in sports or playing an instrument, as well as continuously learn throughout our lives.

The fundamental principle behind this amazing ability we all possess, is the consistency required for new brain pathways to take form and ‘myelinate’. The more consistent the thought process or behaviour, the stronger the pathway. Since it is more efficient for the brain to use a pre-myleinated pathway, that becomes the first ‘go to’ route and a habit forms. It also explains why habits are so hard to break.

We also know that for habits to form we need to trigger a particular mental process and receive some sort of reward from the result. If the trigger and the reward are consistent the process (or behaviour) is reinforced. For example the habit of reaching for your phone, triggered by idle time, in order to find out what is going on in social media. The ‘reward’ may be FOMO appease or a mini dopamine kick for someone liking your recent post. These carrot and stick motivators are external and can control our behaviour subconsciously without us even noticing.

However when we break a habit or a routine we overcome these subconscious ‘automatic’ processes and we become mindful of what we are doing. We raise a subconscious behaviour to a conscious level when we recognise it and when we override it. Noticing I reach for the cookie jar when I’m feeling tired enables me to overcome my subconscious crave for sugary quick fixes. By noticing this urge before it happens, I now have a choice – proceed with eating the cookie or choose something healthier. This process of change requires some of simple steps:

A simple process

1) Notice, or be self aware of the habits you are repeating (you’ll be surprised how many there are! (probably 50% of your day is made up of repeat behaviours. Some say 90%!)

2) Halt the particular behaviour willingly. (This requires willpower, that also drains your dopamine stores and tires you out)

3) Be mindful of the next step, choosing the most helpful alternative to that behaviour.

4) Practice genuine gratitude for having taken control of your own mind to do what is the better option. (this gives you intrinsic motivation and a dose of positive chemicals that helps ingrain the new behaviour).

5) Repeat every day until the new habit sticks. It will eventually become the new subconscious way and you won’t need to use willpower to keep it going.

The 30 Days of Change challenge requires you to pick one particular ‘old’ behaviour that you would like to change, or create a new one that you’d like to keep. For example, getting up an hour earlier every day is a great way to add productivity to your life. An extra 365 days a year is a lot of time to do the things you never had time for. It may require you to go to bed an hour earlier to get enough sleep, so that is 2 changes you can make in day 1 and 2 of the challenge. This ‘new’ behaviour is then sustained for 30 days at least, hopefully it becoming a new habit. You must be consistent however, as it won’t form a new neural pathway in your brain if you break the cycle.

Day 3 might be to eat a healthy breakfast. Day 4 to take some of that hour gained to sit quietly and meditate. On Day 5 try do some exercise or go for a walk in break, Day 6 drink a cup of water every few hours, and so forth. Each time you make a change, you need to sustain it for at least the next 30 days.

These are general changes that you might take on, but the more effective ones at the changes in your particular behaviour that is only specific to you. If you are an introvert, you could make a change to talk to at least 1 new person every day, building up the courage to approach and strike up a conversation with co workers, the shop attendant, someone in the supermarket queue or at the local gym (which you started going to as one of your Day challenges!). This approach helps you create a new behaviour around one that may have hindered your ability to socialise or gain social traction. In the above principle however, you must create a reward for every time you do this, otherwise it won’t turn into a subconscious habit. One way of doing this is by keeping score. The idea of ‘gamification’ or keeping a rolling or cumulative score that you continuously strive to beat, encourages your brain to change and ‘level up’ just like in a video game.

Play games for motivation

Gamification can be applied to many of the changes in your 30 Days of Change Challenge. You just need to be a little bit creative. Count the new ingredients you have tasted over 30 days after taking on the challenge to explore new foods from around the world. Or foreign words you learn in a new language you take up as a ‘phrase a day’ for 30 days. Or use apps to score your sleep quality after you take the challenge to not use phone or tablet screens before you go to bed. More obvious ones are the number of steps you climb as you decide to use the stairs instead of the lift, and the calories you save by avoiding sugary treats. Each of these is a way to track progress as well as to create intrinsic rewards that will sustain the new habit. 

Create a simple diary with your new change planned in advance. This allows you to plan any requirements (like buying the ingredients for that healthy breakfast) beforehand so you are not stressed out by the change. The dairy is more effective if you declare the trigger and the reward in writing, for example noticing the urge to check your phone the first thing as you wake up, resisting that by doing some other activity (like stretching), and documenting your increased flexibility or calmer start of the day and how proud you are of your new mental strength, and the number of consecutive days you keep this going.

Be Creative

The most important aspect of this activity however, is the use of creativity to change. Creativity engages a lot of our brain and it helps produce the positive chemical and electrical responses that make us feel good. It helps our self esteem and motivation as well as our sensitivity to the beauty of the world around us. The second aspect is mindfulness. By bringing the subconscious into the conscious we take control of our minds and our lives. Finally, it’s fun because every day is a new challenge, and this element of fun drives us to repeat them and build resilience around change. With sustained practice will come in handy later on in the year if something unexpected forces us to have to change. Our brains will be much more open to it when the time comes.

We’d love to hear your thoughts on this and perhaps insights from your own change challenge on our facebook page.

ACTION: Participate in our 30-Day Change Challenge here simply by sharing what you want to change in 2020 and you could be the winner of a facilitated challenge programme by Up to help you smash your goals and achieve that change you want in 30 days. It only takes a minute:) Good luck!

Nathan Farrugia

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