Kathy Whelan

Posted on June 05, 2018

I recently took an Uber ride with a talkative driver who asked about my work. Hearing about my health coaching, he shared his feeling of failure for not sticking to a daily workout routine even though the gym is in the building where he lives.

It’s a familiar pattern for many people. We join a gym. We set ambitious goals and succeed for a while, then somehow it all falls apart. We blame ourselves for lacking willpower, as my Uber driver did. Or we blame our jobs or other people – or the weather or any number of other things - for sabotaging our plans. But blaming and shaming get us nowhere and make it even harder to start over.

Here's why achieving new goals is so difficult. Scientists have learned that habitual behaviors create neural pathways in the brain that form when brain cells connect with one another as actions are repeated. Over time, these repeated behaviors become “auto-pilots,” behaviors our brains jump to without our having to think. My driver admitted that he starts watching TV as soon as he gets home from work without even thinking what else he might do. It’s not that he’s a willpower-lacking loser. We are human, and our brains are hard-wired for habits. And habits are hard to break.

There’s good news, though: lasting change is possible if we go about it the right way.

Because our brains are wired for habits, we have to re-wire them in order to change. First, we need to be mindful of what we are doing now. As he thought about it, my driver noticed that going to bed late had become a habit that sapped energy he might have had for working out the next day. That was an important connection between sleep and exercise, one he hadn’t made before.

Once we notice our current behavior, we can choose a new behavior to replace it and break our goals into small, well-considered steps. I asked my driver what might have happened if his goal had been going to bed earlier and working out only two days a week. He thought for a minute then said he’d probably have persisted longer.

“But is that enough exercise?” he asked. My guess is that after a month or so of working out two days a week, he would have added another day, then another and maybe another. Patience with ourselves is key, and it’s easier to be patient when we think of these changes as habits for the rest of our lives, not just for the short term.

By practicing new behaviors over three to six months, we can begin to form new neural pathways. Given enough time, our brains will re-wire and we will have new habits that become stronger the longer we practice them, eventually becoming default behaviors that require little thought at all.

If my ride had lasted longer, I would have talked to my Uber driver about making his goals very specific as to time of day, day of week, and so on. But before I could, we were at my destination. My driver thanked me as I left the car. He said our short coaching session had helped, and he’d try again to go to the gym. I believe he will.

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