5:00 AM: ALARM BLARES. Snooze
5:05 AM: ALARM BLARES AGAIN. Snooze.
5:10 AM: ALARM DUTIFULLY BLARES AGAIN. You reach out from under the covers, rip out the plug, and throw the alarm across the room.
7:00 AM: You wake up, realizing that all of the plans you had the night before to get up early and start your day, to exercise, strategize, pray or read are all gone as you rush through the morning to get to work.
11:00 PM: You pass by the cabinet. You look in, and the bag of chips is staring right at you.
11:05 PM: You pass by again and take a peek.
11:10 PM: You reach your hand into the bag and take one chip.
11:30 PM: The bag is half empty and as the digestive disgust sets in, you realize that the diet that you have been working on is at risk of being upended by your lack of discipline.
Has this, or something similar, happened to you? Why?
How is it that we can create clear goals and plans, but when the actual moment to execute arrives we can’t seem to follow through?
It’s because of our mental triggers.
What do I mean?
Before I explain, lets digress to understand how our brain works, with an excerpt from Unlocking Greatness (goo.gl/tevWGm):
What the study of neuroplasticity tells us is that the brain changes itself and adapts itself through one remarkable channel: our thoughts.
There are billions of neurons in our minds, forming complex neural maps that enable us to function as human beings. Some of these neurons were interconnected from birth, enabling us to survive. No one has to teach a newborn to breathe or cry or suck. They are born with those skills and have the corresponding neural connections to go with it.
There are, however, neurons that are not connected. Those neurons depend on our experiences in order to get connected. How do they do that? Through thought. Thoughts connect neurons to each other, remapping our brain to adapt to new knowledge, language, and skills as we navigate through life.
For those who are interested in the finer science of it, here’s an oversimplification of a super-complex process. Neurons are separated by a space called the synaptic cleft. They exchange information by sending electrical or chemical messages, or neurotransmitters, across the synapse. When one neuron connects to another, it triggers an electrical impulse that causes the neuron to “fire.” As neurons fire repeatedly, molecular alterations occur in both of them and their relationship strengthens. Their connection grows stronger, and they eventually become wired together.
This concept, introduced by famed Canadian neuropsychologist Donald Hebb, is known as Hebb’s Law, and it’s summed up by the phrase, “Neurons that fire together, wire together.”
So when you have certain thoughts, a neuron gets connected to another neuron. The more you reinforce those thoughts, the stronger those connections get. So the simple act of thinking either makes new connections or fortifies your existing ones.
To help make sense of it, let’s take that concept all the way back to childhood.
The reason I can look at a round object and say “ball” isn’t because I was born gifted in the English language. It’s because when I was little and pointed to the round object in my room, my parents said “ball.” So I repeated “ball.” At that moment, my brain created a thin neurological connection between the object and the word ball. Since I grew up around people speaking English, the word and the object were reinforced so many times that now in my brain, there is a rock-solid connection. If you woke me up in the middle of the night and showed me a basketball and asked if I knew what it was, I would not hesitate. I wouldn’t have to Google it. I would automatically say “ball.”
On the other hand, if I thought about something just once or twice and then stopped thinking about it, the neuro connection would start to weaken and eventually disappear. That’s why it is possible to forget certain words entirely. That’s also why we do not remember most of what we learned in high school. Unless those subjects are part of your career or personal interests, chances are you haven’t interacted with that information since you passed your final exam. I know that if you were to give me a periodic table today, I would be lost. I would probably be able to find the O for oxygen and the H for hydrogen (maybe), but that’s it. It’s not because I am handicapped in chemistry (although my sophomore year grades may have indicated that possibility), it’s because I haven’t looked at anything remotely close to chemistry since then. My brain, after forming a thin connection to the periodic table, dissolved it.
How Habits Form
Neuroplasticity explains how we learn things in life. But it also explains our habits. That is why during moments of stress, some of us bite our nails, run to the fridge or engage in destructive behavior. It’s not because we were born this way; it’s because we acted this way once, then again. And again. Over time, a neuro-connection builds between the trigger (stress, boredom) and the action (eating, scrolling).
When you find yourself unstimulated for a moment, maybe you are alone in an elevator, on line in a store or even driving in the car, what happens? In the past, we used the think. Now, there is a new trigger. It’s the phone. The smart phone is designed to give you a quick hit of stimuli whenever you need. Go to it once and a thin neuro-connection forms. Do it 40-50 times and day and there is a rock solid connection between an absence of stimuli and the need to check your phone.
Many of the destructive behaviors that people engage it are the result of neuroplasticity. Your brain adapts to what you do and think, regardless of its benefit or detriment to your life.
Back to the Morning
So why can’t you wake up at 5:00 AM? And why can’t you ignore the bag of chips at 11:00 PM?
It’s because when you go to bed at night, you objectively understand why you should wake up early but that clarity is not going up against actual neuroplasticity. You see that waking up at 5:00 AM could be a great thing – you start your day fresh, you can work, pray, and be productive. However, in your brain is a strong neuro-connection between feeling tired and staying in bed. The trigger of feeling tired has led to the action of going back to sleep so many times that the connection is rock solid.
The same goes for the chips. The reason you keep on poking at that bag is because chances are, if you are on a diet, eating poorly is the behavior you are trying to fix. So, during the day, you may be busy or have more self-discipline. But at the end of a long day, you get that feeling of hunger (or boredom0 and your brain has a neuro-connection between feeling hungry (or bored) and reaching for the tastiest choice in your vicinity. Go up against a rock-solid part of your brain at 11:00 PM and my money is on your brain.
So how do you break it? How do you overcome these negative triggers?
First, you need to realize that it’s not “you” – it’s your neuroplasticity.
That’s a key distinction. “You” don’t want to go back to bed. “You” don’t want to eat potato chips at night. Your brain has habituated that behavior. “You” are more manifest in those moments of clarity. Once you can disassociate yourself with your mental triggers, you find more strength to fight them.
Second, replace the trigger.
5:00 AM. You are exhausted but you fight it and get up. You go downstairs, have your cup of coffee, and begin your day. Somewhere in that period of time, you are going to feel great. You’ll feel like you accomplished something. You’ll feel like you are taking your day by storm. Most likely, that feeling with just pass by with no lasting impact. However, that feeling can be neurologically valuable.
Positive, empowering feelings create a new experience for your brain, a new neuro-connection your brain can work with. When you are sipping that hot cup of coffee and the house is quiet, make that moment intentional. Fully feel the warmth of the coffee going down. Fully appreciate your accomplishment. Fully enjoy the moment of alone time. As you enjoy the experience, your brain will create a neuro-connection between the 5:00 AM wakeup and those positive feelings.
So the next time the alarm goes off, it’s not just your resolutions from last night fighting against strong, legacy neuro-connections of going back to sleep. You now have a new neuro-pathway. The trigger (alarm) has a new result (feeling great by being awake) to look to. You are not fighting with sheer discipline alone, you are fighting with neuroplasticity. Now, it won’t be quick or easy, as you are going up against years of hitting the snooze button, but if you keep at it, your brain will eventually remind you although you are tired it feels great once you are up, and that will enable you to fight the desire to turn over and hide under the covers.
The same applies to dieting: you need to celebrate each moment of success. If your clothes fit a drop better. If you are less winded when climbing the stairs. If you feel healthier at the end of your day. When you feel any progress, slow down and feel pride in your accomplishment. Enjoy the moment. Enjoy what it feels like to not be addicted to unhealthy food, because when you do that, you are creating a new trigger. The new trigger is now enjoyment of feeling fit. Sign up for sports or a marathon. Put yourself in a position where you are going to savor the experience of being healthy, so that when you get to the trigger of hunger or boredom, as opposed to having that connect to eating whatever is in sight, your brain has another path, another memory, a better experience to reference that will enable you to make smarter choices.
Most people mistakenly assume that the only way to break negative behavior is through discipline. That proposition is only half true.
You need discipline, but you also need to replace your bad triggers with better ones. As you do that, you can start to create entirely new, better neuro-connections.
How? Through the process of establishing proper rituals.
We’ll delve into that in future posts.