This Mental Shift Helps You Stay Consistent With Your Plans
I have a friend, Chris, who is seriously overweight. He’s been claiming he needs to lose weight for a few years now. And it turns out he knows what to do to get there.
Each week, he struggles to get out of the house and walks 7000 steps in the morning. He eats moderately throughout the day, mostly plain steaks and salads. No alcohol.
The problem is, however, that every other weekend, he’s visiting his in-laws. And there, he indulges himself into eating what is probably the equivalent of half a pig, along with rivers of wine. Because swine rhymes with wine, he says.
By Monday, the scale would close its eyes as he steps on it. He would curse and get back to his healthy weekly routine, only to make the same mistakes the next time he’ll get the chance.
What Is Wrong With Chris?
I’m sure he really, really wants to lose weight and stay healthy. He clearly knows what he needs to do. But there he is, failing at it with flying colors.
If you’d ask James Clear, author of Atomic Habits, of this bizarre behavior, he’d tell you — it’s not him, it’s his brain putting him through all these hurdles.
Turns out my friend Chris hasn’t convinced his brain yet that he’s a person with healthy eating habits. He wants to become such a person but hasn’t informed his brain on it yet.
James Clear shows us what it means to let your brain know about your plans. He uses a simple example of someone trying to quit smoking.
Imagine you haven’t smoked in a few days. Someone offers you a cigarette. What words will come out of your mouth?
Would you say — No, thank you, I’m trying to quit. I haven’t smoked in 5 days, 3 hours, and 25 minutes!
Or would you say — No, thank you, I don’t smoke!
Those who never smoked in their life will use the second answer without even blinking. It’s their identity, after all. And they will use it to justify their behavior. Not only that, but their words align with their actions and with the said identity, as they pass on the offer.
Those who recently quit smoking, however, will probably not even think to say such a thing. They don’t have the identity of a nonsmoker, even though it’s the identity they are striving to reach.
Attaching the right identity to our words pushes us to align our actions with it more efficiently. Ultimately, it breaks the resistance our brains are wired to.
Actions Speak Louder Than Words, but They’re Still Brain-Controlled
Long before James Clear, Robert Cialdini demonstrated, in Influence — The Psychology of Persuasion —, that people will tune their behaviors to the identity they think others will attribute them.
Cialdini quotes studies indicating how people who think of themselves as philanthropists and who want to be perceived as such in their communities will feel ashamed of not donating when the occasion arises.
It doesn’t matter what you say; it matters what you do. And what you think of yourself is what drives your actions. When your actions are not in line with your plans, you need to start thinking of yourself as the person who is capable of living by those plans.
Shortly put, when you know what you want and how to get it, the missing link is to tell your brain that you’re already there.
This simple mindshift will make it easier for you to stick to the right actions and prove that you indeed are the person you want to become, even when you’re still on the road to it.
(Un)Fortunately, Our Smart Brains Are That Dumb When It Comes To Change
This is no magic and no gimmick. It’s your brain that puts less resistance to change once you keep telling yourself that you’re the kind of person who does the things you need to do — like a nonsmoker in Clear’s example, or a healthy eater, in my friend’s example.
Otherwise, the human brain is meant to resist change.
Your brain thinks change is not comfortable. It’s because change requires using extra energy and it needs to preserve that energy for what it “thinks” would matter more. Until you convince your brain that it has to support you in making the change, it won’t budge.
You must have heard this before: force yourself to smile, and you’ll start feeling better. It’s scientifically proven that your brain starts releasing feel-good hormones when your lips are smiling, even if you’re holding a pen between your teeth.
From this perspective, our smart brains are that dumb. And you can take this and translate it into convincing your brain to embrace your new identity.
What Are You Supposed To Make of All This Information?
Take some time and give your plans a really good thought. You need to know yourself. Be realistic about who you are, what you want to achieve, what are the mistakes you’ve been making so far, and what pushes you off track.
Put down on a piece of paper:
- The actions that help you achieve your goal;
- The situations that typically make you lose track of the right path;
- The ways you could avoid situations that deter your progress;
- The identity you want to associate yourself with.
My friend Chris has quite a list of steps to take throughout the week, in order to eat moderately and the right foods. The situations that are making it worse for him are related to weekends and some occasional social events throughout the week.
He could try to reduce his attendance at such social events for a couple of months. Just like it would help him stay away from party animals and surround himself with people who are more conscious about their health, and better-tempered.
Yet, the one thing that will make this whole process easier is to talk to his brain about his new identity as often as possible. His new identity — the one he strives for — could be defined as:
I’m a conscious eater;
I have healthy eating habits;
I respect my body enough to avoid overindulgence;
I eat healthily;
I eat moderately.
Or anything else that describes the lifestyle he is working on.
To Wrap It Up
With any new habit you want to instill, you need to:
1.Identify the steps that take you there;
2.Find the persons who help you stay on that path and spend time with them;
3.Identify the actions and persons that keep you away from adopting the new habit and avoid them at all costs;
4.Start talking about yourself as if you’re already there, whenever confronted with a situation that puts your new habit to test.
Letting your brain know about the change doesn’t imply sitting in front of the mirror all day long and telling yourself the phrases that will miraculously hypnotize you into embracing the new habit. It’s much simpler than that.
You don’t need to tell yourself a thousand times a day that you’re a conscious eater. When someone offers you a bag of chips, remember to say to them — no, thank you, I only eat healthy snacks.
What happens when you say these magic words is that:
- Suddenly, you will feel a boost of energy and motivation to stay away from those oily chips, having your confidence glass refilled.
- You’ll realize everyone in the room just heard you saying you only eat healthily. So now, you won’t have the courage to reach out for that bag even if you feel the urge. It will make you look ridiculous, and who wants that?
That’s how you train your brain to be on your side and help you stick with consistent behaviors that push you forward.
If you’d like to give this simple exercise a try and experience its benefits firsthand, I’d love to know what habit you’re trying to adopt!