Change is possible! You just have to be smart about it…
Is there such a thing as being too old to change? It’s a lot easier when we’re young, because our brains are yet to fully develop and there’s more flexibility. Past the age of 25, things are more solid and change becomes harder because the brain becomes prone to choosing the path of least resistance. “Human beings develop neural pathways, and the more we use those neural pathways over years and years and years, they become very stuck and deeply embedded, moving into deeper portions of the brain,” Deborah Ancona, professor of management and organizational studies at MIT, told ‘FastCompany’.
But there’s still hope for those of us who dream of learning a new language, or still haven’t given up hope of becoming one of those people who seem to genuinely love gruelling physical exercise. It will just be a little harder. It is certainly possible to train your brain into becoming less of a procrastinator, to play sports every week, or being more social, and there’s likely to be plenty of positive consequences of your new habit too. This is because opening yourself up to change may make you a better friend or a better business leader due to your increased flexibility and openness to new thinking.
So choose something you’d like to do – just one thing at a time – and consider these factors for tricking yourself into forming a good habit:
Physical fitness translates to mental fitness
If you are to have the energy to change deeply-set grooves in the brain, you need to look after the rest of the body as the brain sucks up a lot of nutrients. “Your brain will send its resources through the blood supply to areas that it can tell that you’re focusing attention and concentration on, or areas that you have a desire to put more energy into,” Tara Swart, senior lecturer at MIT and author of ‘Neuroscience for Leadership’, told ‘Fast Company’. So whatever it is you’re trying to achieve, it will be easier if you’re fed, fit and rested.
Avoid temptation by denying the battle
Any dieters out there need to be aware that decision fatigue is a real thing, and it sets in once you’re tired, hungry and have been at work too long. Decision fatigue is why we can be sensible with food all day, only to succumb to a chocolate bar on the way home when you’re tired and the brain refuses to spend any more energy on restraint. If this is a familiar 6pm temptation, do yourself a favour and have a piece of fruit at 5pm – why make it harder than it has to be?
Create patterns: If X, then Y
Another way to avoid the temptation to skip out on your new habit is to make decisions in advance. So for example, if you’re trying to learn a new language, decide that you will use the language app for ten minutes every time you get on a bus. Or if you’re trying to procrastinate less after lunch, try the Pomodoro technique: work for 25 minutes, take a 5 minute break, then start again. This one is surprisingly useful if you use an actual ticking kitchen timer – you soon start to associate the ticking with work.
Break down the task into manageable chunks
Practicing just ten minutes a day means it will take a while to learn Spanish, but it’s faster than learning for zero minutes which is what the result may be if you’re too much in a hurry. The same goes for physical exercise: ten minutes of running will do a world of good compared to no running at all. You can always increase it once you’re into it, but the key is to start with something that actually feels manageable or easy, so you’ll be less tempted to skip it. The same rule holds true if you’re working on a big creative project at work or on the weekend; breaking down the task is key to keeping the momentum. A diary entry reading “work on novel” is daunting, but one that says “write description of astronaut character” is not.
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