Health Wise: Hacking your Brain for Change

 10/19/2017 - 10:13

My last post (Health Wise: The Change Process) introduced the steps of the “change process”. One important step towards change is perseverance. That “stick-to-it-ness” is the driving force behind creating new habits or changing old ones. The good news is that our bodies are actually wired to help us change and grow for the better! It’s all thanks to a little brain molecule called dopamine.

Dopamine is the famous “reward molecule”. It rewards us for achieving our basic needs: sleep, eating, mating, and physical survival.  We feel good when we eat, sleep, or run a 5k.  In today’s world, however, primal needs have taken a backseat to work stress, financial stress, and other non-basic things. Our bodies do not reward us quite as quickly for these things as for our achieving our basic needs, so we have to figure this out for ourselves.

By default, we tend to view perseverance as painful and unpleasant. Quite the opposite of feeling good, right? It turns out we can use our “logical brain” to reframe this association. Perseverance leads to accomplishment and accomplishment feels good. Deep down, we know this to be true, but we get stuck on the difficulty of the perseverance part. What if we could use some simply tricks to help us stick to things?

Here’s how:

  • Make Small (even tiny) goals.
  • Make those goals concrete. Instead of “get in shape” try something specific like “drop one pant size”. Instead of “get more organized” try “write in my planner every day”.
  • Make to-do lists and cross things off as you finish them. The physical act of crossing off a task is so rewarding.
  • Want more dopamine? Break up each thing on your list into smaller steps, and cross off as you complete each step!
  • Create self-imposed deadlines.
  • Use calendars, alarms, and friends/loved ones to keep yourself accountable. 
  • Track your progress, such as how fast you can run a mile, how much weight you can lift, how long you can meditate for, or your scores on brain training software. Making a log or a graph will help you see your improvements, triggering dopamine flow after each activity and again each time you view your progress!
  • Want more Dopamine? Overtly reward yourself for the things you accomplish. Anything from grabbing some ice cream to watching an episode of a show you like will work.
  • And finally, work towards your goals consistently. The procrastination/last-minute panic strategy may produce one big surge of dopamine, but consistent levels of dopamine will make you happier and more successful over time.

In summary, we are in control of our motivation. Our bodies are literally set up to reward us for being motivated and productive. All we have to do is get going!