In last month’s article, I suggested that lasting change can’t come through will power alone but can only be achieved through re-training the way we think and changing our repertoire of available thoughts. So why is it so hard to change anyways? In order to answer this question, it helps to have a basic understanding of how our brains function when it comes to our behavior. The first thing to remember is that most mental processes happen automatically. If you think about it, there is always that stream of consciousness that flows on by without any direction or effort. On the other hand, there is obviously also an element of our mental processes that can be fully under our control. This kind of controlled thinking takes effort, proceeds in steps and takes center stage in our consciousness. For example, what time would you would need to leave your house in order to catch a 6:30 pm flight at the Charlotte Airport? That’s a question you’d have to consciously think about. You’d have to factor in rush hour traffic, the weather, and the potential for the long lines at the security check point. On the drive to the airport however, the majority of your mental activity would occur automatically. Deciding how much pressure to apply to the gas and brake pedal, changing lanes, daydreaming, keeping a safe distance between you and the cars around you, and even debating just how many miles per hour over the speed limit you can travel with out seriously risking a speeding ticket all occur without much conscious thought at all. Hundreds of simultaneous automatic mental operations occur every second and are simply conditioned responses to the stimuli all around us. Controlled process on the other hand, is limited to a single conscious thought at a time.
So when it comes to trying to change a behavior that involves hundreds of automatic conditioned mental operations that occur in response to the same stimuli we encounter in our everyday environment, our conscious, controlled mental processes are massively outgunned in a battle of wills. No matter how valiantly we struggle to change our bad habits through sheer force of will, we are almost inevitably doomed to fail. Once we understand the power of stimulus and control, we can use it to our advantage by changing the stimuli in our environment in order to elicit the desired response. This can be as simple as throwing away all the junk food in our refrigerator, taking an alternate route to the office to avoid passing the donut shop, or packing a healthy lunch to eat at the park in order to avoid the break room with its wall of vending machines.
Often times, the introduction of a new, more powerful stimulus to your environment is an extremely effective strategy for change. For example, as hard as it is for me to admit, I used to be a terrible dresser. For years my entire wardrobe consisted of old sport team t-shirts, shorts, and sweats from high schools & colleges I never even went too. Dressing up to me meant wearing jeans and sneakers in place of sweats & slides with socks. I made a ton of new years resolutions and promises to myself that I would start to dress nicer but I always just ended up back in sweats again. I couldn’t just decide to change through sheer force of will. Instead I found a round about way to change as I introduced a powerful new stimulus. I got engaged. I now have a closet full of stylish clothes. I have memorized what shirt goes with what pants and I have a personal style consultant to recommend variations. After almost five years of consistent stimulus (I get dressed in the morning) and response (a look of approval or a look of, well let’s just be honest, horror from the lovely and talented Kimberly), I can even manage a successful trip to the mall every now and then all on my own.
Sounds pretty simple right? Change the stimulus and change the response. Well it’s a start. Next month we’ll tackle what to do with that little voice in the back of your mind that seems bent on derailing all your efforts toward lasting change.