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How to Change the Way You Think

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Pop culture is obsessed with the idea of ​​rewiring one’s thinking. Perhaps the best example is the 2004 hit Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mindwhere a nasty breakup inspires a former couple to undergo a sketchy treatment that will erase the memory of each other from their respective brains.

As much as brain reprogramming sounds like something that should be done while wearing an electrode-studded punch bowl over your head, there are actually much easier (and less destructive) ways of changing how you think. The purpose isn’t to wipe the slate clean and start over — rather, it’s about replacing problematic habits with healthier ones. If you find that you’re constantly distracted by social media, or unable to unplug even when you know you should, don’t worry. It’s totally possible to change, no procedure required.

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How our brains work

Neuroplasticity is the ability of the brain to change and adapt based on experience. Specifically, neuro refers to neurons, the building blocks of the brain and nervous system. plasticity refers to the brain’s malleability.

Until the 1960s, researchers thought that the number of neurons each person has was fixed shortly after birth. Now, we understand that the brain is not only capable of recognizing pathways and developing new connections; it can actually create new neurons.

Before we dive into that, let’s briefly talk about habits: Habits form when our brains recognize a pattern, like the connection between action and satisfaction. This information is filed in the basal ganglia — a totally different region than where conscious decisions are made. “Any habit we develop is because our brain is designed to pick up on things that reward us and punish us,” Dr. Sanam Hafeez, a clinical psychologist and neuropsychologist, tells Healthline.

Habits may be hard to break, but thanks to neuroplasticity, it’s not impossible. In his 2003 book The Mind and the Brain: Neuroplasticity and the Power of Mental Force, researcher dr. Jeffrey Schwartz introduced the concept of self-directed neuroplasticity, which is the act of intentionally rewiring your brain to create positive habits. In contrast to experience-dependent neuroplasticity, which is when we unconsciously reinforce habits by doing a process repeatedly, self-directed neuroplasticity involves actively reflecting on how habits make us feel, and rewriting the ones that don’t serve us.

Related: Brain Fog Weighing You Down? Try These 4 Strategies for Clear Thinking

Make decisions intentionally

Knowing it’s possible to reprogram your brain is one thing. Doing it is another.

Because our habits are often formed without input from the decision-making region of our minds, the first step is to examine what our habits are, and which ones we want to change.

Say you want to eat healthier, but can’t seem to cut processed sugars from your life. Here’s the moment to ask yourself why you’re trying to change this habit: Whether it’s to have more energy, feel better or cut down on health risks — whatever your reasons, establish them clearly.

The next time you’re tempted to reach for a bag of chips, stop. Make the decision to snack on something else instead: Nuts, carrot sticks, whatever. Pay attention to how this choice has made you feel, then write it down. Presumably, you feel good that you chose the healthier route, whereas you’d feel guilty if you chose the chips. This practice, right here, is how you’re establishing new neural pathways.

In a month, go back and review what you’ve written down. “When you see the data that you’ve done what you said you would do, you develop a belief in yourself,” says wellness coach Catherine Roscoe Barr. “You can use the mind to change your physical brain and hardwire that belief in.”

Related: Want to Improve Your Creativity and Focus? Try Eating Chocolate for Breakfast

Consider your environment

Wherever you go, there you are, the adage goes. Turns out, that’s not entirely true.

Research has shown that environmental pressures can be just as powerful as sheer determination when it comes to realizing a goal. In one study, for example, students who transferred to a new university were more likely to change their habits, since they weren’t exposed to familiar external cues.

But packing up and moving probably isn’t the most practical way of changing your habits. The good news is that even small tweaks to your environment can go a long way to rewiring your mindset.

As Stanford psychologist BJ Fogg put it, “Goals are harmful unless they guide you to make specific behaviors easier to do. Don’t focus your motivation on doing Behavior X. Instead, focus on making Behavior X easier to do.”

Reducing this friction is what Fogg calls “designing for laziness.” For example, I don’t enjoy the gym. Because willpower is a fragile thing, I need to make it as difficult for myself as possible to give in to the temptation of hitting the snooze button, allowing myself to sleep in rather than pump iron.

For me, that took the form of hiring a personal trainer. Abandoning my own goals was one thing, but leaving another person hanging at 8 am was quite another. Writing for entrepreneurGregory Ciotti describes a similar process for his own gym routine, which involves packing his gym bag the night before and leaving it right next to the door.

Related: Eat These 3 Breakfast Foods to Improve Your Focus

Celebrate your wins

The “reward” aspect of habit-forming is crucial. That’s why some habits, like eating unhealthy food or scrolling through social media, are so addictive: Our brains get a hit of dopamine whenever we do something pleasurable, whether it’s bad for us in the long run or not.

This means that when developing new neural pathways, celebrating even minor victories is crucial, neuroleadership specialist and author Kristen Hansen tells HuffPost.

“Reward yourself for the small wins, rather than spending so much time beating ourselves up for the things we aren’t doing perfectly,” she says. “This positive feedback helps us because it ends up becoming a bit of a ‘hit’ for our brains. When we say ‘good on you’ to ourselves or someone else says that, dopamine is released. Then our brain becomes addicted. It’s giving ourselves our own carrot, so to speak.”

Changing the way you think won’t happen overnight or in the course of a mind-bending session from the folks at Lacuna Inc. Instead, focus on the habits you want to change, and help your brain help itself.

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