We all know change is hard. Altering our behavior and establishing new habits can be very difficult. Yet neuroscience is showing us how to change, with the concept of neuroplasticity. Neuroplasticity is the ability of the brain to change – to be “plastic.” Our brains consist of a multitude of neural networks which control behavior. These neural networks can change their connections, and thus help us change our actions.
How does it work?
Think of a paved sidewalk that leads kids to school. The sidewalk winds around several buildings and the kids have created a shortcut through the grass. The more often the kids use the shortcut, the more the grass becomes beaten down and creates a new path. The same thing occurs in our brains. The more we use a new neural pathway, the more developed it becomes.
I liken it to any muscle. Your brain is a muscle, and the more you exercise it, the more fit it becomes. If you build new neural pathways and continue to use them, it will reinforce the connections and help you change your habits.
How do we create new neural pathways?
In Charles Duhig’s book, The Power of Habit, he identifies three steps to creating new habits – Cue, Routine, Reward. Simple in theory, but hard to implement.
I’ve seen this process work in helping clients develop new behaviors. Rather than thinking of it as “changing,” think of it as “developing” or “creating” new habits. It just so happens that these new habits often replace less productive behaviors.
Create a Cue:
For example, let’s say you have been given feedback that you tend to jump in and solve others’ problems. This puts both a burden on you to be the “fix-it” person and deprives your team of developing problem-solving skills. To change this, first establish a “cue” that you will see often throughout the day. I put my cues in a planner. The cue can be a key word, picture, or an emoji… whatever works for you. In this example, the cue could be a picture of a monkey – as in, don’t take the “monkey” back. As you find yourself in these situations with your team members, look at the cue and change your behavior. Ask the person in need more questions, provide some direction, but push the ”problem” back to them with some guidance. Every time you do this, reward yourself. Perhaps the reward is having more time for other critical items in your day (maybe you leave the office 30 minutes earlier on these days.)
Make it routine:
Similarly, neuroplasticity can also be used to change your activities with money. If you are struggling to save money due to spending habits, use the “Cue-Routine-Reward” process. Your cue may be a sticky note on your credit card reminding you of your important goals, like college education or your next vacation. Or maybe it says “do you NEED or WANT this?” It’s amazing how many times we ask ourselves that and the answer is that the item is a “want,” thus making it easier to walk away. Every time you pull out your credit card, you see this cue. The tough part is to put the card away and reduce the number of impulse purchases you make. It becomes a routine because the cue is always there when you try to spend money.
Remember the reward:
It’s important to reward yourself (inexpensively) when you follow through on the new behavior. Our lives tend to be so busy and over-scheduled; a nice reward can be free time. Or maybe it’s your favorite drink at Starbucks. (while expensive for a drink, may be far less costly than what you were planning to buy!)
As with most good things in life, improving disruptive behaviors is not easy, but is well worth the effort. It takes time, commitment, discipline and a few (small) rewards along the way. Stretch your elastic brain and yourself to develop new, productive and gratifying habits for personal and professional success.