Anybody who’s tried dieting knows the best-laid plan disintegrates over time, if not immediately. Have you ever started your day committed to daily exercise and careful eating? That night, sitting in front of the television, guiltily eating a bowl of ice cream, you remember you didn’t exercise as promised.
“Oh well,” you say to yourself. “Tomorrow’s another day.” But the next day you follow the same routine.
To understand how our brains are wired to resist change, even when change is in our best interests, we turn to neuroscience. Based on current research, four common views about changing behavior don’t hold up.
The first view——that crisis is a powerful impetus for change——is disproved by research on heart patients.
According to Dr. Edward Miller, dean of the Medical School of the Johns Hopkins University hospital, few people make lifestyle changes even when faced with a life-threatening condition. “If you look at the people after coronary-artery bypass grafting two years later, 90 percent of them have not changed their lifestyle,” Miller says. “Even though they know they have a very bad disease and they know they should change their lifestyle, for whatever reason, they can’t.”
The second view——that information triggers different behavior——is dispelled by looking around. Collectively, we grow heavier and more inactive in the midst of information overload.
Our minds are capable of screening out what we don’t want to know. The mechanism of denial is so powerful that it can effectively block out both fear and lifesaving information.
The third idea——that we can’t change by the time we reach maturity because our brains are hardwired by habits——is also debunked.
Studies on brains indicate that, although the physical structure of the brain is changed by habitual behavior, brains can be rejuvenated through learning. To be able to change, though, we must exercise the “learning muscle.”
I found the fourth idea most intriguing. Conventional wisdom says small, gradual changes are easier to sustain than radical changes. Turns out the opposite is true. Because it quickly yields results, a dramatic change has a better chance of success.
In light of these findings, I discovered that I accidentally made a few right decisions.
First, I made changes because I regretted that my failure to care for my body reflected in surplus pounds and sedentary habits. I didn’t experience a medical emergency, nor did I suddenly become informed. Rather, I reacted to a positive image of myself that I moved toward.
Secondly, I was already in a learning mode. I was enrolled in a tennis clinic. At home, I was starting a second career in writing. I was also struggling to master new technologies. Over time, these new activities became habits.
Most critically, I changed everything at once. I got on the scale and it broke. The next moment, I became a fitness evangelist—first for myself and then for others.
Results came quickly, and I did not want to lose momentum. What conventional wisdom said was risky instead improved my chance of success.
Today I feel better. Instead of being heavy-hearted about my obesity and lack of fitness, I am lighthearted and optimistic.
Fortunately, the static, denial and clutter of my mind’s wrongheaded thinking didn’t keep the message of my heart from being heard.