Very often there is a gap between what we want and what we end up doing. For example:
You want to be a creative problem solver. However, when a challenging situation arises, you go back to addressing the problem in ways you have always done in the past even when old ways are not optimal in the new situation.
You want to be more present in meetings but find yourself reaching for your cell-phone, even though you know there is nothing urgent that can’t wait.
You want to start a new exercise routine to have more vitality but are unable to start or even when you start, you are unable to maintain the new habit.
Why is change so hard? Hint: It’s not about willpower.
There are many parts of the brain involved in change. The action center in the brain has to receive orders from executive decision making part of the brain, which receives info from different parts of the brain that may be conflicting. Conflicting information can result in procrastination and a tendency to stick with status quo.
See the figure for a simplified model of the brain involved in habit formation and change. There are three primary neural networks involved with change, comprising the executive decision maker, action taker, and the motivator.
The decision maker (vmPFC) is involved in complex and intentional thinking. This part of the brain receives information from multiple sources and integrates the information to give instructions to act on the change or not.
The motivator (basal ganglia) is involved in weighing the rewards and risks of decisions based on past experiences and regulates automatic behaviors. It plays an important role in influencing the decision maker to change or not.
Finally, the action center has to act on the decision made by the decision maker. You may come up with a brilliant strategy but you also need to act on it in a timely manner. The primary motor cortex generates neural impulses that control the execution of all movements. The secondary motor areas are involved in orientation, planning, and coordinating complex movements. The action taker likes to also repeat actions that are familiar and avoid new actions that are hard to learn or implement.
(Please note that for simplification purposes I have isolated the three brain centers based on peer reviewed journal articles. However, the brain is complex and different parts work in conjunction with other parts.)
Typical Challenges You Will Encounter with New Habits
The Brain Is a Cognitive Miser
We have limited cognitive resources that we use for thinking, planning, remembering, choosing, and willpower. In order to preserve the limited cognitive resources needed by the executive decision maker, the brain hands over control to the motivator (basal ganglia) to automate thinking and behaviors. The uberefficient motivator repeats thought and behavior patterns without needing to think about it. This is why we can do daily tasks like driving while eating and listening to music. The problem is that the motivator can compromise more complex and critical activities such as problem solving by keeping us trapped in habitual responses. This is the reason that especially under stress or end of the day, you are more likely to give in to your habitual reactivity to triggers and binge eat a pint of Ben and Jerry’s ice cream.
The Brain Is Sneaky
We all have an unconscious tendency to find and fit information that conforms to our habitual ways of thinking and behaving. On the surface it looks like we are acting rationally but there are hidden motives to process information in a way that is consistent with our hidden beliefs or goals. This process, known as motivated reasoning, directs the brain to converge on judgments that feel comfortable, familiar, pleasant, and avoid unpleasant feelings. For example, when I started running, a thought like this would come up when it was time to go out and run:
“I would run but I am so exhausted writing this book. What I need is rest. I will run when I am feeling more energized.”
Your mind can use self-compassion as the rationale to escape doing something that feels uncomfortable or new. In this case my mind created a compelling story that what I needed is rest because I had been working hard on the book. The real motivation was to avoid the discomfort of running.
The Brain is Sticky
However good your strategy or idea is, you may experience a resistance to act on it. This initial inertia arises because the brain has a bias towards actions it has taken in the past and doesn’t like to change. You can say that the brain is sticky and holds on to old thinking and behavioral patterns. For example, I noticed recently that overuse of social media on my cell phone was making me anxious. I decided to restrict my social media use to four times a day. What I discovered was that my hand habitually reached for the phone when I was bored or waiting in line, instead of enjoying a moment of doing nothing. I discovered how sticky our minds are and how they like to cling to old habits.
The Brain is Critical
A study found that we have about 50,000 thoughts in a day. Guess what percentage of those are negative? 70%. Even if that number is lower for you and changes, the important idea here is that we are our own worst critics. When we pay attention, we may notice there is a silent inner dialog that is constantly reminding us that we are never good enough. There is rising evidence that self-criticism and stress makes reaching our goals harder. For example, I noticed while running, my inner voice saying, I would never be able to complete 2 miles because I wasn’t a runner. This thought would make my heart rate go up and increase the resistance in my body, which made running even harder. Self-compassion, on the other hand, reminded me to soften my body and run as far as I could comfortably go, without any judgments or expectations. This would make my heart rate more even and my body more efficient.
How To Override The Challenges to Change: Mindfulness
There is growing evidence that mindfulness can help even adult brains change. For example, we know that after the 8-weeks Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction program the prefrontal cortex, which is the executive decision maker, thickens. This suggests that people who regularly practice mindfulness are more thoughtful and have more control over their decisions than people who don’t train their minds. And based on hundreds of participants in my programs and research, I can confidently say that people who regularly practice mindfulness have more awareness of their choices, reactivity, and behaviors. They are able to better manage their reactivity in situations that earlier triggered a fight or flight response.
Meditation Alone Is Not Enough
However, meditation alone doesn’t always translate into enhanced creative problem solving, control over cell-phone addiction, or sustainable change to healthier habits. Most documented changes in the brain due to mindfulness meditation focus in the regions associated with attention, awareness and emotional regulation. The two other areas – basal ganglia and motor cortex – need additional training to bring change. In fact, these areas are less amenable to change than the executive decision maker. For this we turn to the three trainings described in the original mindfulness teachings.
The Three Mindfulness Trainings
The three trainings work in conjunction to bring the desired change and sustain it in the long run.The three trainings impact different parts of the brain involved with change and not just the executive decision maker. It is looking at engaging critical parts of the brain involved with change.
- Meditations – This training (traditionally known as Samadhi or meditation) develops the mind and its ability to direct attention where you want it to go. It can help you become aware of when you are distracted and redirect attention to what is most important in the present moment. In a distracted, multi-tasking work culture, this training helps you to be present in conversations, emails, and projects, without giving in to distractions.
Different meditations develop different parts of the brain to develop the ability to create a calm and concentrated mind that unifies the intelligence of the mind and body.
- Insight training – This training (traditionally known as Panna or wisdom) focuses on developing the ability to gain right perspective about the situation you want to change and the causes and conditions to support the new initiative. It entails cognitive flexibility to detach from habitual ways of thinking and doing and open to developing new habits. It also entails discovering and developing the right motivation to replace old habits with new ones. For a motivation to work, it has to be infused with emotions. In this training you are invited to discover what is intrinsically meaningful to you.
This training includes journaling, developing curiosity and right motivation, and activities like mindful drawing and whole-body balancing that enhance the basal ganglia.
- Skillful Actions training – This training (traditionally known as Sila or skillful actions) focuses on developing the ability to overcome initial inertia to take action in a timely manner. In addition, this training also contributes to developing skillful habits that create the right conditions for you to thrive in general and help you close the gap between what you want and what you are choosing. Dr. Pillai reminds us that “Intention and action must be coupled in the brain at all times for the action to be successful.” In this training, you are invited to orient your thinking and actions to your intentions at all times. For example, if you intend to speak with a calmer and more empathic emotional tone with your team members, this intention has to become a part of you (and your brain) and coupled with your actions at all times.
This training includes creation and implementation of rituals, small daily actions, and reminders to support creation of skillful habits. The basic idea here is to simply do what is needed. You don’t have to feel good to take action. Once you take action you will probably feel good and that will over time create new memories and motivation to act in this way effortlessly.
I used the three trainings to start a new running habit and to complete the first draft of my book on the three trainings on which the Mindfulness 2.0 Program is based. In my next post I will describe how the three trainings helped me create a new habit of running and reach my goal of running my first 5K, while having fun doing it!
You can also read my book chapter in the Springer publication on the efficacy of combining the three mindfulness trainings in your workplace and personal practice.
If you are interested in exploring how the three mindfulness trainings can benefit you or your organization, please email me firstname.lastname@example.org