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You Can Change Your Brain

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Dr Skye Scott

How to form a new habit and be 1% better every day

It takes a long time to form a new habit. In the early 60’s Malcomn Maltz, a plastic surgeon turned psychologist, became famous for documenting his observations on how long it took his own brain, and those of his patients, to become accustomed to something new. He observed that the phantom pain of amputees was less of a surprise to them after 21 days. Patients requiring reconstructive plastic surgery after trauma to their faces, also became more accustomed to their faces after 21 days in his practice. He went on to popularise his thinking, publishing a book called Psycho Cybernetics that describes the nature of how people change their habits and expectations. It sold 30 million copies.

A later study led by the College of London observed a cohort of people who all adopted a new daily habit; anything from adding drinking water to their lunch routine to changing something more dramatic in their diet, lifestyle or relationships. They observed that among this large group, it took anywhere from 18 to 264 days, with an average of 66 days to change a habit. In all honesty, I have never managed to commit to a dietary elimination for that long.

Much research has gone into proving that our daily behaviours are simply a mass of repetitive habits that we have perpetuated by doing them over and over again. Opening the fridge as soon as you get home, putting on your seatbelt as you get into the car, checking your phone for messages obsessively — these are all habits you have modelled. These are habits you don’t even have to think about, you perform them on autopilot.

I recently picked up a book called Atomic Habits by James Clear. I love his approach to change. He describes the ‘aggregation of marginal gains’ and how persistent, micro-improvements in all aspects of your life accumulate to achieve something cataclysmic. Refer to Figure 1 to appreciate the magnificent impact of small daily 1% percent improvements compared to small daily 1% decline. “Habits are the compound interest of self improvement.” The return on investment is undeniable.

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Everybody has goals, but it is the systems we put in place to achieve them that lead to actualisation. We are inviting you to adjust your system. You can aspire to lose 10kg and feel more vital by the end of the year, but you will be more likely to achieve this if you make all the daily 1% changes to your system.

Our kitchen cupboard is a case in point. My lovely husband proved this to me last year. In our ten years of cohabiting, I have tidied our kitchen cupboard at least twenty times. During lockdown, he tidied it for the first time. I felt annoyed when he boasted about this. After tidying it, he explained to everyone who uses the cupboard – including our toddlers – where certain things belong. He did this sternly. The consequence of putting the honey where the salt is supposed to stand was intimidating. He taught us his system. It’s been six months and the honey is still in its rightful place next to the sugar-free peanut butter. He achieved what I had failed to achieve, because he successfully changed the system.

Your systems are the actions that will lead you to actualisation of your goal. If you begin to adopt the behaviours and habits of highly successful, healthy people, you are much more likely to become one. Everybody aspires to excellence, but only those who choose actions congruent with their goals actually achieve them

Today’s post is an invitation to forget about your goals. Anybody can set lofty aspirations. Focus on making micro-changes to your system instead. If you don’t change the input, you won’t change the output. Stop buying sugary treats for good and then you won’t have to resist them at 10pm when everyone is asleep and no one is watching. Schedule your exercise into your diary and make a decision that no meeting is more important than your physical activity. Make a daily ritual of having a jug of water on your desk with a beautiful glass. Count to ten before you respond when someone aggravates you. Set yourself up for success.

You can download James Clears first Chapter of Atomic habits for free if you sign up to his newsletter. It’s a quick and inspiring read. Have a beautiful, mindful and 1% better day. It is easy to have loft aspirations and goals. We invite you to put these aside. Focus on the small incremental changes you need to make that will help you to actualise these goals. Small 1% improvements take time to cumulatively make an impact, but when consistent, the improvement curve is exponential.

Abandon your lofty goals and change your systems. Ie: If you want a six pack, stop replenishing the chocolate cupboard, join the gym and replace fizzy drinks with water.

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