A few weeks ago, I was engaged in a good game of self-sabotage. I was running late for my first morning appointment when I had the stark realization that I had forgotten, not one, not two, but three important supplies for the day. The conversation inside my head went something like this: “What’s wrong with you?? Why is it that the simplest tasks are so difficult for you? You used to be so good at your job, and now you’re just careless and complacent!” Well I can tell you one thing, it’s impossible to play bigger in your life when you feel like a failure.
To my credit, I refuse to reside in victim-land for very long, so I went to work unpacking what had happened so I could get to the bottom of this distressing (and unfortunately not uncommon) situation. The bottom line was that the actions I needed to take to be successful and productive that day were burdensome. I felt a sense of resistance against them. Mornings are tough for me. They always have been, but even more so in recent years as I’ve allowed complacency to take over. Planning for the day has to be done the day before, and with so many other more appealing distractions, planning ahead has fallen by the wayside for me. Hence, it’s not uncommon for me to feel defeated before the day has even really begun.
I’m committed to tuning in and giving my attention to the wiggle of excitement I feel at the prospect of playing bigger in my life. But often it seems, when I embark on that path, I hit resistance and I get stopped. Why does my brain seem to work against my best interests? What is this resistance I often feel when I’m on the path of something new? And is there a path of less resistance I can follow and still move forward with energy and enthusiasm toward my goals? The answer, I found, is yes!!
To better understand the resistance we experience when we’re working toward goals that are meaningful to us, it’s important to understand how our beautiful brains work. First of all, your brain makes up 2% of your body’s weight, but it consumes 20% of your body’s energy. That’s a lot of energy needed to keep your mind working! The building blocks of the brain are called neurons and there are 100 billion of them in your brain. That’s more than 13 times the number of people on our planet! Each of those 100 billion neurons is loaded with anywhere from 1,000 to 10,000 connections to other neurons, which creates neural pathways within the brain. These neural pathways are essentially information highways used to send messages in the form of chemicals and electrical impulses. Your brain is basically a power station that generates your every thought, feeling, and movement.
That’s A LOT of work your brain has to do just so you can function, and that’s a lot of energy it requires to do its job. Because of the gargantuan amount of work your brain has to do and the relatively limited amount of energetic resources it has to work with, your brain has to find the most efficient ways of operating that it can. To do so, your brain automates as much of its functioning as it can to save both time and energy. This means that everything that goes on in your mind that you typically repeat over and over gets automated and starts to happen without you consciously initiating it. These thoughts, emotions, and behaviors essentially become part of your subconscious mind. When your subconscious mind takes over, you have the sense of these functions being unconscious and “second-nature.”
So, hit the snooze button four times every morning for years? Regularly default to Facebook and YouTube when you have a few minutes in the evenings (that easily turns into an hour)? Go to the fridge every time you’re stressed or bored? Conveniently run out of time to go to the gym on a regular basis? What do all of these habits have in common? They all embody a path of least resistance, also referred to as a subconscious neural pathway, or your subconscious mind.
Your subconscious mind is like being on the highway in life. You can drive really fast for long distances with the cruise control on and you don’t have to focus too closely. Your conscious mind, on the other hand, is like driving the side streets. You have to slow down, pay attention, and respond quickly to navigate the landscape. If you’ve been on the highway navigating life from your subconscious mind (also known as Autopilot) for long periods of time, then getting off the highway and navigating in a conscious manner can feel a lot like hitting a very bumpy dirt road in a 1977 Ford Pinto with no shocks. It’s very uncomfortable and brings a whole lot of resistance.
But here’s the really cool thing about your brain. The more you drive down a particular neural pathway, the more your brain paves the road with what are called myelin sheaths (or myelin, for short). Myelin acts as an electrical insulator and helps signals travel faster and more efficiently. In essence, if you practice certain thoughts, emotions, and behaviors for a prolonged amount of time, your brain will pave the dirt roads and turn them into highways, thus removing resistance. Neuroscientists call this phenomenon neuroplasticity, which is literally the brain’s ability to rewire itself based on use.
The big question is, just how long does it take for the brain to take a neural dirt road and turn it into an interstate? In other words, how long does it take to create a new thinking habit? Well, researchers at the University College London, in England, did a study revealing that the average length of time it takes to turn consistently repeated behaviors into efficient and automatic responses is 66 days (with a range of 18 to 254 days).
So let’s return to that fret-filled morning commute where I feared that my brain was deficient for any meaningful work moving forward for the rest of my existence (yes, I was feeling a bit catastrophic). I was thankfully able to look at my situation from a neuroplasticity perspective and I began the process of changing my mindset. “Ok,” I thought, during the remainder of that morning commute, trying to quell my anxiety. “So maybe I’ve been practicing complacency so long that it’s carved subconscious neural tire ruts so deep that I’m having trouble making my actions conscious again. Perhaps I just have to slow way down and put forth some additional effort to get off this road and onto a new one. Ok! I’m going to build a new neural pathway for myself!”
I chose two new commitments to practice for 66 days, both of which I had tried, unsuccessfully, to implement in the past. The first was to be specific about the time I would get up each morning, and allow myself to hit the snooze button only once before putting my feet on the floor. The second was to dedicate 30 minutes to mindfulness every evening. This could involve any number of activities, including meditation, intention-setting, visualization and preparation for the next day, journaling, or reading mindfulness materials. I set a recurring alarm on my phone for this and I hung a calendar on a prominent wall where I could cross off my progress each day. I was excited! Not so much for the individual activities, but more for my rallying cry, “I get to choose! I get to choose how and where I thrive in my life!” And so it began, my 66 days of living consciously.
I’m currently on day 28 of my neuroplasticity adventure. The biggest surprise to me is that I’m really not struggling with the actions I’ve chosen to commit to. I attribute a lot of this to the fact that I’m not basing these choices on how I feel in those moments. It doesn’t matter if I feel like seducing my snooze button or neglecting my power-half-hour. I’m investing in something much bigger than the moment. I’m building new roads for my journey ahead. I’m choosing not to let my automatic responses dictate my future, and instead I’m choosing to create new ways of being that are better aligned with the greater truth of who I am. I’m creating a new path of less resistance and the space for my wiggle to play big.
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