Debbie Hatch | Family & F.I.T.
What to heck does snow & ice have to do with establishing healthy habits? Actually, more than you might imagine! Give me a second to explain.
To get better at anything, even if you have some natural ability, you have to spend time practicing, learning, and honing your skills. We’ve all heard, (as if we haven’t said it a million times, ourselves), “practice makes perfect”. In fact, if I said, “The more you practice something, the better you’ll get at it,” I doubt many would disagree. But have you ever wondered why this is true? I have a natural curiosity and try to understand how and why everything works – not merely that it does.
Clinicians say this happens because we create neural pathways in our brains. The rest of us typically refer to it as creating “muscle memory” or “habit”. If you practice something repeatedly, it becomes second nature. It becomes natural and effortless. You don’t even think about it. You jump the way you’ve trained to, twist the way you’ve trained to, lift the way you’ve trained to, kick the way you’ve trained to. Practice makes everything easier and more intuitive.
Ever pulled into your driveway after a long day and not remember anything about the trip or how you actually got from Point A to Point B? You’ve done it so many times before, that today you just did it on autopilot. Ever left the house headed somewhere only to find that you automatically drive your typical route and forget that’s not where you intended to go this time? Please tell me I’m not alone in this!!
The automatic responses can apply to all areas of your life and aren’t always positive. Grab a snack when you walk in the house in the evening? Every single day. Like one of Pavlov’s dogs, over time, just pulling into your driveway and putting your key in the front door elicits a digestive system response. You are already salivating. You’re not thinking about it consciously, but your body knows it is soon going to have that hit of sugar it gets every day when you pull into your driveway and open the front door. Changing habits can be hard. Really hard! I used to smoke and always had a cigarette with my coffee. Even now, 20 years after quitting, I sometimes still crave a cigarette with my coffee – the habit was ingrained that deeply.
Did you know, though, that the brain is capable of changing, adapting, and re-organizing neural pathways as a response to changes in your environment or situations? Norman Dodge, a physiatrist and author, wrote in The Brain that Changes Itself, “The brain, far from being a collection of specialized parts, each fixed in its location and function, is in fact a dynamic organ, one that can rewire and rearrange itself as the need arises.” How phenomenal is that idea? How positively amazing is it to realize, from a scientific perspective that we can literally – change our minds? Wow!!!
Since I’m sitting in Michigan watching more snow fall, it seems especially appropriate, that Dodge explains this to the layperson by talking about sledding in the winter. The first time you try to take a sled down the hill, it can actually be quite difficult. You hitch, dig in occasionally, and try to create a path. You have to work at it. The snow hasn’t been packed down yet. Where you actually end up at the bottom of the hill is determined both by how well you steer and the characteristics of the hill itself. The second time you slide down the hill, it’s easier if you stay in the tracks you just made. If you spend your entire afternoon sledding down, walking up, sledding down, at the end of the day you will have a path that is easy and fast. You just sit on the sled and it takes you to the bottom with very little effort and you end up very close to the same place each time. If you decide you want to end up in a different location, you’re going to need to take the time to create another path.
Changing pathways, and habits can be hard. Really hard! Have I said that already? Yes, change is difficult even when you know it is what needs to be done. It’s uncomfortable. Here’s where the ice comes in.
The key to creating a new neural pathway is not in just forging a new trail – trying to force a new habit – but rather in solidifying it so that it becomes the “norm”. When I was studying Organizational Leadership in college, I came across an explanation of Lewin’s theory, which completely resonated with me! Okay, at this point I realize I have no chance of convincing you that I’m not a nerd so I guess I’ll own up to it. “Hi, my name is Debbie, and I’m kind of a nerd.” J
Who Kurt Lewin was, is irrelevant for the purpose of this discussion. It’s what he taught me about change that is important. Let’s say you are getting ready to have a party. You really want a ring of ice to float in the punch bowl but your store only sells blocks of ice. You could be incredibly motivated for that block to turn into a ring. You could really want it; really need it to happen. You could get frustrated about it, curse at it, and try to force the block to change. You can apply as much pressure as you want by squeezing, pushing, or even pounding it with a hammer. The ice will resist the imposed change because it is a system of firmly established items (in this case water crystals, rather than previously formed habits but they solidify just as strongly don’t they?). Push or pound too hard, and rather than conform, the ice is just going to shatter.
Can you turn a block of ice into a ring of ice? Absolutely! But only if you take some time to thaw the block first. If you continually heat the block, it’s going to eventually start to soften and then turn to a liquid. Once the block of ice is melted, and it’s been poured into a ring-shaped mold, it’s still not the ring of ice you was hoping for, though. It’s just a bowl of water! You have to throw the mold in the freezer. You can’t make it happen. You can’t rush it. You have to wait for it to freeze into the new shape but if you leave it in the freezer for a while, that WILL happen.
What to does all of this crazy (and wonderful, and phenomenal, and amazing….) talk about neural plasticity, sledding, and floating ice rings have to do with you? Everything! Don’t like the habits that you have right now? Change your mind! I mean, literally, change your mind!! Unfreeze your current habits. Decide what you want them to look like and pour them into that mold. Then refreeze!
I see examples of this all around me! I do a happy dance when I get messages from friends, family, and clients telling me about their work on creating new neural pathways. To be honest, they probably didn’t even know that’s what they were doing until right now as they are reading this blog!!
Yup, this was Karen when she wrote, “I got to the gym this morning. The parking lot was packed. In the past, I wouldn’t stop. That would be all the excuse I needed to just keep driving. This morning I didn’t allow myself to do that. I pulled in and parked. I walked in and did 100% of my workout. I feel great!” This was Alexi when she wrote, “I went to the gym this morning and I planned to work upper body. There were a lot of guys in the free weight area. In the past, when that was the case, I would just turn around and go get on a treadmill. This morning, I heard your voice inside my head: ‘stick to your plan’. I went into the free weight area, picked up some dumbbells and did my workout!” This was Florence when she said “it’s not a diet, it’s a lifestyle”, and Sylvia when she said, “I’ve stopped drinking Dr. Pepper every day and even ask for water at restaurants! I don’t know who I am anymore!” This is Courtney who has made so many new habits (e.g. working out, drinking water, shopping only in the outside aisles of the grocery store) that I had to have her mom tell me what she’s doing differently because to Courtney, “this is just normal.”
I LOVE that. Yup, these things put a smile on my face that is pretty hard to remove!
“This is just normal!” In fact, this is far, far from what normal used to be but it IS the new normal!
I am very tired of winter but I am not tired of this snow and ice.
Every single time you refuse to go down that old, established trail, it will get easier and easier. You’re building a new trail. Once you’ve used the new trail for a while, the old one will start to grow over – going back will no longer be the path of least resistance. It will no longer be your normal. Throw these new habits in the freezer, ladies. You got this!!