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Why Is It So Hard To Stay The Course?

Think about the last time you reminded yourself about those 10 pounds you want to lose, and then at a party when you were confronted by the veggie tray or the platter of chocolate chip brownies, which one you chose. As you eyed the broccoli and told yourself that is what I should eat, how many times did you find yourself with the right intention but the wrong food in your mouth?

We humans are fallible. We have great intentions, but the follow through can be hard to come by. Sometimes this can be a great mystery as when I hear a client lament, “I know what I want but how come I cannot align my actions with what I want?” In my observation, the other way this comes out is “How come I don’t have any willpower or discipline?”

The reality is this is a question that has plagued humans for centuries. The bible tells us in Romans 7:15 “I do not understand what I do…for I am not practicing what I want to do, but I do the very thing I hate.”.

So we see this is not the plight of modern humankind, but rather this is a problem from a long time ago before Oreos and brownies were plentiful.

So what gives? Why do we humans do the exact opposite of what we say we want? Let’s look at some possibilities, and then you can see what resonates with you. There is one caveat however- a request that as you look over this list, you might view it with compassion for yourself as well as others who struggle in one area or another with actions that are contradictory.

1. We are all hard wired to move toward pleasure and away from pain. No one wakes up in the morning and says please, I hope for a root canal, dirty windows, kids who are demanding and whining and to lose my job today. No, we strive to avoid these things. Our natural inclination is to move towards pleasure… and move far away from either real or perceived pain. So, drumroll… the compassion piece… we are all working with (or against) this hardwiring.

2. There is a part of our brain that is nearly constantly assessing what will give us pleasure. How many times a day do you have the thought… I’d like a latte, or I think I’ll make my favorite food for lunch, or I’d like to sit with that soft blanket, or hey let’s go shoot hoops or play 9 holes… we all seek what will be pleasing to us.

3. The process involves weighing out what we have to do to get what we want. We constantly assess how much “work” or energy we will have to expend to get what we want. Want a pint of ice cream but you are all out? How far will you have to drive to go get some? If it’s cold or rainy out how will that affect your decision? Often these thoughts are outside of our conscious awareness.

4. Perhaps we are not fully sold or committed to what we say we want. We might say we want to lose those ten pounds, but in the end, there may be other things more important or a time when this desire will elevate in its importance. In other words, we might not really want it bad enough to make the sacrifices to achieve it.

5. The short term reward outweighs the long term desire. Here’s where knowing a bit about your brain and how it works is helpful. If you choose the brownie at the party your brain is going to get a lovely hit of dopamine, which can be thought of as fireworks going off in your brain. When our brain is bathed in happy neurochemicals that’s all that matters in the short run. Long term goals? Did I have one of those? They will be a distant memory. It is easy to trade off what we want in the long run for what is available to us now in the short run especially when our emotional “I want it now” brain is doing battle with our rational brain. (See no. 1.)

Does this mean we are doomed to be held hostage by our emotional brain and urges? Not at all. It means that if you understand more about how your magnificent brain works, you can stop all the negative self talk about how you make bad choices, you’re never going to accomplish your goals and other self smack talk that really serves no purpose other than to weigh you down and make you feel bad.

Instead, try this.

1. Stop talking about willpower and how you lack it. Everyone lacks it cos we all have this brain stuff that works against us. Start thinking in terms of “how do I work with the brain I’ve got?” When you have a negative thought about lacking willpower, change that thought to reflect the truth. It might sound like, “It’s true I’m tempted by the brownie, and I’ll choose the broccoli and veggies first, and then one small piece of brownie after.”

2. Build both short term and long term goals and create alternate and healthier rewards. We all need those little victory laps along the way to pursuing the big prize, but knowing that your brain needs some good neurochemicals along the way, find other ways to get them. Taking a walk, eating small amounts of dark chocolate, being in nature, spending time with a good friend or partner, watching a baby giggle, are all ways to get some of that good mood- good chemicals that bring contentment to your soul.

3. Keep your long term goals and priorities in front of you. Make a collage or vision board with photos that show your ultimate desire or goal. Visit it daily. Keep visual things as well as journal entries daily that remind you what you are shooting for.

4. Tell others in your circle of influence and support what your long term goals are. Environment matters, so if we have people around us who will be encouraging us and modeling the behaviors we also want to be doing, that can be a big plus. We are all influenced by the people we spend the most time with. If your goal is to work out more, then hang out with people who regularly work out. If your goal is to eat a healthier diet, then surround yourself with healthy eaters. Choose supportive people that will help you accomplish your goals and model the behaviors you know you need to do to accomplish the outcome you desire.

5. Create a reward list. When you have a victory, i.e., when your behavior is congruent with what you say you want, find a small way to reward yourself which reinforces the benefit of repeating that action again. Don’t wait for the big one to celebrate, but rather reward yourself for the mini victories along the way. A go to list makes this easier to consistently do.

6. Consider why your goal matters. If you don’t have a clear idea of WHY this goal matters to you, then any short term in-front-of-you-now will win out nearly every time. Remember you have a brain that constantly weighs out, what will bring me pleasure now, and how hard do I have to work to get it? It is easier to move away from immediate temptations when we can keep our WHY front and center.

You are not stuck with the brain you have. As we focus and celebrate our beautiful brains this week at Live Well Kitsap, remember that brain health is the difference in how we feel and function at any given time. Focus on creating the healthiest brain you can by practicing good brain habits and see how much more you can be in control of your choices.

Soon you’ll be celebrating the satisfaction of having your goals and desires matching up with your actions and feeling more in control of your life, health, work and relationships!

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