Every year, between Thanksgiving and New Year’s Day, I (Donna) typically eat more food and get less exercise than I should. I’ve followed this pattern so long, one might describe it as a habit. On some levels, it’s pleasurable and fun. Gatherings with family and friends (historically) provide a fabulous excuse for reinforcing this behavior. Although this year, I managed to eat too much and exercise too little all by myself!
However, on the morning after Christmas, I did something different. With no extended family around to engage in multi-day merriment, I chose to go on a hike. After it was over, despite the cold, I felt great about getting outside and enjoying the trail. However, preparing to go was an entirely different story. I couldn’t believe how hard it was to get myself geared up and into the truck. To start, I wasted about 30 minutes acquiring a state park sticker…
My Self Talk
And then, I had a litany of excuses. Based upon my past and present, the story my brain was telling went something like this:
· You’re going to be too cold—with the wind chill, you’ll get frostbite.
· You could fall on the ice and break your leg
· You should stay home. The food and beverage choices at home are fabulous.
· This just isn’t you…what is fun about this?
· Why don’t you just wait until you get a new treadmill?
Because our brains are prediction machines, before we ever move into action, our brains are having conversations with themselves. If our action is something different than what we normally do, our brains have a built-in defense mechanism to make us keep doing the same thing…self-talk! Who is the one person we believe the most…ourselves! Our self-talk is often limiting as it is based on prior experiences or rewards. The great news is that we can change the future predictions by curating different experiences in the present. Go for a hike, in the cold, on the day after Christmas!
But Wait…There’s More!
And, it can work for attitudes. Dr. Lisa Feldman Barret in her new book Seven and One Half Lessons about the Brain notes that today, most of us feel like we live in highly polarized world. She advocates picking a controversial topic that you feel strongly about and invest five minutes per day deliberately considering the issues from the perspective of those you disagree with. Not for arguments sake, just to gain understanding that someone who’s just as smart as you could have an opposite opinion.
We know that practice makes permanent—things that require effort today can become automatic tomorrow. With practice, we can make some automatic behaviors and attitudes more likely, exercising control over our personal actions and experiences (like going on a hike the second day after Christmas too).