It can be very challenging to intentionally make a permanent behavior change. This is because we are fighting our own brains.
If you have ever tried to walk through a thick forest, you know how difficult it is to make progress. All the potential paths through the forest are challenging. But what if you work on clearing the same path on a daily basis? That path will become easier and easier to follow. Pretty soon, that one path will be far easier to take than any other path, and it’s the path that you will take 100% of the time.
Our brains work the same way. Every time we engage in a behavior, we strengthen a neurological pathway that makes it easier to follow that path and repeat the behavior. If you repeat the behavior enough, it actually becomes difficult not to do it because the path is so much easier to take than any other path. This is why it is so easy to slide back into old habits.
“The beginning of a habit is like an invisible thread, but every time we repeat the act we strengthen the strand, add to it another filament, until it becomes a great cable and binds us irrevocably, thought and act.”
– Orison Swett Marden
Practice. Practice. Practice.
This insight that the brain changes so we can do things more easily tells us how to change our behavior. There is an old saying: “Practice doesn’t make perfect. Practice makes permanent.” If we want to change our behavior permanently, we need to practice the new behavior often so that our brain creates a new path that is so easy to take that it is the one that we follow automatically.
“Automaticity is the ability to do things without occupying the mind with the low-level details required, allowing it to become an automatic response pattern or habit. It is usually the result of learning, repetition, and practice.”
Start with disciplines that are repeated often.
If you have decided to become more disciplined, choose actions that are repeated at least daily or almost daily so that you will have plenty of opportunities to practice the behavior and make it automatic and permanent. The more opportunities that you have to practice the new behavior, the easier it is to make the change sustainable.
“Repetition is the mother of skill.”
– Tony Robbins
A personal example
I have been adding numerous daily disciplines to my life, but one simple discipline that I practice is waking up at 6 AM every day including weekends, and then going to bed by 10 PM every night. The reason that I added this discipline is because I figured that having a consistent sleep schedule would help me regulate my biological clock, allowing me to sleep better and have more energy. I added this discipline because I noticed that I typically would be tired and miserable on Mondays, but my energy levels would improve as the week wore on.
I have found that I do have more energy, which seems to confirm my hypothesis. I also added the daily discipline of beginning to get ready for the day at 6:50 AM every day including weekends, whereas previously I would be an unmotivated slug on weekends. When I don’t have a specific reason to get myself going, I get lazy and do nothing. It was such a waste of my free time.
Consistency is the hallmark of discipline.
Perfect discipline would be 100% compliance with whatever behavior change that you have decided to make. Of course there isn’t a person on the planet with perfect discipline, but we can all improve dramatically with practice. Pick a small behavior change to start with, and clear the path daily. Once you have cleared an easy path, you can expand on the behavior change.
You will know that you are a disciplined person when you follow Larry Winget’s Number One Rule for Life and Business consistently:
“Do what you said you would do, when you said you would do it, the way you said you would do it.”
- I was unable to confirm the Orison Swett Marden quote. I typically like to find the source of quotes, because an incredible number of quotes were never said by the person they were attributed to, and additional context from the source is often helpful.
- The neurological reshaping of the brain into new pathways is called “neuroplasticity.” Brain scans show that the actual physical structure of our brain is changed. Neuroplasticity is neither good nor bad. It just is. It is the reason behind both our good habits and our bad habits. Just remember that anything we do consistently causes our brains to adapt and restructure itself. This presents both a danger and an opportunity. For an interesting discussion of neuroplasticity, read Norman Doidge’s The Brain That Changes Itself: Stories of Personal Triumph from the Frontiers of Brain Science and The Brain’s Way of Healing: Remarkable Discoveries and Recoveries from the Frontiers of Neuroplasticity.
- See the discussion on Automaticity on Wikipedia. Automaticity is the key to doing things without draining our willpower.
- The Tony Robbins quote on repetition is from p. 40 of his book Awaken the Giant Within : How to Take Immediate Control of Your Mental, Emotional, Physical and Financial Destiny!. This was a great book that I read so many times that I lost count. Robbins has also repeated the “Repetition is the mother of skill” mantra in many seminars and audio programs, so I guess he truly believes that repetition is the mother of skill. 🙂
- Larry Winget’s Number One Rule for Life and Business is from p. 122 of his book The Idiot Factor: The 10 Ways We Sabotage Our Life, Money, and Business. I haven’t read the book, but I love the rule. I previously wrote about it in Do What You Said You Would Do. It is definitely easier said than done. See How To Take Responsibility for a great excerpt from this book.
- For more on the “Practice discipline” philosophy, see my earlier post Practice Discipline.