This methodical process for changing habits is based on neuroscience. Our brains wire neural circuits to support anything we do, making it, for example, easy to tie our shoe laces. The neural circuits we form support anything we do regardless whether it is good or bad for us. The art of creating new positive habits is to form a new neural habit circuits as quickly as possible, and as strong as possible, to counter a negative habit that we have already wired. The more methodical you are, the more successful you will be.
Get the Most from Your Efforts
Gain the most benefit you can from your neural-habit-circuit-forming efforts. Think carefully about what new neural habit circuit you want to wire. The first habits you should establish, if you haven’t already, are habits that support superconscious experience, especially meditation, because superconscious experience will not only transform you from within, it will supercharge your ability to form new neural habit circuits to support any other goal you choose. The more attuned you are to your innate superconscious awareness, the more dynamic you become; the more dynamic you are, the more rapidly and successfully you can form new neural habit circuits.
Focus on Wiring One Major Neural Habit Circuit at a Time
Don’t try to establish more than one major new neural habit circuit at a time. A major habit is simply one that will require significant time, attention, and will power to establish. We form and change minor habits almost without thinking—where we store information on our computer, the order in which we perform our morning routine, how long we steep our tea, the kind of toothpaste we use. Forming minor habits requires very little will power; forming major neural habit circuits requires significantly more will power, attention, and effort.
When embarking on rewiring your brain, don’t make the classic New Year’s-resolutions mistake—making long lists of major new habits to transform one’s entire life. Surveys have shown that most people do not achieve any of their New Year’s resolutions because, in their enthusiasm, they take on too many changes at once. In the beginning, they take on their new resolutions with strong will and high energy. But, after a few weeks, the constant will power required to maintain so many resolutions wears on them. The initial joy in self-change is replaced by tension. They begin to feel less, not more, happy. Tension and discouragement eventually undermine their resolution. Their old neural habit circuits reassert themselves because they no longer want to exert the will power to resist them. Any progress they made toward creating new supportive neural habit circuits is lost. Their partially formed new neural habit circuits begin to degrade. Their resolutions are forgotten until next year.
Be mindful of the power of existing habits. Existing, automatically firing, hard-wired neural habit circuits remain active even though you have made a decision to change. Your existing neural circuits fire just as easily and will be made to fire by the same incoming sensory, mental, or emotional stimuli as before you made your decision to change. Be mindful that every day the vast majority of your life force is automatically directed into behaviors by existing neural habit circuits. Don’t try to rechannel too much of your life force at one time.
A note of warning about what is ahead in the remaining chapters: I suggest rewiring your brain to support many new habits that will make you more superconsciously aware. I make many more suggestions than you can immediately turn into habitual behavior. Even if you are as enthusiastic about integrating those suggestions into your life as I hope you will be, don’t let your enthusiasm make you try to establish more than one major new habit at a time.
Another major mistake people make in efforts at self-improvement is trying to stop doing something negative, such as overeating, rather than to start doing something positive, such as eating healthier foods. It is wiser to systematically wire a new and positive neural habit circuit in order to rechannel your life force in a new direction than to try to suppress life force that is already being routed in an old and unwanted direction. When employing this strategy, make sure to focus your attention on your positive new habit, not on the negative old one.
Before choosing any new habit to establish make sure that you feel especially good about the new behavior you want to establish. Your new habit should be rewarding in and of itself, not just the remedy for an old negative habit. Whatever you choose, you should look forward to it, rather than feeling it is something you should do—but don’t really want to do. The more positive, rewarding, and forward-looking you can make your efforts at wiring new neural habit circuits, the more successful you will be.
Even if you winnow your choices to one new neural habit circuit, you need to be realistic about whether you have the will power to do it. If, for example, you choose to establish a habit of meditation, when you have none today, don’t set out to meditate three times a day for an hour at a time.
Know your limits and exceed them only by a little. Better to succeed at establishing the habit of meditating for ten minutes before going to bed than to fail at meditating for one hour three times a day. Better a small victory that builds your confidence, than a large failure that erodes your determination.
Once you’ve made your choice of the most beneficial, positive, and realistic new neural habit circuit to wire, it is time to methodically plan as many ways as you can to make your effort successful. In this section, in order to give you concrete ideas of methodical planning, I’m going to use the example of establishing a meditation practice. If you already have wired a strong supporting neural habit circuit for meditation, mentally substitute any other positive habit you might want to establish instead.
Part of being methodical is to be as clear, specific, and exact as you can about your planned new habit. If you want to establish a new habit of meditation, what meditation technique are you going to use? If you haven’t learned that particular technique, how are you going to learn it, and when? What time during your day are you going to meditate? Are there other habitual activities that you have been doing at that same time? If yes, what are you going to do with the old activity? Do it another time? Stop doing it? If you are going to meditate in the mornings, what time will you meditate and for how long? What does that mean for your rising time in the morning? Do you need to awaken a quarter, half, or a full hour earlier? Where are you going to meditate? What space can you use to meditate that will be quiet and allow you to leave your meditation things set up? How will you sit? Cross-legged? On a kneeling bench? On a chair?
Thoroughly answering these and similar questions pertinent to a specific habit you want to establish will bring into play the power of visualization. Visualization has been shown to build or strengthen neural circuits before you actually take any action. More on this in an upcoming chapter.
Don’t Leap Into It
After working out the details of your plan for establishing a new habit, give yourself enough time to consider and emotionally accept your plan—one person might need a day; another, a week; yet another, a month. When you get home in the evening and you are tired, how does your plan feel? When you are doing your usual morning routine that you are planning to change, how do you feel about changing it? Are there other people who will be affected by your choice to meditate? Do you think they will be impacted by your new behavior? What will you need to do to make it work for them? How do you feel about that?
After taking enough time to thoroughly consider your plan, modify it if you need to. Be creative in your modifications. If, after much consideration, waking at midnight to meditate for a half an hour and then returning to sleep feels like the only possible way you are really going to start meditating, then do so. Admittedly, it is highly unlikely that you or anyone else would make the choice to awake at midnight to meditate, but the point is to choose what you most believe will work.
Finally, set a specific date that you are going to begin establishing your habit of meditation. If you have a choice, don’t choose to begin establishing your meditation habit during a period when you are going to travel a lot, have guests for extended periods, or have particularly challenging demands on your time. If avoiding these situations means waiting indefinitely before you start then rethink your plan and be as creative as possible in adapting your plan to work with travel, interruptions, or intensity of work.
Allow for Occasional Failure
If establishing a regular habit of meditation is going to be a challenge to your will, chances are you will falter a few times over the course of the weeks to months before new neural habit circuits have wired enough to support your practice. If you have been unrealistic about never faltering and then you do falter, you may feel that you are failing, or even worse, that you are a failure; your confidence will be shaken and your will weakened. By accepting in advance that you may falter you will be better able emotionally to take it in stride. Don’t let a single lapse ambush your efforts with a strong attack of self-doubt.
Plan ahead for failure. Think about what you will do when you do falter. Perhaps allow yourself a certain number of get-out-of-jail-free days, days during which you give yourself permission to not meditate because you “just don’t feel like it.” Perhaps allow yourself to miss a certain number of meditations over the course of a month. Give yourself some kind of “out” if you have unexpected disruptions to your regular schedule.
Think these allowances through carefully. Even commit them to writing. Once you begin to establish your new habit, however, stick to these allowances—and no more. If you make too many allowances, the neural habit circuit will take much longer to wire and may not be as strongly supportive of your new habit as it could be.
Nor should these allowances be permanent. In time you should be able to mediate regularly even if you don’t particularly “feel like it,” even with the distractions of travel and visitors, or even if there are challenging situations in your life.
Support Your Goal
The advice in this section, more than perhaps in any of the sections above, takes advantage of today’s deeper understanding of how neural habit circuits wire and how they support our behaviors.
One thing in particular that makes our most established neural habit circuits so powerfully supportive of behavior is that their complex interconnected circuits fire in response to many different types of stimuli—sensory perception, voluntary movement, autonomic physiological processes, thoughts, emotions, and memories. Any one of those stimuli will cause your entire neural habit circuit to fire.
What this means for you, in the context of deliberately wiring new neural habit circuits to support positive behaviors, is that the more activities and experiences you can associate with your goal, the more powerfully supportive your new neural habit circuit will become. The more things that positively remind you of your desired new habit—each of which will cause your neural habit circuit to fire—the stronger the support you get from your new neural habit circuit.
What does this mean in real terms? Here are some suggestions for our example of establishing a habit of meditation.
Create a place to meditate that is attractive and inspiring. You should enjoy your mediation space for any of a variety of reasons: it’s beautiful; it feels peaceful; it contains pictures or objects that are inspiring to you; it reminds you of other spaces you’ve seen that inspire you. Once you’ve taken the time to make your meditation space as attractive to you as you can, just seeing your mediation space will become a positive stimulus that will make your entire meditation supporting neural circuit fire, thus stimulating positive emotions and thoughts that make you want to meditate.
Make your meditation position as comfortable as possible. Once you have found the meditation position most comfortable for you, just thinking about how relaxed you have been in your meditations, or at any time when sitting in a similar way, will make your entire meditation supporting neural circuit fire, thus stimulating positive emotions and thoughts that make you want to meditate.
Other suggestions for similar positive stimuli to make your entire meditation-supporting neural circuit fire, to stimulate positive emotions and thoughts that make you want to meditate:
- Activate favorite scents—such as incense, potpourri, natural oils—just before you begin to meditate. Activate the scent at other times during your day as well. Soon just smelling that scent will cause your fledgling neural habit circuit to fire and awaken your desire to meditate.
- Play music that moves or uplifts you—such as chanting, singing, or orchestral music—for a few minutes before you begin your meditation. Play the music at other times during your day as well. Again, hearing that music will strengthen your fledgling neural habit circuit by causing it to fire, making you want to meditate.
- Read a short passage of anything that moves or uplifts you before you meditate. Read such passages at other times during your day as well. You will find that even a memory of that short passage will strengthen your fledgling neural habit circuit by causing it to fire.
- Choose an affirmative sentence or two that sum up the positive reasons you want to meditate. Repeat with concentration a few times at the end of your meditation. Repeat the affirmative sentences at other times during the day as well. Repeating the affirmative sentences, or considering the thoughts in your affirmation, will strengthen your fledgling neural habit circuit by causing it to fire. (More on affirmations coming up.)
In all these ways—and I’m sure you can think of others—you will be building the strength of your new neural meditation-habit circuit. You are interconnecting particular positive and desirable thoughts, smells, memories, body positions, sounds, emotions, and physical contact, with meditating. If your neural meditation-habit circuit fires because of any of these stimuli, the whole circuit will fire.
Set Your Intention
Make a pact with yourself. Emphasize to yourself the importance of whatever you are setting out to make into a habit. Make sure that your heart is fully in it. Visualize yourself being successful. Imagine how you will feel when you have succeeded. Awaken whatever feelings will make you the most determined to succeed. If your goal is establishing a meditation habit, imagine experiencing the expansive, peaceful, joyful feeling of the superconscious.
If you are feeling enthusiastic about whatever new neural habit circuit you are setting out to wire it may seem unnecessary to set your intention. But setting your intention with especial care can make all the difference when your will falters—when you aren’t having the wonderful experience you’d hoped for, or when your life’s demands are making establishing your new habit difficult, or when your existing neural habit circuits are stronger than you expected.
Expect to Put Out More Effort in the Beginning
When we start our process of wiring a new habit we do not yet have any neural wiring supporting our efforts and initial success relies solely on our will and commitment. Think of riding a bicycle up to a plateau. Getting to the plateau is all uphill and will require determination, but once you make it to the plateau it will be far easier to maintain a steady pace. Similarly, getting started with a new habit is an uphill effort, but once your new neural habit circuit is established it will be far easier to maintain your new behavior.
It takes time to establish and benefit from a new habit. We may not reap significant benefits from our efforts for months. If we are establishing a new habit of meditation, inner superconscious experience may come slowly. Be patient. Even if your new habit takes a long while to give you its benefits—it will do so—and, once you have established your new habit, you will have wired actual and lasting physiological changes in your brain that will make your new habit easier to maintain indefinitely. Resist the temptation to give up on your new habit, or to move your focus to establishing another habit before the first one is fully established.
- Get the Most from Your Efforts—Choose to establish a major new habit, and thus wiring a new neural circuit to support it, that will give you the most benefit for the time, energy, and will power it will require to establish it. New habits, such as meditation, that lead to superconscious experience, have the added benefit of supercharging your efforts and automatically strengthening other positive neural habit circuits.
- Be Positive—Make sure that the new habit you set out to establish is something you truly want to do, not just something you think you should do.
- Be Realistic—Better to be cautious and successfully wire a new neural habit circuit that supports a modest new habit, than to be over-enthusiastic and fail at wiring a new neural habit circuit to support something more expansive. Build your confidence with modest successes until you are ready take on more expansive goals.
- Be Methodical
- Be Clear—Determine the particulars of your new habit. Visualize your goal. Be specific. Know exactly what and, more importantly, how you are going to establish your new habit before you set out to do it.
- Don’t Leap into It—After setting your goal and before you embark, give yourself time to see how you feel about it, to measure it against the realities of your life, to consider its impact on other people in your life. The time spent considering your goal may reveal needed adjustments. Alter your goal, if necessary. Doing so will build your confidence in your ability to rewire your brain—to establish your chosen habit.
- Allow for Failure—You may well fail to perform the actions of your new habit many times before you have fully established it. It is healthy to allow yourself some leeway. Don’t let overly rigid expectations of yourself plunge you into thoughts of being a failure if you lapse a few times before you succeed.
- Support Your Efforts—Take advantage of modern discoveries of how the brain works. Deliberately associate as many other positive things with your new habit as you can. Be creative in thinking of ways that you can associate your new habit you are trying to establish with other positive actions, thoughts, feelings, and memories. These associations will make your goal much easier to achieve.
- Set Your Intention—Before you begin establishing your new habit and wiring a new neural habit circuit, make yourself as determined as you possibly can be to succeed. Set your heart’s intention.
- Expect to Put Out More Effort in the Beginning—When you begin your effort to establish a new habit, you do not yet have a neural habit circuit supporting your efforts. After some time your neural habit circuit will start to form and make it easier to establish your habit, but in the beginning you will need to be especially determined.
- Be Patient—It will take time before your new habit is established and you are receiving the benefits. Even if your new habit takes a long while to give you its benefits—it will do so—and, once you have established your new habit, you will have wired actual and enduring physiological change in your brain, change that will make your new habit easier to perform and more successful.