Breaking habits is tough work. Whether you want to quit smoking, stop procrastinating or get off the couch, it’s tough row to hoe. Your amygdala is frequently referred to as your lizard brain and it’s standing in your way. It’s the oldest part of your brain and where your fear lives. When you get on a bike for the first time in ten, er, twenty years, your amygdala kicks in and remembers how to ride the bike. It also brings along all the emotions that go with it. I remember when I broke my arm at age 13 while riding my bike down Majestic Court with my friend Wendy. It’s all there – one pedal at a time, balancing, the asphalt, the road rash, the trip to the ER, and the cast on my arm – one big sloppy sack of memory. And my amygdala is happy to bring it up every time I think about riding a bike.
So every time you try to start a new habit like riding a bike, eating less, or working on projects first thing in the morning, your lizard brain wakes up and tries to put the kabosh on the new habit. When you wake up the lizard brain, it sends out the fear signals. Ride a bike? Don’t you remember going to the ER that time? Skip the Krispy Kremes at the breakfast meeting? But I always get a glazed cream filled donut at the finance meeting. We are on auto pilot and our lizard is leading us down the path.
The good news is there are ways to unplug your auto pilot, tame your lizard and get on the road to renewal:
1. Meditate. Studies have shown that just 5 minutes of meditation a day can increase neuroplasticity and blood flow to your prefrontal cortex in just 8 weeks. This creates greater connections in the brain and improves brain function, especially your prefrontal cortex (where your best work is done!). The best part is that it decreases the size your amygdala which lowers your stress level. When your stress is lower, you make better decisions; like skipping the donut and riding the bike instead.
2. Lucky 7. That is the sweet spot on sleep. No more, no less. For optimum cognitive function, you need 7 hours of sleep. More than 8, and your brain function declines. Less than 6 and a half and it declines as well. For better concentration and control of your decision making, it’s best to get seven hours of sleep. Have you ever had to have a conversation with a teenager after an all nighter? Nuf said. Get your lucky 7.
3. HRV. You want to increase your Heart Rate Variability. In the book, “The Willpower Instinct” by Dr. Kelly McGonigal, studies have shown that those with a higher HRV can handle anxiety and stress more easily. They bounce back and get back on track easier. It’s difficult to change your HRV but quitting smoking, eating a plant based diet, meditation and regular exercise are four proven ways to increase it. Slow your breathing down to 4 to 6 breaths per minute. If you can exhale slowly before facing a stressful situation, you will be more resilient. Angry customer? Slow your breathing. Need to resist that cream filled donut? Slow your breathing. Take back control.
4. Alcohol. Every time I started smoking again, I was in a bar. Hmmm. I wonder why? Maybe it’s because alcohol was involved. Alcohol lowers your inhibitions and, of course, lowers your self control. So if you are working on a new set of habits and want to bolster your self control, put down the martini glass.
5. Exercise. It just takes 15 minutes a day. It can take any form you like: window shopping, gardening, walking, p90x, or yoga. As Dr. McGonigal says all that’s required is that you are able to “answer no to the following two questions: 1. Are you sitting, standing still, or lying down? 2. Are you eating junk food while you do it?”. Easy.
6. Plan. Think and plan your habits. Put your sneakers by the foot of your bed. Don’t power up your PC until you’ve planned your day. Schedule your meals for the day in advance. When you’ve planned it out ahead of time, the new habit becomes a default. I guess I have to run this morning because my sneakers are waiting for me.
7. No. All willpower starts and ends with No. You will need to push away from the table, turn down the dessert, shut down your devices, and walk away from facebook. Start with steps 1 through 6 and your prefrontal cortex will be there to support you when the going gets tough.
It’s also a good idea to take one small step at a time. Start with the meditating and then build from there. It takes time and patience to take control of your lizard. Be the Lizard Tamer.
How have you tamed your lizard?