You Are What You Think About

thinkingAnother year is well underway.  The holiday season is in the rearview mirror; the days while colder, are getting longer; the steps to achieve the goals and aspirations we established January 1st are in place. The new year represents a fresh start and a new hope that the days and months ahead will be different and real progress, in whatever form it may be, will be made.  Or will it? Even with our best intentions, most New Year’s resolutions don’t stick.  Why is that so, or more precisely, why does it become such a joke year after year?

In 1956, famed radio personality and motivational speaker Earl Nightingale wrote, “The Strangest Secret is that we become what we think about “.  The genius behind that statement is that back in 1956, he did not have the knowledge we have now about the inner workings of the brain and yet his observation is in fact pretty accurate. Thanks to modern technologies in brain imaging, neuroscientists and psychologists today can give us the answers to those questions and prove that indeed we can become what we think about.  With the assistance of PET scans, SPECT scans and functional MRI’s, our thoughts can actually be seen as electrochemical impulses as well as the formation of new neural connections in real time. What also can be seen is where geographically in our brain, a particular type of thought is occurring.  Furthermore, it can also be observed how long it takes to form strong neural patterns and what types of stimuli cause these patterns to form more quickly. So what exactly does all of this mean?

Here’s what’s been discovered. Setting a goal one time is a conscious activity. Willpower is also a conscious activity. The research has shown that at least 83% of our brain power is in the non-conscious mind and that the information and instructions that reach the non-conscious mind are responsible for automatic behavior.  Some psychologists believe that 95% of our behaviors are unconscious and automatic, more commonly referred to as habits. Consequently, long term behavior changes don’t take place when goals are set one time as with most New Year’s resolutions. It has been long believed that it takes at least 21-30 days to form a habit. This has now been proven to be fairly accurate from a neurological basis.  New neural patterns begin to form only after they’ve been repeated enough times. They continue to strengthen with further repetition. Therefore, if you make resolutions on January 1st and you don’t continue to repeat and reinforce your desire for those “goals,” no new neural connection is formed, no new habits are formed, and no new behaviors are formed. Your resolutions wither away and die and any results obtained through willpower (trying to force the new behaviors through conscious effort), are quickly lost when you slip back to your old ways.  What you repeat over and over again is programmed into the subconscious mind and begins to take root. The best way to avoid this: re-write your goals everyday and repeatedly until the new habit is forme

Is there any way around this tedious process of “mental programming” through repetition? Not really. The fields of NLP (neuro-linguistic programming) and hypnosis have given us some tools for creating more rapid changes, but ultimately you have to begin to “run your own brain” and change your habitual way of thinking. No one else can do it for you and there’s no way around it. With this knowledge, there is yet another reason why New Year’s resolutions fail. They are casually stated and set with no emotion or no strong emotional “reason why” that gives you the leverage to you need to make a change permanent. On January 1st, you may think you’re setting “real” goals, but if you’re like most people, you’re not only doing it a mere once a year and then losing focus, you’re also likely to be making flimsy, wishy-washy, emotion-less “resolutions.” American author and motivational speaker Zig Ziglar once said, “A goal casually set and lightly taken will be freely abandoned at the first obstacle.”

This quote truly explains why New Year’s resolutions almost never work. Goal setting should not be casual or lightly taken. Goal setting is an important and serious matter. This is not a game – this is your life, and you only have one life to live.  Goal setting is also not a one time event.  It is an ongoing process of literally “re-wiring your brain.” And Earl Nightingale was also right. You cause change by creating new habitual patterns of thinking and visualizing. Trying to force new behaviors with willpower while continuing with your old ways of thinking will always fail because your automatic behavior is mostly under non-conscious control. It’s not the resolution you set once. It’s the goals (mental thoughts and images) you focus on all day long that create the long term (and automatic) behavioral change. When you change your behaviors, you change your body and your life.

Make the time to set REAL goals, today! Take it seriously, do it scientifically, re-write your goals every day, think about them constantly, and then take action. Do it and this will be the most successful goal-achieving year of your life.  And the calendar does not have to say January 1 to get started!

Featured in February 2008 Issue of 422 Business Advisor

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