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Learning to change the one thing you’ve never changed

The following are genuine extracts from my personal development journals:

26/04/2009: Ten goals I’d like to accomplish in the next 12 months….

Number 7: Eat a Healthy diet.

04/05/2009: What will I have to believe to succeed at healthy eating?

  • It is fun to try new foods
  • Healthy foods taste really good
  • A change of diet will benefit my body by an indescribable amount

03/10/2010: Goals by the time I’m 30 (16/06/2011) – Eating healthy foods I currently do not believe I could eat.

29/06/2011: Goals for 31st December 2011 – Eating Healthier.

15/10/2011: Designing the next 10 years – 1 Year goal: Healthy diet.

01/01/2012: Key goals for 2012: 1. Eating healthy foods.

01/04/2013: Things I want – 5) To eat any food at all.

03/03/2014: Ambitions – Health: Be fearless with trying healthy foods.

01/01/2016: What do I want to be? A relatively healthy eater.

30/05/2016: Imagine a Life where….You have full confidence before any meal, because you have and enjoy a wide variety of food.

01/01/2017: Ask yourself on 31/12/2017 am I……..eating healthy foods?

The list above makes me want to laugh and cry at the same time. It is coming up to 10 years since I first wrote that I’d like to improve my diet, and whilst acknowledging that I have made small improvements along the way, the vision I had in my mind is not even close to being realised.

I imagined all those years ago that very soon, with a bit of willpower, I wouldn’t have any problem with a restaurant menu, I could pick anything I liked on it. I could talk casually about the oysters from Santorini and the Guava fruit from…..wherever that’s from. But it hasn’t come to be. If you stuck a bowl of salad in front of me right now, I would talk my way out of even trying a little.

So why, after writing down my goal (several times), thinking about it all the time, and genuinely wanting to improve my diet, has it not happened?

Well, it turns out that the most likely reason, is that I am just like everybody else. Not very likely to change an old habit.

This is backed up by an astonishing statistic that I learnt recently. It comes from the book “Change or Die: The Three keys to change at work and in life” by Alan Deutschman. He discovered from cardiologists that cardiac patients who have had coronary-artery bypass surgery, were warned that they must change their diet, stop smoking, exercise regularly, control their alcohol consumption and reduce stress in their lives, if they were to avoid a 2nd bypass operation. Only 11% made the necessary changes. 11%! Despite the warnings of further complex surgery, and perhaps an inevitable heart attack, most people were still unable to adjust their lifestyles to avoid the grim consequences. Deutschman states:

We like to think that people are essentially “rational”–that is, they’ll act in their self- interest if they have accurate information. We believe that “knowledge is power” and that “the truth will set you free.” But nine out of ten heart patients didn’t change even when their doctors informed them about what they had to do to prolong their lives.

 I was gobsmacked and yet somehow not surprised that even with the picture of doom painted for them, so few people were able to change. It is sad and discouraging at the same time. If they can’t change to avoid further surgery or a heart attack, how can I possibly stand a chance to conquer my desire to eat healthier?

It is best to accept and understand that most people don’t and never will change. Why they don’t is perhaps more complex than we can imagine. If someone was trying to cut straight to the point, they may say that it is simply that the changed state does not create a more powerful alternative to the current lifestyle they are living. If it did, they would simply gravitate towards it. But with Deutschman’s research in mind, it does not seem to support this.

I suspect it is the way our brains are hard wired to survive on a day-to-day basis, rather than for a long life. It is one of our evolutionary hangovers, that our brains are still out living in the plains of Africa, where threats to our survival are abundant and a daily issue. If we have survived another day, then our brains will remember (well, what it thinks) what helped us survive, and strongly resist any new way to this strategy. Why should it want to change, it has kept you alive until now?

This pattern is repeated again and again throughout our lives, so that if we do have an unfortunate early medical crisis and clearly have to change our ways to avoid another one, our brain still wants to work with its time and tested program of running on what it knows, and therefore what it thinks will help us survive.

To bring this back to the healthy diet I want to have, my brain looks at all the unhealthy foods I am currently eating and doesn’t see a problem with it. I’m alive, I’m (relatively) fit, not (much) overweight, what’s the big deal? But of course, our human brains have developed a pre-frontal cortex (the clever part of the brain) that knows that what has been fine in the past, does not necessarily lead to a rosy future. I want to change my diet to hopefully live a healthier, longer future, but my day-to-day survival mode is not making it easy.

Changing the one thing that we have never been able to change is a deflating, and usually in vain struggle. But I think I have found hope. There is a strategy that with regards to the cardiac patients, caused the change rate to improve from 11% to 77%. Yes, 77%. This new strategy, showed that after 3 years, 77% of the cardiac patients had made the necessary lifestyle changes to avoid further heart surgery. That’s a pretty convincing statistic for implementing change.

The strategy Deutschman identified was the Three R’s:

Relate

Having an inspirational mentor or coach who can relate to the problem you have, and provide hope, support, coaching and a strategy, to help you create the change you are seeking.

Repeat

Practicing, and then practicing some more, the behaviours identified to retrain the brain to adopt the new progressive habits, over the redundant ways that are no longer working for you.

Reframe

Changing how you look at your new approach to life. Adopting positive attitudes towards your new habits, that create a lifelong change.

These 3 parts all need to be in place. It will be very difficult to repeat your new habits, if you don’t have a mentor helping you. Without a mentor, it is solely down to you to keep repeating the practices, and as we have seen, you are not very good at change. Conversely, you could have Tony Robbins in your corner providing all the inspiration you need, but if you are not adopting and repeating the new strategies to change, you won’t get anywhere. Furthermore, it is the reframing, changing our thoughts on the change we are making that will keep us on the right track and continually moving towards the change we seek.

So, here we go again. I now have 77 days to meet the last target I wrote for eating a healthy diet. I suspect it will take longer, but I will update my progress. The key element I see is finding a supportive role model and mentor, who understands how difficult it is to switch to a healthier diet, for someone who has wanted to their whole life. That has not happened yet, but I won’t give up. I’ve seen the light (ok, the stats) and have real hope of changing the thing I’ve never been able to change.

Do you have an opinion on change? Are there any thoughts you would like to add? Please add your comments below and share the post! Thanks!

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