From eating more intentionally to spending less time on social media, you know what you should be doing to invest now in your physical and mental health. You just can’t ever seem to turn that knowledge into regular, reliable behaviour that sticks. It’s an endless cycle of setting goals, missing them, and beating yourself up.
It’s time to stop that. Right now.
Because you're doing exactly what you should do, given what your brain is telling you. Which means if you change the information available to your brain, you can change what you do in response. And then that healthier approach to life becomes a walk in the park.
Listen in on your brain
Our brains really are extraordinarily powerful, governing everything we do, often seemingly without any input from us. Like we’re stuck on autopilot.
Even when that really doesn’t serve us.
Like when we eat that whole tub of Ben and Jerry’s. Or walk right past the gym on our way home to sit on the sofa. Or pick up our phone to look at Instagram posts of other people’s holidays, beautiful homes and svelte bodies, even though we know it will make us miserable.
Most of us have a pretty good idea of what we need to do to better look after our mental and physical health. We might not know the exact exercises we need in the gym, but we have the basics – the behaviours we know don’t serve our health well, and those that we know would improve it, if only we could get round to them a little more!
So why is it so difficult to change our behaviour?
The answer is in the information that our brain is operating with.
Because if our brains are making decisions based on the wrong information then we’ll get the wrong actions as a result.
But if we can change the information our brain is processing, then we can change the action we take as a result.
So when it comes to reprogramming our brains to live healthier lives, the first step is to get clear on what information our brain is acting upon in the first place.
These are the world's most fulfilling jobs – as voted for by the people who already do them
The information your brain is working on
Take the examples of not eating sugar or exercising more. Most of us at some point will have tried to restrict how much cake/chocolate/refined sugar we put into our bodies, or to up the number of times we run, swim or gym each week, only to find that we give in after a while and drop back into old habits.
We tend to chalk this one up as a failure, a lack of willpower, evidence of our inability to ever achieve this goal.
But what we’re not paying attention to is the thought that is making that desired behaviour so difficult to carry out.
Because there is always a thought in there somewhere.
Between seeing a bar of chocolate and buying it, between taking the running kit to work and leaving it under our desk all day there is always a thought.
Even if we’re not aware of it, it’s there.
And getting clear on it is the first step.
That thought might as simple as ‘I want it’ or ‘I don’t want to do it’, it could be ‘it won’t make a difference’ or ‘just one won’t hurt’, it may be ‘I always fail so might as well fail now’ or ‘I hate my body so why wouldn’t I eat this?’ or it could be ‘it would be selfish to prioritise myself over work/my kids/time with my partner’.
And all of those thoughts can create powerful emotions – desire, despair, disgust, guilt – that can make us take actions that don’t serve our more rational selves.
So notice when you deviate from your planned activity – eating less sugar, going for a run, staying off social media – and spend time working out what you’re thinking at the moment your brain decides to switch course. Grab a pen and write it out. Don’t stop, just writing continually until you get it all down. If you can’t start then write down exactly what you’re thinking:
oh this is really hard, I don’t know what to write, I feel silly doing this, I don’t know what I’m thinking
until it starts to flow
oh maybe it’s that that cake looked yummy, oh and that I deserve it, I’ve been working really hard, life is a bit tough right now, no one recognises how hard I work and NO ONE values me or looks after me, that’s miserable, and that cake would make me feel happy, I deserve to be looked after and if no one else will I will ….
Get it down, without judgment or self-censorship.
Do it again and again, each time you take an action that isn’t the one you had previously decided to take. After even a few times, it should get easier to see the story you’re telling yourself.
Change the story your brain is hearing
Once you’re really clear on the story that is causing your brain to act in a way that doesn’t serve you, you can start to change that story.
When it comes to having healthier behaviours, a powerful way to do this is to change the story from one of absence to one of presence.
Often getting healthier involves making choices to reduce doing something or cut it out altogether.
I’m going to cut back on calories.
I’m going to give up drinking.
I’m going to stop being such a couch potato.
So we think in terms of absence. There is less bread. There is no alcohol. There are fewer nights watching Netflix.
But the absence of something is such a negative motivator. Who loves giving things up? We can feel worthy, or in control, or maybe even superior to other people. But where’s the joy?
Joy and pleasure come from the presence of something good in our lives, rather than the absence of something bad.
And so a powerful way to rewrite the information your brain is using to make decisions is to turn your absence into a presence. A negative into a positive. An identity.
Turn ‘I’m not eating carbs’ into ‘I’m a person who nourishes my body with wholesome food’. Turn ‘I’m not drinking’ into ‘I’m part of the growing group of people who choose to be alcohol-free’.
And tell yourself that story. Look out for opportunities to reinforce this new identity. Instead of noticing (and beating yourself up) just when you don’t meet your health goals, consciously celebrate when you do – every time you drink a glass of water, walk up the stairs instead of taking the lift, or leave your phone in a drawer rather than opening Facebook. Just congratulate yourself on being the healthier person you’re choosing to be.
Reinforce this positive identity even further by getting really clear about what you’re gaining in this new you. Write a list of the things you’re done with, alongside a list of the gains.
I’m done with feeling rubbish all weekend; being embarrassed about what I said when drunk; spending money on wine.
I love having Saturday mornings to do stuff; having more energy; feeling emotionally stable on a Wednesday!
I’ve eaten enough crisps to last a lifetime; I’m done with bingeing on chocolate and feeling sick and guilty afterwards; I’ve finished with drinking coke.
I love how my skin is looking, not having so many headaches, sleeping better.
Be conscious about who you are positively becoming, and the benefits that that is bringing, and your brain will start to operate on that changed narrative.
Make it small and easy
One of the biggest mistakes many people make when trying to get healthier is making everything too difficult. Cutting out a food altogether or setting huge targets about how often you’re going to exercise.
And doing something with enough regularity to turn it into a habit and make it part of your identity becomes really hard when you can’t bring yourself to do it regularly in the first place.
So a good hack is to habitualise the behaviour in easier bite-size chunks.
For example, if you struggle to put in place an exercise habit, think about taking your first step down to something so easy as to be almost laughable, but doing it more often.
I will do five minutes on the treadmill at the gym three times a week.
I will run round the block before breakfast five days a week.
I will avoid bread until 11 am each day.
I will have 15 minutes free from social media every morning when I first wake up.
And then do it again and again – for at least a month – so it starts to be a habit.
Don’t focus on what each individual outing achieves but on the discipline of doing something repeatedly.
It might feel stupid getting to the gym and then only doing five minutes of exercise, but you’re going to be far more likely to do it if the physical exertion is more manageable at the beginning and you can easily fit it into your busy schedule.
And if you doubt that such small measures will make any difference to you, remember the rule of marginal gains. The British Cycling Team went from an also ran to dominating the medal tables at the 2008 and 2012 Olympic Games by focusing on improving lots of things by just 1%. These tiny differences across everything they did – from their training practices to how effectively they washed their hands to prevent catching colds – stacked up to such an extent that from 2007 to 2017, British cyclists won 178 world championships, 66 Olympic and Paralympic golds and 5 Tour de France wins.
So when you’re doubting that that five minutes on the treadmill or two fewer pieces of bread are worth it, just remember that you’re aggregating marginal gains to make an overall healthier you.
Importantly, don’t be tempted to up the intensity or difficulty too early. Keep it simple for at least a month, until you really have started to feel some rhythm and regularity to it, and then put it up just a little – ten minutes in the gym, half an hour Instagram free, one fewer cup of coffee per day.
In this way, your behaviour will more reliably start to track your new narrative about who you are.
To sum up…
Switching to healthier behaviour is difficult when your brain thinks it has good information on which to decide to do otherwise. Change the information it has available to it by:
Getting clear on what you’re telling yourself about exercise or food right now. Spot the moments when you’re not sticking to your desired healthier behaviour and quickly write down the thoughts going through your head. Shine a light on those unhelpful thoughts so you can start to change them.
Starting to tell yourself a new story. Reset your internal narrative by changing the story from one of absence to one of positive identity, about who you are and what you are choosing to have more of in your life.
Make it easy to habitualise new behaviours to back up this new story of you. Start new, reinforcing behaviours easily, with incredibly manageable steps that you repeat over and over until they become habits, only then making them a little more intensive.