Personal Growth

Shake Up Your Habits – 7 Tips to Change Your Brain

Habits are hard to change, but I recently discovered a simple way to do so.

I went to Nepal for five weeks. As it turned out, we were there just before the earthquake struck. While there, we ate rice and lentils, tried to speak Nepali, used different money and experienced uncomfortable sleeping conditions.

When we came back home, we found that we hadn’t come back the same, and we liked the new “us”. We were committed to making exercise a part of our daily routine, eliminating wheat, sugar, coffee and dairy from our diets, using the car less and spending more time with our kids.

Sound familiar?  Perhaps you’ve had some of the same goals?

Here’s the strange thing: We’d tried to do all of the above for years with absolutely no success. Now, on our return, it was effortless. Between us we lost and kept off 45 pounds. We still discuss how astonishingly easy these changes were once we arrived home.

Why did it work?

Most readers will point out that there’s a simple reason these changes were easy: We spent time in a social context where others do all these things. We wanted to fit in, so we adopted their behaviour and did it for long enough to experience a lasting change.

They’d be right.  However, it turns out there’s more at play here, and you don’t have to go to Asia to experience it. In his book, Iconoclast: A Neuroscientist Reveals How to Think Differently, Dr. Gregory Berns explains that the brain works hard to be lazy.  The brain has had to learn to survive on 20 watts of electricity (a desktop computer uses between 65 and 250) so it quickly categorizes all stimuli.  When you see something, the brain decides if it’s a car or a face and sends the information to specialist parts of the brain for processing.

Your brain’s penchant for slotting information has a downside: you think the same kinds of things over and over again. You eat the same foods, say the same things and follow the same routines.

Berns tells us it doesn’t have to be that way, but we need to shock the brain. He points to Dale Chihuly, whose art became iconoclastic after losing one eye forced him to see the world differently.

If you want to change your thinking and behaviour, you don’t have to lose an eye.  Instead, I suggest you go to Asia for a few weeks; it’s less disfiguring. But most of us can’t do either. Thankfully there are other things you can do.

Seven Tips

  • Use different transportation

We’re far too comfortable in our cars. Even if we fly and leave our cars at home, we still rent a car. Consider the many different ways of transporting yourself: walking, bike rental, bike sharing, train and subway. Try the local bus system. Walk and see the guts of a city.  Even if you never leave your own city, find a new way to get to work.

  • Spend time with new people

We are drawn to people who think like us, perhaps because it requires less work for our brains. Look for opportunities to connect with new people, whether it be on the plane, beach or in the hotel hot tub. Ask them lots of open-ended questions about their lives. Be empathetic – put yourself entirely into their shoes, imagining what it must be like to be them and notice parts of your life that are like theirs. Let them express their perceptions: the goal is to let their ideas destabilize your familiar patterns of perception.

  • Eat out and local

Paul Lauterbur came up with the idea for the MRI while chomping into a burger in an eatery. Berns notes that epiphanies often take place in restaurants because of the novel stimuli. And when you eat out, eat local food. If you go overseas, you’ll find cooks prepare local specialties better than they do dishes from back home, so you might as well stretch yourself in this way too.

  • Journal or blog your experiences

Writing in a journal will help you process your experiences more fully.

  • Read a new kind of book

Go to Amazon, click on “Shop by Department” in the top left corner, choose “books”, “all books” then “best sellers”. Choose a book that’s very different for you. If you don’t read books, purchase a subscription to and listen to something that is new for you.

  • Learn the local language

This is a biggie. Learning a new language adds more structure to the brain and new ways of communicating old thoughts forces you to think differently about them.

  • No vacation? Rearrange your office

Burns tells us that even moving the furniture in our workspace can help us to see new interrelationships.

The common denominator here? All are attempts to give your brain experiences it has no categories for, so it has to work differently. If it works differently, you will subsequently think differently.

I hope you have a very different summer.

For more FREE RESOURCES on this topic and others, visit our resources page. 


Mike Labun

Trainer, ACHIEVE Centre for Learning

Mike is co-author of ACHIEVE’s book, The Culture Question: How to Create a Workplace Where People Like to Work. This book is available on our website.

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