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How to Reprogram Your Brain: 4 Paths to More Willpower in 2011

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What if there was blueprint to help you break bad habits?

How would more willpower change you? What would you become capable of?

Over the past few months, I’ve been talking with Todd Becker, who claims that willpower, eyesight, body weight, and more can be improved through hormesis– a normal biological reaction the body has to short, moderate stress, and which anyone can use to their own advantage.

By using these reactions to our advantage, he says we can change ourselves into the people we want to be.

So, for the past few weeks, I’ve been interviewing him– learning why he takes daily cold showers, or abstains from food for up to 30 hours at a time. I’ve also been doing it myself– fasting once a week and more– with great results.

Today, we’re going to show you how it’s done.

Why you would expose yourself to stress on purpose? Answer: To have a transformative effect on your mind and make 2011 the year you want it to be. Enter Todd Becker.

Positive change doesn’t happen without taking risks.

It doesn’t happen without facing fears, getting off your butt and taking the first step.

But when you face those fears and take the plunge, you usually find that things aren’t as bad as you imagined.  You almost always gain by taking on the new challenge. Even the failures become learning experiences.

That’s good advice for making one-time changes like leaving a bad job or relationship, starting a new venture, or getting yourself organized. The problem is that it’s only the tip of the iceberg.

It’s all well and good to bite the bullet and join a health club and start a diet. But can you sustain your efforts past the initial resolve and enthusiasm — or will you inevitably backslide? You can resolve to be more diplomatic at work or more understanding at home, but can you do that when feel stressed out and frustrated, when you’re at your weakest?

To make lasting changes to your behavior and habits, you often need to change the way you react.

Your reactions to food, people and events can be deep seated, visceral, and automatic. Hunger pangs sabotage your attempts at dieting. A hot temper undercuts your relationships. This often seems to be where “free will” ends and physiology takes over.

The conventional wisdom is to accept that we have such “hard wired” responses while finding ways to sidestep them.

Diet experts advise us to eat frequently to avoid cravings and the risk of bingeing. Drug and alcohol treatment programs like Narconon and AA promote the gospel of lifelong abstinence: once an addict, always an addict. That’s certainly one approach, but it leaves you vulnerable to relapse from the slightest chance encounter with the forbidden fruit.

I think there’s a better way.

Use behavioral science to “re-wire” your urges and your emotional and physiological responses. A century of science shows us how to do this, starting with Ivan Pavlov in the early twentieth century and continuing through to more recent breakthroughs in neuroplasticity, backed up by studies of brain imaging, neurotransmitters and hormone signaling.

Here’s the key insight. Our emotional and physiological responses are conditioned by cues in our environment, and these cues are often subtle and act synergistically.

Let’s take the example of appetite for food or the urge to drink. We get hungry at certain times of day, in response to certain aromas, visual cues and even social situations. These cues activate the hormones and neurotransmitters that control our appetite.

I used to find that just driving up to my house triggered my urge for a cocktail.  It was a conditioned response. A similar thing happens when a particular person’s nagging tone of voice can get you riled up.

It’s enough to make us seem like robots without free will. But the opposite is actually true. Within the last decade, neuroplasticians and behaviorists have found strong support for a radical idea:

Our responses to these environmental cues are not hard-wired. They can be changed, often within a matter of weeks.

This approach has been developed into a method called cue exposure therapy, a rapid yet long-lasting way to “extinguish” cravings or negative feelings. Among other uses, it has been found to be effective in overcoming drug addictions, with low relapse rates.

The idea is to expose yourself to the cues that normally trigger the problem response, but without letting it happen. Repeat this enough times and the response eventually dies out.

Here’s the real meat of it. A study of the most effective elements of cue exposure therapy found four key success factors:

1. Make the cue exposure as realistic and varied as possible.

Alcoholics who detox in articifical hospital settings often relapse. A more effective alternative is to practice avoidance– or even moderate drinking behavior– at the bar and at home. Apply this lesson to dampen your appetite: Expose yourself to different aromas and visual cues in different settings and times of day– without eating. Mix it up.

2. Repeat the exposures frequently, and at varying time intervals.

Frequent cue exposure leads to more rapid and permanent deconditioning. So plan multiple “sessions” with several unreinforced exposures at each session, and vary the time intervals between sessions.

This helps prevent “extinction bursts,” where cravings will come back stronger than before. Think of casinos: they know well that unpredictable payout schedules at the slots are a powerful inducement to gambling. Firmy resist these delayed extinction bursts, since they’ll undermine your success.

3. Include an active behavioral component.

Deconditioning works best when addicts don’t merely view and handle their drug, but actually go through the motions of smoking or shooting up without actually ingesting the drug. One very effective thing I did to decondition my own food cravings was to prepare scrumptious meal for family and friends, without partaking myself. They feasted, with some amusement, while I sipped an iced tea itself.

4. Follow up the cues with an alternate response, not just the lack of a response.

Extinction works best when addicts replace their habit with an alternative response to stress. Apply this idea the next time you are stuck in traffic or are confronted by a cranky boss. Have an enjoyable CD ready for the traffic slowdown. Actively plan to intently listen to the boss without firing back.

Think of these actions as training exercises– ways to strengthen your ability to handle stress without overreacting.

Finally, reward your success! Whenever you outwit your bad habit, follow up with some pleasant activity. Go for a walk, call a friend, or read a good book. Get creative with this. Plan your training episodes in advance, just as you schedule visits to the gym.

Remember: Willpower is a muscle. Training makes it stronger.

Good luck! And if you’d like more stuff like this, please enter your email here and press enter:

* Filed by Julien at 6:00 pm under strategy, training


Hi, I’m Julien Smith. I'm the founder and CEO of Breather.

Check out more of my blog, my free book or add me on twitter. Also, we're hiring. Check that out.

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22 Responses to “How to Reprogram Your Brain: 4 Paths to More Willpower in 2011”

  1. Rosie Says:

    I like this type of post most of all… I always read your blog but don’t necessarily take much from it. But occasionally you really hit the spot! thanks…

  2. Danielle Says:

    I needed this, Julien. I’m prone to giving up when things get tough, so these are some good ideas I can use to start a new leaf. Thanks!!!

  3. Daan van den Bergh Says:

    Julien, this article is very inspiring. But, I still have a question though. In this article the reprogramming you speak of only aply to, let’s say, habits. But what if your reactions are based on traumatic experiences? What if you are driven by fear, disappointment, anxiety or even anger? How do you reprogram these reactions?

    I’m looking forward to your answer.

    I have to say, this article gave me a lot of inspiration for a post on my blog. So expect a trackback soon!

    Thnx again,

    Daan

  4. Todd Becker Says:

    Daan, glad you liked the article! I’ll try to answer your question, which is a very good one. Certainly, it is more challenging to decondition stronger reactions like anxiety and fear, but it can be done successfully if approached gradually and systematically. Exposure and mental rehearsal are key elements of Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT), which has found wide application to treating conditions like anxiety (http://bit.ly/frsciQ), panic attacks (http://bit.ly/gFglga) and even post-traumatic stress disorder (http://bit.ly/eWDWFT). It has also been applied to anger management (http://bit.ly/h2ypY5). CBT often works best with the help of a therapist, but many have done it on their own.

    I look forward to seeing your upcoming post!

  5. Laura Roeder Says:

    Great post, would love a follow up with more examples. I’m trying to start the habit of taking a walk every day, how would I use this? Or is it just for eliminating habits?

  6. Everett Bogue Says:

    Turn off your fucking comments.

  7. Todd Becker Says:

    Laura, I also like to take daily walks. When practicing intermittent fasting, a short lunchtime walk is a great “meal replacement’, and can be self-reinforcing. While this article was focused on eliminating reactions that interfere with good habits, a similar approach can be used to reinforce those good habits. There are many ways to do that, but the reinforcement should be timely and frequent. A lot of people think reinforcement is just “positive strokes” or “rewards”. It is much more subtle and tricky than that. An excellent book that explains this is Aubrey Daniels’ “Other People’s Habits”. (http://amzn.to/dV4dnZ)

  8. gee Says:

    the background on your blog makes it nearly impossible to read!!!

  9. Nico Says:

    Nah, I think you should keep the comments, Jules. Unless you’re afraid of people disagreeing with you.

  10. Paula Lee Bright Says:

    Running across your writing and consequently this post happened at the perfect time! I have a tendency I am really trying to change (procrastination), and this gives me an actual, solid plan of attack, whereas before I was relying on willpower alone.

    It’s true what they say. Guest blogging IS a way to increase your following. I look forward to learning more. (met your writing @problogger…great work!)

  11. Todd Becker Says:

    Paula, to handle procrastination and time management issues you might try a marvelous technique called the “Premack Principle”: When you draw up a to do list for the day, keep it short, but start with your least favorite task (or at least part of it) and end with the most enjoyable one. If you do this enough over a few weeks, it actually increases your pleasure in the least favorite tasks, because the later tasks act as “reinforcers”. It re-wires your reactions. It also makes you work faster on the unpleasant tasks so you can get onto the ones you like more. Try it-it works great!

  12. John McLachlan Says:

    Answer your fucking comments. LOL.

    You’re not an arrogant guru who thinks he knows the answer to the Universe, but are rather taking your readers along on your journey. I really like reading what a writer has to say to commenter’s posts that are often very heartfelt and honest such as Daan van den Bergh’s earlier in the comments.

    Don’t drop the comments and don’t stop answer at least some of them. Just my 2 cents.

  13. Zach Cole Says:

    Great post, Julien. I loved your ideas about taking simple steps to practicing self-control, such as the fasting and reading a book a week. Definitely going to be taking a few tips from you.

    Zach

  14. ella Says:

    One question: how do I get rid of the damn baby that keeps crawling across my ceiling?

  15. Elle B Says:

    Todd, great advice to Paula on procrastination and the to-do list. I will definitely implement that one. The cold showers are another thing :)

  16. Todd Becker Says:

    Elle, if you liked that advice there is a much fuller discussion of the Premack Principle at http://bit.ly/dnKsj2 . As far as the cold showers go, the fear of them is 10X worse that actually taking them. It gets far easier after doing it for a week. Even so, I hesitate slightly before getting in, but when I step out after 7 minutes I’m glad I took it, and the feeling persists all day long. The “return on investment” is very high. You have to try it to believe it.

  17. Alex Zorach Says:

    This is fascinating, as it’s something I’ve thought about a lot, but this post talks about it in more generality than I have ever seen it presented, and I like that.

    One instance of where I’ve seen this play out in my own life is in food: learning to prefer bitter foods to sweet foods, which is a transition that happened over many years, and which I find is also tied to healthy diet preferences (which, thankfully, eventually become automatic so that you don’t require the constant discipline of willpower). A while back I wrote a post on my tea blog – http://bit.ly/9fqhtF – about how drinking tea can change the palate to prefer bitter and aromatic foods.

    Perhaps this process could be sped up, using the tips here?

  18. Dr. G Says:

    willpower it’s not like a muscle, it’s something limited.

    i recommend Switch for more details

  19. Neetika Jain Says:

    i really enjoyed reading your post. i have one question; you mentioned in your post ” Todd Becker, who claims that willpower, eyesight, body weight, and more can be improved through hormesis”.
    i want to know how can eyesight be imporved by this method. thank you

  20. Stephen Says:

    These techniques carry a lot of potential.

  21. P.V.SATHI Says:

    Dear Todd Becker,
    Happy you are taking us along in Your Wonderful Journey.
    In India, Awareness is a Big Issue.
    We do not Know, how much God had Blessed.
    Your Sharing of Knowledge and Experience makes us,
    an Brain-Opener. You show “We can be, what we want to be”.
    YOU ARE GREAT. God Bless You 100 x 100 times.
    P.V.SATHI.

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