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How To Make Change Stick! - Or What I Like To Call “Changing the Cow Trails"

Written by: S. Ryanne Stellingwerf, Executive Contributor

Executive Contributors at Brainz Magazine are handpicked and invited to contribute because of their knowledge and valuable insight within their area of expertise.


Change seems to be highly sought after, at least in the United States. We have New Year’s Resolutions, coaches, self-help programs, etc. Gyms are full of memberships of people who don’t really go to the gym. Classes create motivation for students but once the class is over, they never create the masterpiece. Diet programs abound and rebound. It seems we all want to change something. So why is it so hard?

Let’s explore this for a moment. When was the last time you had to think about how to brush your teeth? Have you recently tried to use your hairbrush to brush your teeth? Have you put shampoo on your toothbrush instead of toothpaste? Have you stuck your toothbrush in your ear? Of course not! As a matter of fact, you probably don’t even think about the fact that you have to brush your teeth. This behavior is so ingrained that it has become a habit and what I’m going to call muscle memory has taken over.

Think about this. How often do you get to work and not even really remember the trip? You are so used to it that unless something unusual happens, you almost lose track of time. You know where to go, how to get there, and you just do it. How does that happen?

I like to think of it this way. We all have a neural net. This is somewhat like a mass of electrical pathways in the brain. And those pathways get stronger the more they are used. I compare those pathways to the paths that cows take. For those of you who aren’t living in a state with about 2.5 cows for every person, allow me to illustrate. Cows tend to take the same paths to water for example. Those trails become hardened in the ground. No plants grow and they even create depressions in the ground. If you want the cows to go a different way, you’ll need to block their path. Take the barrier away too soon however, and those cows are going to go right back to their old familiar trails. Leave that barrier in place for long enough and the cows will have not only created new paths, but the old ones will eventually grow in. But out here in the west, that may take years.

Why you ask, am I talking about cows? Well our neural net can act just like those cows. Our thought process runs along the same path until it no longer deviates. And if you want to enact change, you are going to have to find a way to force the thoughts off that path and create a new one. But changing the path of those thoughts must be done over and over until a new path is formed.

This can be seen in the gym when people decide to change the composition of their bodies. They aren’t expecting to go workout one day and be in fantastic shape for the rest of their lives. Although that would be nice. Enacting physical change in our bodies requires repetition, regularity, and commitment. We go to the gym regularly to exercise and create the body we commit to. And often, we won’t see even the slightest change for longer than we wish. But with continued commitment, we will see those changes. Our thought process and making changes in our lives is just like making changes to our bodies.

Have you ever heard of an athletic coach or employer say that they’d rather have someone with no experience than have to break bad habits? That is a reference to the struggle of creating change in the muscle memory people have. But please don’t let that discourage you! If you have really ingrained habits, then you know without a doubt that you can create really ingrained new habits. It may take time, but you’ve already proven your capabilities with creating, enforcing, and reinforcing habits. Now you just need to be committed enough to create new ones.

When you determine to change, you can benefit from a plan. Decide what you are going to change, including those habitual thoughts, and how you are going to do that. Decide how you will practice your new thoughts and actions. Think about when you will practice. Set your self up for success. Then when you are ready, jump in, start your new schedules, and have patience with yourself and allow your brain to develop new muscles just like you would your body. You’ve got this!

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S. Ryanne Stellingwerf, Executive Contributor Brainz Magazine Ryanne Stellingwerf reinvented herself after spending a pivotal seven years working as a contractor on military bases in the Middle East. When she returned home to the US, she became a licensed psychotherapist in Montana specializing in Combat Trauma for military and first responders. She soon had an influx of strong successful professional women requesting her help and learned that the drive and passion in our American heroes is also embodied in our high achievers. But like our heroes, high achievers can also find themselves needing help with stress management as they are driving toward their goals. Ryanne now offers support and guidance to help high-achieving successful women find clarity and balance to make their lives not only sustainable, but fun, passionate, joyful, and ideal.



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