How to Retrain Your Brain for Change

Big changes are happening for you. But it’s (literally) easier to resist change than go with it. Your brain needs to create new pathways to perform a new behavior. Follow these tips on changing without draining your brain.


“I’m going to get better at networking.”
“I’m going to increase my personal productivity.”
“I’m going to learn to delegate more.”

At some point we’ve all vowed to make some big change — or had to as a result of the huge changes around us. But all too often, our good intention soon gets pushed aside. Not because we lose motivation, but because we just don’t know how to change. Especially when it comes to a career change.

Changing your behavior takes work.

Our brains have enormous “plasticity,” meaning they can create new cells and pathways. But our brains also create strong tendencies to do the same thing over and over.

Here’s why: the brain cells that fire together wire together. Meaning, having run in a certain sequence, they are more likely to run that sequence again until it becomes a habit. It’s one of the ways the brain conserves energy. By now, you’ve got a deeply grooved pathway to doing what you’ve always done. That’s why change is hard; you’ve got to practice enough to create a new pathway that is strong enough to compete with the old one.

According to many brain scientists it can take six to nine months to create that new automatic behavior. But it can be done. I just finished working with a micromanaging executive who no one believed could stop meddling. His goal was to have his employees rate him great at delegating in six months. He succeeded — and so can you at whatever you want to change.

Three limiting beliefs that curb executives’ ability to change their behavior:

  1. Bad habits can’t be broken.
    Executives don’t understand that the change process is not about getting rid of bad habits. The pathway to your current behavior is there for life. Instead, you want to focus on the new, more positive habit and keep at it no matter how many times your brain jumps the tracks and goes back to the tried and true.
  2. I’ll forget.
    Executives fail to put reminders in place in the beginning. Unless you have a trigger from the outside, like a Blackberry reminder, a note on your computer, or a coach or buddy, it’s virtually guaranteed you’ll keep defaulting to the old behavior.
  3. I want it all.
    Executives are not concrete enough about what they want and are unrealistic about what they can reasonably ask themselves to change. Here’s what an executive client of mine said he wanted to change in three months: “to be more positive with co-workers, staff and colleagues, to be more creative and productive and to take better care of myself.” “How about create world peace while you’re at it?” I replied. “And what does `more’ mean anyway?” As this client demonstrated, we expect too much of ourselves, and we expect to change overnight. When that doesn’t happen, we resign ourselves to staying the same, convinced that we are weak or unmotivated.

These beliefs can make us even more stuck in a rut. But there are even more ways to shake these excuses and retrain your brain.

Ways to retrain your brain

  1. Make it nonnegotiable.
    Promise yourself that you are absolutely going to do it. When you do it, where you do it and how you do it can, and most likely will, change according to circumstances. But that you will do it is not open for consideration. Making it compulsory is a tool for overcoming backsliding after your initial enthusiasm fades.
  2. Make it actionable.
    You have to know what actions you’re going to take: ten cold calls a day, for instance. Or asking more questions. Then be sure to track yourself so you can tell if you’re succeeding.
  3. Come up with solutions for your usual excuses.
    Instead of just hoping it will be different this time, write down your typical rationalizations and create coping strategies in advance. Instead of just hoping it will be different this time, write down your typical rationalizations and create coping strategies in advance.That way you won’t get stopped in your tracks and lose forward momentum when they arise. And yes, they will!
  4. Schedule it in.
    Want to have blue sky thinking time? Block it out on your calendar. Want to work out? Schedule it. Make a specific, time-bound appointment with yourself and you’ll be much more likely to do it.
  5. Do it daily.
    The more you make what you want part of your everyday life, the more it will become so routine that soon you won’t even have to think about it. If you want to get better at networking for instance, do something every day: one email, call, or meeting.
  6. Focus on the horizon.
    Take a tip from high performance athletes. Look at how far you’ve come, not how much you have left to do. Scientists call this the horizon effect. It creates encouragement — “I’ve done twice as much as a week ago!” and builds determination — “I’ve made it this far; I might as well keep going.” Don’t forget to ask yourself how you’ve accomplished the task, so you can mine your success for ideas on how to keep going.
  7. Don’t turn goof ups into give ups.
    You will mess up or forget. Remember, you’re learning. How many times does a baby fall before learning to walk? When you treat yourself as a learner, you don’t collapse into shame or guilt, but can try again with greater wisdom. Keep at it no matter how many times you blow it.

The ability to a change of pace is one of our greatest capacities as leaders, particularly in these turbulent times. When you have this invaluable tool in your arsenal, you’ll be empowered to bring anything you want into reality and be better equipped to help those around you change too.