Three Steps to Rewire New Behavior

by | Oct 12, 2015

It was another one of those days. There were too many things on the to-do list to squish into the available time. I fretted and agonized. “How will it all get done?” The anxiety in my body mounted: tightness in my chest, knots in my stomach. “Oh no! You’re going to fail! This is it! Everyone will know that you can’t handle this business.” Thankfully, this time was different. Over weeks and months I had been training myself to respond with focus to these moments of over-whelm, and it was working, slowly but surely.

The brain has an optimal performance point – a point where there is enough stress or pressure to get it interested but not too much to create over-whelm. If there is too much or too little pressure, the cognitive part of the brain does not perform at its best. The trick is to manage the stress to keep it in the “just right” range – like Goldilocks. High stress levels also trip the alarm mode in the brain. Alarms generate reactions in the body – tightness in the chest, sweaty palms, racing heart. These are the tell-tale signs that you have tipped over out of the “just right” range. The body reactions are like the “canary in the coal mine.” They are warnings that you are moving out of cognitive mode and into reactionary mode.

Thankfully, we can rewire the brain to modify behaviors that we wish to change. There are three steps and a caveat. Let’s give it a try.

Think of a behavior you would like to tweak. What behavior shows up over and over that doesn’t serve you well? Write down that behavior. And write down what you would prefer your reaction to be. For example, I wanted to stop the over-whelmed panic and change it into focused, attentive action.

Now it’s time for rewiring.

Remind. The brain needs to be reminded of the new behavior you wish to create. In my case, I taught myself to recognize the warning signs in my body. They are my reminders. This approach works for me because I teach it to others and talk about it weekly. This behavior pattern is on my mind quite a bit. If I were not talking about it, a physical reminder would be imperative – a sticky note attached to my computer or an item on my to-do list.

What can you use as a reminder? It may be a reminder of the behavior you wish to leave behind or a reminder of the behavior you wish to create. The reminder can be a post-it note, a photo, rock, stress ball, magnet on the refrigerator —that mentally connects you with the behavior. The reminder should be in front of you frequently.

Reassure. The brain craves certainty but when you are changing behavior, there is no certainty. Help your brain by reassuring it that it’s on the right path. For example, I recognize the anxiety building in my body as the flags I’m watching for. “Remember,” I say, “it worked the last time you calmed down and set aside focused time for the highest priority activities.” That reassurance builds a track record of success and confidence in the brain.

In your case, do you have a small track record of success with the new behavior? If so, when the old behavior starts and your reminder kicks in, reflect on the time the new behavior worked. If you do not have a track record with the new behavior, reassure yourself of your commitment to your goal. Either way, reassure your brain that the new approach will work – but you have to try.

Reward. It worked! I slowed the over-whelmed feeling; focused my mind on one task at a time; and the work was completely on time. Woo-hoo! With each successful new behavior, allow your brain to a do a happy dance. Congratulate it on another successful attempt at the new behavior. Take a moment to revel in your accomplishment. Notice what worked for you and why. These few moments of reflection embed the new behavior in your brain.

It’s your turn. Don’t forget to pat yourself on the back particularly if you are not the type of person who usually congratulates yourself. It only takes a moment. You don’t need to brag to the world, but you do need to acknowledge the behavior change. The brain notices when it gets an atta-boy or atta-girl.

These are the three steps and here’s the caveat. Repeat this process over and over. Once will not create a behavior change. If need be, set a goal to focus on one new behavior change for the next six months. Don’t take on too much. Behavior modification takes a lot of brain energy. Pick one at a time and work it with these three steps.

This newsletter article was part my latest over-whelmed moment. The reminder brought my attention to the feeling; and I remembered how to successfully focus on a single task at a time. My reward is a completed newsletter to share with you.

Let me know how it goes for you: remind, reassure, reward and repeat.


Author Byline: Founder and CEO of Blue Fjord Leaders, Shelley Row P.E. CSP, was named by Inc. Magazine as one of the top 100 leadership speakers. Professional engineer and former senior executive, she was recognized as one of the best minds in advanced traffic management systems.

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