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The Neuroscience Secrets For Positive Change That Sticks

The Neuroscience Secrets For Positive Change That Sticks

As a neuroscientist who creates and facilitates change management with process improvement, I do structured change so often it’s like breathing, my default mode of operation.

For normal people, change is energy-draining. All those new posters suddenly appearing around the office shouting about the latest awesome initiative are just one more thing to add to an over-full day. The resulting brain energy surge triggered by change short circuits our minds, and we’re done.

Result? Change fails. Everyone feels let down, demoralized, thinking their failure to change was caused by crazed, out-of-touch management, their own lack of willpower, or both.

Good change, bad change.

What do we really want? We like change, right? Staying exactly the same is boring.

Change is exciting. A little thrill goes through us when we change our hair style or shop for a new dress. Why? When we change things up, the neurons in our brain start firing down new pathways. That new burst of activity wakes us up. It’s fun.

Until it isn’t.

When it isn’t, we go into hiding mode. Under the covers with a pint of chocolate ice cream. Why? Our taste buds crave the sugar, creamy fats, and stress-relieving chocolate that sooth our frazzled, spastically-bursting neurons. Comfort rules. Nothing must change.

Change is a fickle mistress.

This is why your New Year’s resolution failed.

We experience negative change as, over the winter, we slowly let our diet slip. Just one more day of holiday indulgence.

As March rolls around, we take out our favorite feel-good shorts to enjoy the sun, and find, sadly, we gained five pounds on that awesome new protein-only diet from January. Our shorts are now tight.

Remember the office posters? Those are the corporate New Year’s resolution.

[Related: Four Things to Improve Your Financial Health in the New Year]

“I love thee with the passion put to use.”

Even when we create intentional, planned change, it may not go the way we want without careful planning of what our outcome is and how to get there. Let’s look at the elements of successful, positive, and planned change.

I’m sure you have heard "Think positively!" many times. Think it and it will happen. This is the Dorothy of Oz approach. Click your red shoes and think great thoughts.

Thinking positively is a needed emotional element to change. We do need to psych ourselves up and get ready by talking ourselves into change. We need to deeply want and believe you can change. But...

Positive thinking is not enough.

Being emotionally ready alone can’t get us where we want to go. We not only have to think positively - we need to act with positive intent. We need to rationally and logically plan and execute our needed steps to achieve the change we want.

Thinking positively keeps us going when facing overwhelming obstacles. But without rationale planning, it’s like we’ve thrown ourselves into a battle naked of weapon and armor. We’re gripping our lucky rabbit’s foot and hoping for the best.

How to plan when you didn’t think you needed to.

What if instead of letting things slip, you had started the fall with a specific plan? Expecting you might gain weight over the winter, you planned by joining a gym and agreeing with a buddy to attend two classes a week. Plus, you set up a meal plan and measured out modest portions with treats once a week. By spring, you might have found you need even smaller shorts!

[Related: How to Adapt To Challenges and Roadblocks, And Lead Others To Bounce Back Smarter, Too]

How to find and fix work problems.

What if the last time you hired an employee, you had to fire them a month later because the rest of the team felt the person was loud, obnoxious, and loved to finger-point instead of being a team player? What if before you hired employee 2.0, you asked each of your team to meet with the final candidates for ten minutes? And afterwards, you spent 30 minutes getting feedback from your team?

Sure, this may be not how you envisioned interviews taking place. It’s not the usual process. It’s adding a time burden to you and your team upfront. But what if you were now one and done on the hiring? Change managed.

Success comes when you:

  • Look for situations where the outcome differs from what you wanted or expected.
  • Think about what went wrong or might go wrong.
  • Talk to other people involved in the situation to get different perspective.
  • Put in place a plan with multiple realistic, clearly-defined, deadline-focused steps, and execute it.

Go beyond the obvious for successful change.

Failed change is not due to lack of willpower, bad luck, or bad employees. We make our luck by planning, focusing on the outcome, and engaging.

If things change and our plan falls apart, change the plan. Far fewer plans than we think fail due entirely to circumstances we can’t control.

By having a process rather than just letting change happen, you can shape the change. By making people part of change, they will change.

This might seem obvious, but in the intense day-to-day pressure cooker of life, we are often passive until something forces us to act. We believe we don’t have the time to do anything else. In reality, we don’t have the time not to successfully change.

[Related: The 4 Steps To Making Your Resolution A Reality]


Candice Hughes is a strategy and management consultant and neuroscientist who loves managing change and solving problems for startups, investors, and pharmaceutical and biotech via her firm Hughes BioPharma Advisers. She is author of the Small Business Rocket Fuel series.

Have more questions? Follow up with the expert herself.