Mindset Monday: Train your brain!

Welcome to my new series on the Veggies for Dinner blog, called Mindset Mondays!

One Monday a month I am going to post some important insight on how to get your mind right, to help you become empowered to make the changes that you want to make in your life. If you are here, I’m assuming that one of those changes might be making, or sustaining, the switch to a whole food plant based diet. Even if it is not, I hope that you will find this series helpful in other aspects of your life as well.

To kick things off this week, I want to talk about training your brain. So many times, I hear people say that they are going to make a change, and they do. They jump right in, and get started in full force. It’s exciting, and I’m always psyched for them! Then, sometime later, I catch up with them and find out that the change didn’t last. Seeing that completely bums me out. Mostly, because I know exactly how that feels. I’ve been through that hundreds of times in my own life. When it happens to me, my feelings range from embarrassment and defeat to depression and guilt, none of which are very helpful. Even worse than that, I then begin to associate the act of starting a change to those negative results, and that’s incredibly dangerous over the long term. (More on that in a future post)

Why does this happen so often? Where do we fail ourselves so often? I personally don’t think it’s a matter of willpower, motivation, commitment, or desire. Even with all of those, making a significant life change is tough. I really believe it’s more a matter of having unrealistic expectations. We can’t usually just decide to make a change, and then have it happen overnight. For example, how long does it take to master a musical instrument? What about getting good at a new sport? How long does it take to learn how to drive a car confidently, without making mistakes? How long does it take to train a pet to no longer beg or steal table scraps? None of these things happen overnight, and it’s not fair to think that they could. Not even if it is Dec 31, and the change is part of a New Year’s resolution. All of these things take time, commitment, practice, consistency, and learning from small mistakes along the way, and today I want to help you understand why.

As logical as we may want to think we are, there is much more to sustaining change than simply making the decision. There really are multiple forces at play, and we need to have them work together in order to be successful. First, there is the logical reasoning and decision making that happens in the conscious parts of our minds. This is where we know what we should do, and why and how we should do it. It’s almost always enough to get us started.  Second, there is the unconscious part of our mind, and that’s where our habits, instincts, emotions, and other feelings come into play. Our unconscious minds are incredibly powerful, often much more powerful than the conscious. And, if we don’t get the unconscious decision maker in us on-board, we are in for a rough ride. Sustaining change purely on conscious effort is very difficult.  Third, there is our environment. When safe, and setup to support our change, our environment can be a big supporter of our goals. However, when it’s not safe or under our control, our environments can tempt, tease, torture, and derail us before our conscious minds even know what happened.

For example, I wouldn’t expect someone who just gave up cigarette smoking to have an easy time staying on track if they were constant surrounded by other smokers, offering and encouraging them to have a cigarette. I also wouldn’t expect a pet dog, who I only recently started training not to eat table scraps, to stay away from a plate of leftovers if we left the dog home alone with some of her favorites sitting on the kitchen table or counter. It wouldn’t be fair, at least not in the early days of making the change. However, with some proper training and enough time, those things would become no problem for the smoker, or the dog.

The key to making a successful and lasting life change is to consider all three of these factors together, and train your brain to succeed over the long term. I think Chip and Dan Heath do an outstanding job of describing how this works in their book Switch. They describe the unconscious mind as being a big strong elephant, and the conscious mind a small rider, sitting high on the elephant’s back. Sure, a skillful rider can guide an elephant for a while, but if the elephant isn’t properly trained, and the rider gets tired, the elephant will take over and do what she wants, no matter how hard the rider tugs on the reigns. For many of us, that puts us right back to our old ways. Others have good analogies for this model too, Seth Godin refers to the unconscious mind as the Lizard Brain, and Susan Brady calls it her Inner Critic. The concept is the same, and the take home message is consistent. With some thought you can train your elephant or lizard, and learn to manage your inner critic. These powerful unconscious factors just need to be properly conditioned to ensure successful change. Period.

So, how do we do that? Well, truthfully, the specifics of doing that are up to you. I’ll touch on some methods that work well for others in a minute, but the point I want to really drive home for now is simply to think of it as training. You need to literally re-train your brain. My first hope is that simply understanding that, will help you to plan better and set yourself up for success.

Throughout your training, realize that you may have minor slips, and that is also a part of learning. Slipping doesn’t mean the training didn’t work, or that you need to start over, it just means that you still have more work to do. Also, I want you to think ahead and realize that what you need in the beginning, while the change is new, will be different than what you will need later on. That is especially true when it comes to your environment.

When you are giving something up, you should plan to avoid it all together in the beginning. But that does not have to mean forever. Later on, you will lose your sense of temptation, and abstaining fully might not matter as much. Just like that former smoker who can now walk into a smoky room, or the dog who doesn’t think twice about the leftovers sitting on the kitchen table. The unconscious mind becomes conditioned, and the temptation disappears. It just takes time, and the Elephant, Lizard, or Inner Critic, will learn their new behavior. New habits will set-in, and it’s back to autopilot for everyone!

I would be short changing you if I didn’t give you some tips on how to jumpstart your training. Dr. Doug Lisle, and others, talk about doing a one or two-day water fast to get started, others suggest a mono-food or very restricted diet for the first 7, 20, or 30 days. These plans are out there, and they are designed to do more than just get you quick results. They jump start your brain training as well, by disrupting your usual behavior, breaking familiar routines, and changing your habits. They also teach your conscious and unconscious mind that you can do it, and if done well, that can really help to keep you on track during the training period. I agree with them all, and suggest setting some very hard rules for some period of time, and then reassessing your training when you reach those milestones.  I know it can overwhelming to think about doing something new forever, so don’t.  Do it, but don’t think too much about it.  Set out a plan, and execute one day at a time.  Before you know it, you will be well on your way to a new you.

Tips for managing sustainable change:

  • Think Long term
  • Be consistent, consistent, consistent
  • Practice with purpose
  • Celebrate small wins
  • Don’t beat yourself up over minor setbacks
  • Give yourself time to become a pro
  • Expect a little more of yourself every day
  • Think of your change as working toward a new normal

Train your brain!



Dr. Laurie Marbas and I discussed Training Your Brain on her How To Health Podcast.  You can listen, or watch, that discussion, complete with additional insights, examples, and the plant-based physician’s perspective, at the links below.

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