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  • Writer's pictureAnn J. Shubert, CFP, MBA

How to Make Life Changes That Stick

Updated: Aug 18, 2023


In last month’s post, Why the February New Year’s Resolutions Fail Isn’t Your Fault, I talked about how the way our brain is wired almost guarantees that you can’t make New Year’s resolutions stick by the beginning of February:

  • Your Unconscious mind runs you most of the time;

  • It uses a Mental Model of You to make fast decisions about what to do next to keep you safe;

  • You cannot consciously decide to change your Mental Model, since it is based on all the experiences you have had over your lifetime.

But it is possible to alter your Mental Model so your Unconscious will start to choose different behaviors. In fact, understanding how the brain works can help get your Unconscious on board with the changes Conscious You wants to see in your life.


So how do you get your brain to follow your lead instead of leading you?


Your Brain Pays Attention to Actions and Feelings

Your Unconscious mind builds the Mental Model it needs to make decisions by paying attention to your experiences, the combination of what you did and how it felt. If doing something felt good, your brain is likely to suggest repeating it the next time a similar situation occurs. If it felt bad, your brain will try to avoid it. The more you repeat some action, the more ingrained a part of your Mental Model it becomes, eventually becoming a part of how your brain defines who you are.


Your Mental Model cannot be altered just by will power or thought, and this is actually a good thing! If just thinking about it could change our interpretation of how the world works, or what we should do in a particular situation, our lives would be a constant whirl of alternate realities, and everyday life would be impossible. We need the ballast of the mass of the iceberg “under the water” in our Unconscious mind to keep us steady as we go about our regular daily activities.


But, if our actions are mostly run by our Unconscious, based on our current Mental Model, how do we ever make real intentional change in our lives?


Knowing that the brain pays attention to what you do and how you feel, before it cares about what you think gives us the answer: create a vision for how you want to feel and then take repeated, consistent actions to move you, step by step, in that direction.

Use the Power of a Juicy Desired Outcome

The first step to making real change in your life requires engaging your conscious mind, which is the only part of the brain capable of thinking about the future, imagining different outcomes, and providing direction for where you want to go. To make a change that sticks, you have to identify what you want to have in your life that you don’t have now, how you want to feel that you don’t feel now, who it is you want to become. This is your desired outcome. But it is easy to jump to the next step and think about objectives instead of outcomes.


For example, you might decide you want to stop spending money on unnecessary extras and pay off your credit card debt instead, or save more and retire sooner rather than later. So you decide to give up eating out for lunch, or set a savings target for each month. But those are just objectives, and your Unconscious mind doesn’t care about the future benefits that might result from those changes, it only sees you trying to do things differently now, for no reason it understands.


A desired outcome, something you really want, imagined in full technicolor, will get your brain’s attention.


What would it feel like to have no more credit card debt?

Like a giant weight off your chest?

Like you are taking control of your life?

What would you do with your life freed from the 9 to 5 work world?

Is there a passion you’ve been putting off that’s ready to be unleashed?


Whatever your desired outcome may be, really dig into why and how it excites you. without worrying about how to achieve it, imagine what it would feel like once you are there.


Your juicy desired outcome will be a detailed, vibrant picture of the person you really want to be, or a way you really want to feel. Amp up that desire and your Unconscious mind will start helping you move in this new direction you care so much about.


Get Doing

But of course, you can’t just imagine the desired outcome and expect to manifest it whole. Having a juicy desired outcome is essential for motivation, but not sufficient to make the change stick. The next step is to use your conscious mind to identify actions that you can take that you believe will move you towards that outcome, that will steer the iceberg a little bit in a different direction. This is the time to identify objectives or goals to be achieved, and what kinds of intentional, repeated actions will get you there.


It is important to recognize that there may be multiple objectives that could get you the desired outcome you seek. If you think you want to retire sooner rather than later, but digging into what that actually means you figure out you want to reduce the stress in your life and have time for volunteering, maybe you could find a lower stress job, or transition to part-time work, instead of trying to save every extra penny now. Be sure to let yourself brainstorm on the various things you could try, but then pick one to start with.


Make It Rewarding

So now you have a juicy desired outcome, and an activity you think will move you in that direction. How do you get yourself to follow through with the plan? Enter the power of dopamine, the wanting neurotransmitter!


If you set an intention to act a certain way and identify a reward that you will receive when you do, you can train your Unconscious mind to choose the action you want to pursue. According to University of Michigan Neuroscientist Dr. Kent Berridge, we are hardwired to be insatiable wanting machines. And our brains actually respond more strongly to the motivation of wanting than the pleasure of getting. The desire for the reward all during the time you are earning it by acting, and the pleasure of getting it at the end, teaches your brain that the new action is beneficial and should be repeated. The key is to identify the reward ahead of time, so you can associate the repeated action with getting the thing that you want, the reward, at the end. Just giving yourself something as a “reward” on the spur of the moment after the fact is more like a celebration, and won’t have the same effect on your brain.


For example, if you want to take your lunch into work to avoid the cost of eating out, pick something you get at the end of the week that you really enjoy. Maybe it’s flowers on your way home on Friday, or a long bath with bubbles and wine Sunday evening. Then when you are feeling rushed in the morning and tempted to eat out for lunch “just this once,” your brain will remind you how lovely those flowers would be, or how nice that bath would feel, and you will feel a pull to find something quick to pack. That’s your Unconscious mind helping you because it wants the carrot that Conscious You dangled in front of it.


Don’t Try to Change Everything at Once

Personally, this is one of my biggest challenges. Once I get to thinking how I could improve myself or my life, I see everything that could be better, and I have trouble picking just one thing to tackle. But there are two key reasons it is important to focus on one change at a time.


First, your Mental Model is deeply integrated into your Unconscious and not easy to change. It will take some of your very limited conscious attention at the start to change your behavior, to pick rewards and track activities. If you spread it out over too many self-improvement projects, none of them will get the attention required to stay consistent and persistent. Plus your Unconscious mind will get distracted by too many rewards and activities and the effects of repeated actions will be diluted. Focus on one new activity and keep your Unconscious mind’s attention on it until it’s become something that your Mental Model says you do, then you can move on to the next. While it feels slower this way, it will actually take you less time to make multiple changes if you give each one the full focus of your intention and attention until it is locked in.


Second, when you start trying to change your life to move towards a desired outcome, you actually don’t know how that is going to go. The changes you make could have undesirable consequences, or end up not actually taking you the direction of your desired outcome. If you have changed a lot of things at once, you won’t know which one you need to let go of. It is essential to be able to assess the feedback you are getting from the changes you are trying, because things may not work out the first time (or even the second or third!). If a chosen objective turns out not to move you towards your desired outcome, it is important to be able to see that connection so you can try something in its place.


Which leads me to my last point:


Don’t Give Up on the Experiment!

Any time you begin to make changes in your life you are entering an unknown place. You have left the shores of what you normally do and who you currently are to try to become someone else. This journey cannot be planned ahead of time, beginning to end, because when you make a change, even a small one, you become someone different, and the next step towards your desired outcome may need to be different. Hang on to that vision of who you want to become but be willing to adjust the goals you set to get there.


It can feel like failure to make a New Year’s resolution and then watch your good intentions fade away as February rolls around, but real change is hard, and isn’t likely to happen in a month. I hope this post has given you some ideas for harnessing the power of your Unconscious mind to start making changes in your life that will truly transform who you are.


If you are interested in learning more about how our brains are wired to make change difficult, I am going to begin offering a half-day virtual workshop later this year that goes into this topic in more detail. It will offer a chance for discussion and questions about this very troublesome knowledge! If you would like to be notified when you could sign up, let me know here, and I’ll keep you in the loop!


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