Watch your thoughts...

“Watch your thoughts; they become words. Watch your words; they become actions. Watch your actions; they become habit. Watch your habits; they become character. Watch your character; it becomes your destiny.”(Lao Tzu)

We all tend to prefer short term rewards (like chocolate cake now) over long term rewards (like losing weight or becoming healthier overall). This process is involved in many addictions and habits. When it comes then to New Year’s Resolutions the reasons they fail are often that  the wrong steps are taken at the wrong time even though we may think we are motivated to make those changes. Some of us don’t stick to diets and continue to smoke because they cannot see the long term goal. (Ref 1) We need the tiny steps and the drip feeding of the benefits. We also need to remain positive to get those all-important helpful motivating chemicals on board. 

Human beings are the only animal on the planet to have our behaviour tied in to a neurological reward based system. In other words, when we do nice things, we feel good because of the chemicals we then release. When we DO get up off that sofa and make it to the gym we feel damn good on the way home! That’s our chemicals working for us, rather than against us. So, how can we make this happen more frequently? How can we turn the ‘No, it’s cold, no… we’ll do it tomorrow’ voice into a ‘Yes you blooming will, let’s go!’? All too often now we reach instead for the quick fix reward, our modern day drug of choice, be it nicotine, sugar, salt, alcohol, cocaine, caffeine, solvents and so on. We have trained our brains to accept these quick fixes and so we ‘crave’ them; when instead if we increased our own natural chemicals and boosted our motivation we would soon form new habits, which would pretty quickly become accepted by the brain as the new way of doing things.

What makes people so clever is that their brains keep changing depending on what they are doing with them! The technical term is plasticity – neuroplasticity (Google it, it’s the big thing!). The brain continually changes throughout a person’s life as the neurons (see Figure 1) reorganise themselves and form new connections. This occurs when you learn something – whether that’s memorising a new song, acquiring a new skill (like driving, using your new mobile phone or playing the piano), or just falling into a new routine or habit.

Throughout your life, your brain is able to change with learning; and these changes mostly occur at the level of the connections between neurons. If you form lots of new connections, the habit or learning seems more ‘ingrained’. The more of an expert you become on a particular subject, the larger that area of your brain becomes – YES, you get cleverer!  

When you are feeling unmotivated, what else are you feeling? A lack of motivation is not an isolated factor. It is not something that we feel and can dismiss as simply ‘the feeling of the moment.’ When you are unmotivated, there is a reason. Certainly some lack of motivation can be attributed to having no interest in a task at hand. After all, how many of us really look forward to sitting down every year to sift through receipts and pay stubs to complete our taxes?

Motivation is about getting things done, whether it’s at work or home, putting that last cigarette out, getting off the sofa and into the gym or changing eating habits and so on. Motivation is an important part of everyday life and something we need to understand. The role of brain function in motivation is an important one. First, the brain produces chemicals that it uses to accomplish millions of tasks every single day. Some of these chemicals can become out of balance if external stimuli such as our jobs, relationships or self-esteem place undue stress on the brain. When that happens, a person can feel lazy, lethargic, and even depressed. Also how we look and feel affects our lives whether its job prospects or relationships (Ref 2)

What gives you the motivation to go the extra five minutes on the treadmill, say no to a second portion or ‘one more’ glass of wine? It may be your levels of brain chemicals such as dopamine and serotonin. The functions of serotonin are numerous and appear to involve control of appetite, sleep, memory and learning, temperature regulation, mood, behaviour, cardiovascular function, muscle contraction, endocrine regulation, and depression. When we meet our goals WE feel good and we release these chemicals into our bloodsteam, they in turn make us feel better and so we feel EVEN MORE motivated!

Reward is an essential feature of most human behaviour: the need to obtain reward and avoid punishment is crucial to our motivation. Current work on functional neuroimaging is enabling us to identify the brain regions that control reward behaviour such as eating and drinking. These studies also provide insights into the underlying neural activities driving responses to financial reward or loss. There is also discussion of social factors such as cooperation and altruism in shaping human reward mechanisms. This is why when we help others and act positively towards our fellow humans WE feel good.  You let someone out in a queue of traffic and a few junctions later you will see them do the same.

So, how do we make a new behaviour a habit?

Conditioning is the process by which an originally neutral stimulus becomes associated with a primary reinforcer, while instrumental learning is a process whereby animals learn to perform an action to obtain a reward or avoid a punishment. These basic principles govern human reward behaviour; we learn which cues signal positive and negative outcomes and we learn how our actions and behaviours can increase the probability of positive outcomes. (Ref 3) So, the more you do something the easier it gets, we KNOW this!  And, not only are you meeting your goal, as you continue to feel better and remain motivated you are making new connections ALL the time in your brain and so you will be getting cleverer too! You are gaining clarity, balance in mood and an increased sense of overall well-being.

William Montgomery leadership expert from AskTen in Bristol emphasises the importance of goals and not getting frustrated - The reason that it's so important to not get frustrated is because when we get frustrated, we lose the motivation, and the energy to press on. Without the motivation and a certain level of enthusiasm, we can never achieve those hard but worthwhile goals. When you work on your own goals, learn to acknowledge partial success and don't get discouraged easily.

Recently in Scientific American Mind magazine (Ref 4), they discussed three attributes that make up motivation:

  • Autonomy - Whether you pursue an activity for its own sake or because external forces compel you, you gain motivation when you feel in charge. In evaluations of students, athletes and employees, the researchers have found that the perception of autonomy predicts the energy with which individuals pursue a goal.
  • Value - Motivation also blossoms when you stay true to your beliefs and values. Assigning value to an activity can restore one's sense of autonomy - several studies have found a positive correlation between valuing a subject in school and a student's willingness to investigate a question independently.
  • Competence - As you devote more time to an activity, you notice your skills improve, and you gain a sense of competence. A study on students and their attitudes and engagement with athletics during a two-year period found a strong link between a student's sense of prowess and his or her desire to pursue sports.

This discussion of motivation and creating new habits makes me think of a client who sought hypnotherapy to lose weight. And one day she decided to go out for a walk. Then she started walking a few times a week. On one occasion she tries running for a while. Then she begins to run more often. Each time she can go a little farther. She soon notices that she is sleeping and eating better, that she has more energy and looks better in the mirror. Like the movement of the butterflies wing, that isolated first walk may have started a sustained chain of events, that are now building towards improving her self-esteem and increasing her energy, affecting her entire brain-body system. One day, feeling physically and mentally stronger, she finds a new job. She begins to make more friends, starts to laugh more – and turns her life around.

This woman’s extraordinary metamorphosis began with an ordinary walk. There are many tools right at our fingertips for changing our mental health, both in correcting our problems and simply in becoming the kind of person we want to be. (Ref 5)

So, why not make this your year to get it done? Give yourself a fighting start by attacking your body with a motivated brain! Get your chemicals on board and go for it. If you feel you need extra help to get started why not consider complementary health disciplines such as hypnotherapy, acupuncture or even life coaching or a personal trainer? Once the footprints of the new patterns are there, you will soon be able to take your own steps forward, turning those footprints into pathways, and eventually motorways as the new behaviours become habits. 

Above all else … watch your thoughts …


1) Rush University Prevention Centre, and was published in the August 2011 issue of the Journal of the American Dietetic Association.

2) Natalie Evans – Personal Trainer

3) Mental Capital and Wellbeing: Making the most of ourselves in the 21st century State-of-Science Review: SR-E2 Neuroscience of Human Reward.  Dr Rebecca Elliott Neuroscience and Psychiatry Unit, University of Manchester


5) Michael Hughes – Hypnotherapy Supervisor

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