The Roller Coaster of Change: It's Not Just You

Seven years in five gyms across four states: this is my history of experience working in an industry that exists to help people change their lives. And in all of my time as a fitness trainer and nutrition coach one thing remains true regardless of who I'm working with or the latest innovation or industry craze: change is hard as hell. 

I see the same scenario time and time again: an individual comes to me for a consultation with a goal, a desire to change, and a heart full of motivation. We sit down and map out the course of action for them to achieve their goal. I always give them a WAR score - Willing, Able and Ready - on a scale of 1 - 10. The lowest score I've had someone confess to me was maybe a 7. I always explain that change is not easy and there will be difficult days, and they smile, nod and agree politely. They leave our time together with everything that one would theoretically need to be successful from that point forward. They go out into the world with a fresh outlook. "This is it, this is the time it all falls magically into place. It will be different this time. Last time I tried this change [insert random life occurrence that could derail someone from reaching their goals here] got in the way. All of that's history. Right?"

"If you watch close, history does nothing but repeat itself. What we call chaos is just patterns we haven't recognized. What we call random is just patterns we can't decipher." Chuck Palahniuk  

Their path forward from the time they leave our consultation usually looks something along the lines of this:

  • At first there's nearly perfect compliance with the plan of action. Spirits are high, motivation is up. An analogy I like to use is driving a car. During this first phase they're the cool kid doing laps around the local hang out spot in town. Windows are down, shades are on, music is up, one hand on the wheel, one hand out the window. 
  • Fatigue then begins to creep in slowly but compliance to the plan remains relatively high, 80-90%. However, motivation begins to drain. At this point in driving the car they're no longer spinning circles around the local haunt. They've got both hands on the wheel now but not a lot else has changed. 
  • Fatigue then becomes a very real thing. They're exhausted both mentally and physically. They've started white-knuckling the steering wheel. They've got a heavy foot on the gas, trying to outrun this "slump." The windows are up. Radio choices have changed from Biggie Smalls to NPR. 
  • BOOM. Life happens. You know, that random thing they said wouldn't be a problem this time. And they're just too tired to cope. They can't even. So they cave. Action plan compliance drops significantly. Car spins out of control. 

The purpose of this article is to arm you with the understanding that change is hard and never happens the way we wished it would. We just have to become deeply familiar with a few key principles at play and the tools needed to overcome the obstacles waiting ahead. If you truly understand the mechanics of change, you will be prepared to RESPOND to detours on your journey instead of REACTING IRRATIONALLY and allowing yourself to be thrown off course completely. 

Concept 1: Change is not linear

But oh, wouldn't it be nice if it were. Wouldn't you like to know that you just have to be motivated enough and understand the steps needed to make the changes you want and... voila! They're done!

Yeah, me too. But I got news for you: it will never ever happen that way. And the sooner you embrace this fact and apply it to every single change you wish to make, the sooner you will be well on your way to seeing your life change for good. If you know the path ahead is not a straight line then the curve in the road won't surprise you. You've been waiting for it all along. 

I love Ray Dalio's illustration of this growth process from his book Principles. As you can see below, he demonstrates that as we begin to chase after a goal we're headed up. Then life happens and we arrive at the curve in the road and our progress seems to take a downward turn. However, if you're prepared for this you aren't caught unaware. Instead you're looking around, observing all the factors at play, so you can better understand what happened and how you can do a little better next time. In other words, you're learning.  And once you learn, you improve. And off you go again, this time a wiser, better version of yourself all the more ready to continue on this path. 


From " Principles " by Ray Dalio

From "Principles" by Ray Dalio

Concept 2: Mindless behaviors are motivated by primal instincts

And primal instincts have withstood thousands of years of intellectual evolution. In other words, they aren't going anywhere any time soon. So if you choose to ignore this little fact about the underlying motivation behind your behaviors you will lose. Plain and simple. 

"But wait," you might be thinking, "how is choosing to not go to the gym primal? Or video games/netflix binges? Or the fast food? Or... or.... or... " The list goes on. Think about those behaviors you wish to change. Are they the path of least resistance or most resistance? And there is your answer. Your logical brain naturally wants to go about the day in the easiest way possible, avoiding all manners of stress or energy-expending effort in order to safely arrive on the other side of this thing called life. It operates based off of signals it receives from these pesky things we call hormones and neurotransmitters. It wants to maintain what it believes to be a stable state of being; whatever feels good, tastes good in the moment regardless of actual long-term impact it has on our quality of life. 

This information helps us to keep everything in perspective. It's easy to get frustrated with ourselves when we can't seem to stop doing [X, Y, Z]. But if you remember that those actions are hard wired in the space between our ears then we can start to have some forgiveness and compassion towards ourselves. These two mindsets will work miracles in your life. It's not you, you are not broken. You cannot wish away instincts. But, you can reconstruct the way your brain works. 

Concept 3: Your brain can change 


Don't just take it from me. Find an extra 14 minutes in your day today to listen to Barbara Arrowsmith-Young's story. 

As she states in the beginning of her talk, our brains have 200 billion neurons and more connections than all of the stars in the sky combined. Let that one soak in for a second. That organ you carry around is an insanely complex and capable thing. And even though it is motivated by instinct, it is not immovable. It can change. You can literally redirect the neural firings in your brain. This is called self-directed neuroplasticity, and it is the mechanical process taking place when we wish to permanently change behavior. 

The first step to changing your behavior is to understand that at all times there are two of you living inside the same body. There is a logical you and there is an emotional you. You have a mind, and it is different than your brain. A common analogy for this idea is a rider on top of an elephant. The rider symbolizes the logical mind while the elephant symbolizes the emotional/impulsive brain. The rider knows where to go and how to get there. He knows at all times what is the best way to go even if it's a challenging path the elephant would rather not take. The elephant is unfortunately the larger and stronger of the two, and likes to have his way (just as the brain's primal wiring are stronger than the willpower of the mind). So how does the rider win? He thinks ahead, he plans and prepares, and he braces for the times when he has to tighten his grip on the reins to push the elephant onward. And just like the rider can't sustain white-knuckle control over the reins for too long at one time, we also have a limited amount of willpower. 

This concept is absolutely critical and cannot be stressed enough. If you want to change you have got to become familiar with the internal divide between mind and brain, and be diligent in engaging your mind to direct the wiring of your brain. I'll present some tools later on to help you do exactly this.

Concept 4: Motivation and Inspiration are liars

When's the last time you heard someone attribute their life-altering transformation to a quote they read on Pinterest? Nope. They usually talk a little about the grind, about the psychological journey and about the sacrifices they've made along the way. 

I'm not at all saying inspiration is bad. In fact, later on I'll talk about how to use your environment to set you up for success and surrounding yourself with inspiration has a lot to do with that. But my problem with "inspo" is that it gives you a false sense of security. It's like doing a trust fall at summer camp with a group of people standing below who don't even really like you that much. They might slow your momentum but, sorry kid, you're hitting the ground. 

People often misunderstand these feelings of motivation for something else, something greater and immovable. It's almost as if they believe there's been some kind of divine intervention overnight and the world is now full of rainbows and butterflies. If you want to be in it to win it, you've got to see right through these feelings. Feelings are fleeting. Surface level motivation has a shelf-life. 

Now that we understand some key concepts in the process of change, how do we actually navigate these waters? The following are some of my tried-and-true tools I use personally and share with others.

Tool 1: anchor down

If I had a penny for every time I've heard the phrase "it starts with why" since working in the fitness industry I would no longer have to work at all. But I'll be damned if Sinek didn't hit the nail on the head with this one. 

Do you know what stands a chance against the power of instinct? A true, deeply-rooted and emotionally-bound reason WHY you want to change. If we can successfully find the reason why we want to be different, then we have uncovered our ultimate source of internal and lasting motivation. This is where we anchor down. Drop that sucker right in the heart of your reasoning so that when the winds start to change you're held to your course.  In the studies I had to go through to become a Sports Performance Nutrition Coach they taught us to peel back the layers of "why" five times to arrive at the core of what is driving this change. 

Try this yourself, see where you end up. Start by asking yourself why you want to change. Write this down. This is step 1. Then, ask yourself why that reason to change matters to you. This is step 2. Repeat this self-interrogation five times. It's like peeling an onion.

Find your why and hold on tight. 

Tool 2: power of positivity

"Our brains are changing all the time in response to our behaviors, emotions, and thoughts whether for our benefit or not. (1)"

Our brains are like sponges, soaking in whatever environment they're placed in. And that seemingly rigid thing we call reality? Yeah. It's just a reflection of our perception. In other words, change your mind and change your life. 

An object in motion tends to remain in motion until acted upon by a force. If you think positive, you speak positive, you act positive, you see positive, you are positive and life is positive. And the same can be said for negativity. Unfortunately Newton had to add on that last little bit about "acted upon by a force." In our case, those forces are factors of influence. We are all constantly under a barrage of influences, be it good, bad or somewhere in between. Some of these factors are within our control while some are not. 

Take a look at the influences within your control. Some examples that come to my mind are:

  • Social media followings
  • Personal relationships
  • Music, television and all media choices

How positive are all of those for you? How guarded are you over the things you see and hear on a daily basis? Try setting yourself up for success by auditing the factors of influence that are within your control and making the changes needed to create a more positive environment for yourself. Stop following those "perfect" social media stars. Add some more uplifting boards to your Pinterest. Change the radio station in your car or just turn it off. Deactivate Facebook. Stop watching that show (yeah, you know which one I'm talking about). Give your influential environment a good spring cleaning.

Tool 3: Declutter

Physically and mentally declutter. Research around this topic is vague and largely inconclusive, but speaking from personal experience a tidy physical space is often inhabited by an easy mind. And a mind at ease is all the more able to respond to those bumps in the road than a mind that's at wit's end. It's been reported that actually cleaning your house helps you to prepare for a big lifestyle change or to get back on track if you've fallen off the wagon. Think about how good it feels to walk into a sparkling clean house. It's uplifting. And I would bet a pretty penny there's some favorable brain chemistry happening as a result of that good feeling. This idea piggybacks off the one before. You want to physically change the environment you're in in order to set yourself up for success. 

Aside from cleaning the actual spaces you're in, another incredibly effective tool is to keep a clean mind. This time I'm not talking about the influences going into your mind, but the traffic control happening inside your head. Enter mindfulness meditation. These words can be like voodoo in the South, but there's nothing to be afraid of here. Do you remember being told to count backwards from 10 when you're upset? That's a mindfulness practice. Mindfulness calms your mind and directs your focus in. It allows you to practice giving the power to the rider, to the mind, in directing your focus over the irrational impulses of your brain. Studies have also shown that the actual structure of Buddhist monk's brains change as a result of meditation (refer back to concept 3). Taking time to practice directing your focus is like an exercise for your neural connections. The more you practice creating good channels in your head, the stronger they'll be and the more able they'll be to take over when it really matters. 

Check out this great article on beginning a meditation routine.

In summary, changing anything is never going to be easy. But that's okay, that's normal. You have to understand the mechanics of change and be prepared with the best tools to get the job done. Dig your heels in and continue on. We all fall off the wagon. The only thing that matters is if you understand that it's not just you, you are not broken, this is not abnormal. This adversity is expected and predictable. Face it and move on with your life.