The beginning of the new year is traditionally thought of as the perfect time to start fresh and set new goals for the year. But most New Year’s resolutions fail by the second week of February. What if this year, instead of making a resolution that you’ll give up on within a few weeks, you resolve to change how you think? What if you worked to change the physical structure of your brain? It just might help you make long-lasting, positive changes in your life. This year, resolve to go beyond the typical resolution.
Winning the Battle in Your Mind
Most of life’s battles are won or lost in the mind. No matter if your thoughts are positive or negative, your life will always move in the direction of your strongest thoughts. It’s like what Henry Ford, the founder of Ford Motor Company, once said: “Whether you think you can or you think you can’t, you’re right.”
With each thought and decision, we are creating neural pathways in our brains. The more we think the same thoughts and make the same decisions, the deeper our neural pathways get and the stronger those habits become. If you don’t like the direction your thoughts are taking you, there’s good news! You have the power to retrain your brain.
Think about your front lawn. If you walk through the grass, taking the same shortcut to your car every day, eventually you’ll wear a path in the grass. But if you decide to stop walking in the grass and choose to take the sidewalk, over time, it will become your new default. The grass will grow back, and it will become easier and more desirable to continue taking the new path. In the same way, you can change the physical structure of your brain by choosing to think positive thoughts. Neuroscientists call it neuroplasticity.
Neuroplasticity was substantiated in the 1970s, and there have been numerous scientific studies since then that support the brain’s ability to be rewired. But it wasn’t a radically new concept. The idea also appeared in the Bible. In a letter to the ancient Church in Rome, the Apostle Paul wrote, “Do not conform to the pattern of this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind” (Romans 12:2). Regardless of the terminology—rewiring your brain or renewing your mind—scientists and people of faith agree that the practice can help people lead more positive, fulfilling lives.
How to Retrain Your Brain
The first step in the process of retraining your brain is to commit to doing the work. You can’t learn any new skill or create any new habit overnight. It takes hard work and consistency. On average, it takes at least three weeks to create a new habit, and research shows it may take more than two months for a new behavior to become automatic. Creating new neural pathways will take time, but be encouraged that once you’ve created the new pathway, it becomes easier to stay the course. Promise yourself you’ll make every effort to be consistent.
Next, identify the number one thing holding you back. While it may be tempting to try to tackle multiple areas, you’ll have more success if you choose to focus on just one. Give it some serious thought. Put in the effort to dig below the surface and discover the root of what’s causing you to struggle. For example, your relationship problems, job performance, or poor health may all be caused by low self-esteem, and by changing that one thought pattern, you could see improvements in several areas of your life.
So, what are the negative or empty things you say to yourself over and over? Maybe it’s, “I’m an idiot,” “I’m too busy,” or “There’s never enough.” What are the hurtful things you tell yourself that you’d never say to another person? Maybe something like, “I’m not good enough,” “Because of my past, I don’t deserve anything good,” or “Things will never change. I’ll always struggle with this.” Identify one recurring phrase that keeps you from living a positive life.
Once you know which thought needs to change, replace it with a positive affirmation. If you struggle with feeling inadequate, your positive phrase might be, “I am smart, resourceful, and capable.” And if you’re a Christian, look at what God says about His creation in the Bible and use that as inspiration for your daily declarations. For example, if you’re often worried and afraid, consider what the Apostle Paul shared with Timothy: “God has not given us a spirit of fear, but a spirit of power, of love, and of a sound mind” (2 Timothy 1:7).
Kickstart the renewal of your mind by writing down the positive thought and placing it where you’ll see it regularly—on your mirror, on your desk, or on your phone’s background. When the negative thought enters your mind, proactively pause in the moment to replace it with your positive statement, both in your mind and out loud. Refuse to give voice to the negativity. Only allow yourself to say the positive affirmation aloud. Repeat it as often as you need to so that you believe it.
A Year of Cultivating Consistency
Knowing that you can change the trajectory of your life by changing your thought patterns, focus your resolutions on addressing that number one area holding you back. Ensure your life looks different one year from now by following these tips:
Start with 1-2 small, specific actions.
Choose something so small that you can’t help but succeed. If you want to be healthier and have more self-confidence, try cutting out just one guilty pleasure food item from your diet instead of every unhealthy food all at once. If you want to learn a new skill, resolve to read one professional development article per week instead of setting the goal to be an expert by the end of the year. If you conquer your small resolutions, you can always add more mid-year. You just don’t want to bite off more than you can chew and end up discouraged in a matter of weeks.
Plan to be consistent.
Set yourself up for success by scheduling time to make progress with your resolution. Leave yourself reminders so you can’t forget, and give yourself a deadline so you don’t put it off. Make it part of your weekly or even daily routine. Something for you to remember is that successful people do consistently what normal people do occasionally.
Keep training your mind toward truth.
As the year continues, you’re bound to hit some speed bumps or even the occasional roadblock. Don’t allow the lies that have held you down in the past to resurface and distract or discourage you. Continue repeating your positive affirmations, even developing new affirmations to combat new negative thoughts as they arise. You might consider hiding encouraging notes around the house that you’ll find throughout the year or giving them to friends who’ll mail one to you when they feel prompted. Find the method that works best for you, and hold on to the truth. Renew your mind by writing it, thinking it, and speaking it until you believe it.
Know your triggers and prepare your response.
We all have weak spots, especially when trying to change a well-established habit. Do your best to identify the things that could derail, distract, or discourage you before you begin. Draw up a battle plan that will help you fight against your natural inclinations until you’re able to rewire your brain to follow the new neural pathway. If you can identify the things that may trigger you to respond negatively and decide in advance how you will respond with positivity, you’ll be more likely to succeed in the moment.
Give yourself grace.
Perfection is not a realistic expectation. When you get derailed, be kind to yourself. Don’t let it give you an excuse to give up, but don’t be too hard on yourself either. What’s incredible about grace is there’s always enough. That’s something God made sure of. So, pause to consider what went wrong, make adjustments, and start again.
You don’t have to tell everybody what you’re struggling with, but you should find a small group of trusted friends with whom you can share. Choose people you can be honest with and feel safe around. Be sure they will not just agree with you at every turn but will challenge you when you need it. You should also try to surround yourself with people who are succeeding in the areas you want to grow in. It will be difficult to learn about patience from impatient people or humility from the prideful. And if you want to grow in faith, add someone to your inner circle whose faith is strong. Surrounding yourself with a solid support system can be the thing that tips the balance in your favor.
Find your source of strength.
Determine what motivates you, and keep your eyes fixed on it. Maybe you have children who you want to set a good example for, or maybe you’re determined to outlive the age at which your parents died. If you’re a Christian, you’re motivated by your relationship with Jesus and your desire to be more like Him. Whatever inspires you to be better, keep it top of mind and don’t lose sight of it.
So many people feel “stuck” in today’s world, like they’re going nowhere fast. But there is hope for a better tomorrow. We have the ability to press into the uncomfortable and make changes that will have a lasting impact in our lives and in the lives of future generations.
While his people were exiled from their homeland, the prophet Zechariah said, “Do not despise these small beginnings, for the Lord rejoices to see the work begin” (Zechariah 4:10). Be encouraged by this passage, and today, take your first, small step toward the future you want.
To get started with ideas for creating your own positive affirmations, visit www.life.church/declarations.
“Mastermind” Sermon Series by Craig Groeschel, Life.Church
Battlefield of the Mind: Winning the Battle in Your Mind by Joyce Meyer
Switch On Your Brain: The Key to Peak Happiness, Thinking, and Health by Caroline Leaf