I know, I know… your therapist gives you homework which seems doable in session as you’re agreeing to try it. But then the session ends, you go back to your regular life and suddenly the time, energy and motivation are lacking. Maybe you squeeze your homework in at the last minute, or if you’re like me, you go to your next session and hope your therapist doesn’t remember the mood log they asked you to fill out or the mindfulness exercise you agreed to do daily.

Here’s the thing – if you continue to do what you’ve always done, you’re reinforcing old neurological patterns, helping  them to become stronger and even more automated. There’s a part of your brain that wants this. Your reptile brain tries to talk you into sticking with your old thoughts and behaviors because 1) that uses less energy (calories) which allows you to stockpile your resources for any future danger and 2) those old patterns feel safer to your reptile brain. That sucker is forever trying to keep you in your comfort zone because you’ve survived everything in your life so far, and your reptile brain equates that with safety. The reptile brain doesn’t think about what’s best for your mental wellbeing, or emotional or spiritual growth –  it thinks about survival, and the easiest way to ensure it. So doing therapy homework is HARD. It takes thoughts, motivation, willpower, time and energy, all things your automatic patterns don’t like (at least in as large amounts). But every time you take even a small step toward change, you force your brain cells to fire in new ways. Done consistently, this creates new neurological connections which will eventually automate your new patterns so they become habitual.

So what I’m saying is, teeny tiny but consistent efforts goes a long way over time. We don’t get much benefit from brushing our teeth once but consistent brushing over time has huge health ramifications.

The formula for change is:
1. Identify the larger goal and identify some progressive baby steps that will help you reach it. Then choose 1, maybe 2 of those and map out exactly when/how you will incorporate those. (For example, if you want to improve self-esteem, a baby step might be to talk to yourself more positively. And if you tie it to an existing habit, you’ll have better luck remembering so you can plan to notice one thing you’ve done well that day as you brush your teeth before bed).

  1. Positively reinforce yourself EVERY time you do the baby step. Yes, every time. The organ of your brain is smart, and will respond to positive reinforcement. So every time you remind yourself of a recent job well done, you are giving yourself kudos so the organ now has a positive experience with that change. If you like affirmations, this is a great way to incorporate them. If you don’t, you might need to get creative. Try literally patting yourself on the back, or high fiving yourself in the mirror. Or get a jar and each time you choose the new behavior, put a bean/dollar/cotton ball in the jar so you can see a visual representation of your effort. This step is so important and most people struggle with it or skip it completely. If you don’t give your brain a reason to do the new behavior (kudos), then it has no reason to engage in the new behavior again – after all, it put forth extra effort and didn’t get anything extra in response
  2. After some time, you’ll notice that the new behavior becomes more automatic and eventually is something you do without much effort. That signals that it requires little to no willpower now, which is a great time to repeat the process with the next baby step. I know that there’s a saying about 21 days makes a habit, but that’s not entirely accurate. It depends on how frequently you’re practicing. Something you practice daily will become habit more quickly than something you practice once a week.

It usually doesn’t feel like it at the time, but every little bit counts and anything that moves you closer to your goal is progress, no matter how big or small. If your therapist is giving you homework that feels too big, ask them for help with breaking it down into more bite sized pieces.

For more on this topic, I would highly recommend reading Atomic Habits by James Clear.

– Ilse Burton

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The Evolution Group Incorporated is a private counseling firm that has built its practice around the core values of integrity, authenticity, safety and honoring individuality. We work with individuals, couples and families to empower the wholeness that already lies within them

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Albuquerque, NM 87102

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