I read an amazing book a year ago by David Goggins called Can’t Hurt Me. After an abusive childhood and serious struggles in school he decided to try to qualify for Navy SEAL training. David was 6’1” and weighted 297 pounds. The weight limit for him to qualify was 191. So, he had to lose 106 pounds in about three months in order to be eligible. He took it on.
He tells the story of getting up early one mid-winter day in Chicago to go out for a run. He describes opening his front door to head out and being just knocked back by the cold. He immediately shut the door and watched his brain start negotiating about whether to go. Then he had a realization.
What he was learning through his process of getting his body in shape was that discomfort is the gateway we must pass through in order to change.
Whether it is cold weather runs or saying no to a brownie, in that moment he had to zoom out from the cold weather to see the bigger picture. He was on a mission to qualify for SEAL training, to see what he was capable of, to prove to himself that he could conquer incredibly physical feats, overcome mental obstacles and rise to any challenge.
That discomfort drove him forward, out into the cold Chicago winter and beyond. He chose not to interpret the discomfort as a red light, but instead, as a signal to move forward. He learned to leverage the discomfort to create real change.
He ended up losing the weight, getting fit, and being accepted into SEAL training.
While I don’t advocate that you try to lose 100 pounds in three months, we can learn from how David leveraged the power of his thoughts to accomplish his goals.
Zooming in and out
Learning how to zoom in and zoom out on our journey of change is how we learn to leverage discomfort and grow.
Zooming in is where we want to begin on any journey of change because any change we are looking to make happens in this moment and in the subsequent moments that follow. It’s in small decisions, tiny steps, little habits that we create the big long-term impacts.
I love the example of the airplane flying from LA to New York to illustrate this concept. If the pilot changes the trajectory just 3.5 degrees, which only moves the nose of the plane a few feet, the plane lands in Washington D.C. instead of New York, which is a 230-mile difference in the end.
Small changes can equal big differences in outcomes.
3 ingredients for neuroplasticity
I want to talk more about the ability we have to make these small changes that result in big outcomes. Our brain is programmed to be able to do this using neuroplasticity. Neuroplasticity is the ability of our brain to change through growth and reorganization.
As children, our brains are actively being shaped like little sponges. This process of growth or neuroplasticity is constant.
As adults, it takes a little more effort, but it’s still absolutely possible. Changing our adult brain is a deliberate process that requires three ingredients: focus, connection to meaning, and internal reward.
When we decide to take on this process of doing something new, learning a new skill, or cultivating a new habit, we have to zoom in with our brain. We have to focus.
The design of our brain is to analyze incoming information from our senses and then customize our responses and relegate these solutions to our default mode.
Our brains strive for efficiency. They don’t want to spend too much energy on analyzing information and want to turn as many processes into reflexive behavior as possible.
Dr. Andrew Huberman has some really enlightening, awesome research on this subject. He outlines how when we decide to focus, or zoom in, the brain switches on a set of circuits to analyze and understand three things:
- Duration: How long will it last?
- Path: What’s going to happen?
- Outcome: What’s the ultimate result?
The whole objective of this analysis is to figure out how to relegate this to a reflexive behavior. Our brain wants to get back into our energy-saving, default comfort zone.
When we zoom in, norepinephrine is released to increase our alertness and our ability to focus our attention. Norepinephrine is otherwise known as noradrenaline and is involved in our fight or flight response.
This is why when you zoom in you experience agitation, stress and discomfort.
The typical result when trying to lose weight is that when trying to change what we eat, change our bodies, or change our habit of using food to escape, we feel so uncomfortable.
While we’re trying to lose weight, we are perceiving it as ongoing fight or flight mode.
The agitation we feel when we zoom in is what we can leverage to get us moving toward our goals if we’re willing to lean into it. The agitation is the signal to move, not to stop.
It’s the activator that gets our brain finding solutions. Without that agitation, we wouldn’t ever strive toward anything new. We’d just stay right where we are.
2. Connection to meaning
The second ingredient is connecting to meaning, to a sense of importance. We have to have a reason why making this change matters in order to temper the agitation and make it worth it.
Meaning puts this stress response into perspective. It tells your brain this discomfort is good stress, rather than toxic stress.
3. Internal rewards
Stress, even good stress, is still stress, and it’s not meant to be sustained at high levels for long periods of time. If left unchecked, high levels of norepinephrine drive us to seek relief through quitting.
But good news, there’s a built-in reward mechanism that helps keep norepinephrine in check. It’s our good friend dopamine.
Dopamine is the reward that pushes the levels of norepinephrine back down and motivates us to keep going. It keeps that “quit response” at bay and it encourages us to keep moving toward accomplishment.
External rewards don’t do the trick here. The reward has to be internal. It can be as small as acknowledging along the way that we’re on the right path and headed in the right direction.
I like to think of internal rewards like building a fire. Every win along the way is kindling and acknowledging those accomplishments internally is like a little spark.
Your kindling is added to when you lose your first five pounds, or complete the first week of sticking to your plan, or chosing veggies over fries. As you acknowledge those accomplishments you create that spark.
Then, with more planning, consistency and commitment, you get to watch the flames rise higher and higher and provide lasting heat and comfort.
Even though this process of zooming in is critical to our goals, there are some pitfalls to this zoomed in state that we want to be wary of.
When we are zoomed in, we only see now. Sometimes this means we are only seeing what has gone wrong. This can also mean we can look at the small decision in front of us and think it doesn’t really matter.
That’s why zooming out is necessary along the way. We want to take time along the way to relax our focus and zoom out, to remind ourselves of the bigger picture, to put things in perspective, to see how far we’ve come, to recognize the future impact of our in-the-moment decisions.
We also want to zoom out in order to create space for rest. Deep sleep is where these new behaviors and skills and changes are solidified. We need both deep focus and deep rest to complete this process of change. That’s where these new behaviors start to become reflexive.
As Eliot Berkman defines it, a goal is a detour from the path of least resistance.
Zooming in and then zooming out can help you reach your goals and find success on your weight loss journey.