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  • Melissa Sims

Hacking the Algorithm

Our minds work much like supercomputers, operating at their peak efficiency by using patterns and algorithms. But are we getting stuck by doing the same things over and over again? If you are starting to feel like you’re in a rut, now might be the time to hack your brain by disrupting your patterns.

We all have our routines, whether it is getting ready for the day, our eating habits, completing our work tasks, etc. Over the past 3 years we have made some major changes in our lives due to the pandemic that forced us to create new patterns and routines. This was a challenge for many of us, as our brains do not like change! It’s uncomfortable and takes more than usual brain power to change so many things at once - our work, home, and even our social routines. Because there’s been so much change, I think a lot of us are pretty averse to more of it - and quite comfy in our little algorithm of activity.

These routines are typically purposeful and make us perform more effectively. It’s our brain’s way of simplifying our lives. The easiest path is almost always well-worn, just like a dirt road with the most direct route eventually becomes paved and traveled by all. When the brain recognizes a pattern it begins to fire neurons to create a path, so that it uses less processing power in the future to get from point A to B. This is how we remember how to do things without really thinking about them at all, like brushing our teeth, our drive to work, and even eating and drinking. It’s Mother Nature working at optimal performance.

Changing up our patterns and routines is one of the best ways for us to boost our mental state, and to turn on the learning parts of the brain - instead of just the repetitive processes. Our brains actually grow when trying something new because it is actually having to work, instead of just using an algorithm.

When our brain gets used to a routine, it becomes more difficult to “unwire” the process, and therefore even harder to introduce new information to those neuropathways. Think about the way you tie your shoes…would you change it after the 30+ years you’ve been doing it the same way? Probably not.

This same concept applies to the way our brains compute when it comes to social media, which is why it has turned so addictive for so many. These companies have an algorithm (or formula), which sees our interest in something more than once, then repeats it over and over until it becomes a pattern. Once that pattern is established, it is harder for our brains to let go of it. The pattern is now automatic and wired in. So if you pick up your phone at the same time every day, your phone is showing you things you would be interested in, based on your past activity. Repeat, repeat, repeat.

While this miracle of the mind is quite necessary for certain things, it can get us stuck in a rut of boredom, unhealthy choices, habitual reactions to repeated events, and impede forward progress and growth. If you are starting to feel like you aren’t really moving backward, but certainly aren’t moving forward, I encourage you to take inventory, as it can sometimes be difficult to identify if you are in a rut. It can be a creative rut, as Teresa just spoke about on a recent podcast, or it can be a lack of purpose. Some clues to look for: Are you mindlessly going through the motions, day in and day out? When was the last time you tried something new? Did you have a project or goal that you thought about a few months ago but still haven’t gotten around to? Are you feeling unfulfilled in your day-to-day activities?

Now might be the time to try to disrupt some patterns and take some new paths. Your patterns and habits don’t necessarily even have to be negative to warrant some change. They are just THE SAME - and that’s not allowing your mind to grow.

So how, if the brain makes it so difficult to break patterns, can we get out of this rut? Here are some tips:

  1. Identify your habits, good and bad, by writing out what you do daily on repeat. Also identify the triggers that cause the behavior. Waking up in the morning, grabbing a coffee and checking your phone? Your trigger is likely getting the coffee…your brain knows that checking your phone is next. Write them all down and identify 1-3 things you’d like to shift.

  2. Disruption. Disrupt the habits you want to shift, even if they are really small. It can be a good habit, just replace it with a new good habit. Do you walk around the office every day at lunch? Switch it up to the park. Or it could be a habit you feel is unhealthy…maybe you want to stop drinking wine every night. Keep the wine glass, replace the drink with some water and a lime. You are disrupting the pattern just enough to change the pathways.

  3. Try something completely new. Put it on the calendar and hold yourself accountable. Can’t think of anything? Search google for “interesting hobbies” and just pick something at random. Don’t overthink it. You never know until you try.

“Constantly introducing new and different strategies for physical activity and life skills can allow individuals to have more ‘tools’ in their toolbox to handle general life stressors,” says Christine Mac Donald, Ph.D., the research director for The Sports Institute at UW Medicine and a professor of neurological surgery at the University of Washington School of Medicine: “It can be very easy to become less motivated over time when routines become too repetitive.”

When was the last time you took the road less traveled? Maybe gotten off of that paved superhighway and took the long way? The brain loves new things - but it also loves to be efficient. There is nothing wrong with keeping certain behaviors the way they are, but it is so important to always present new information to encourage growth. Small changes can have a big impact! You may find that introducing different scenery, a different meal, or even learning a new skill set will start firing neurons that were dormant, and consequently sparking a whole new positive and creative outlook on life! That road that’s been traveled by all? Maybe it’s rutted out and needs a new direction.


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