We can’t teach an old dog new tricks – so the saying goes. It’s so easy to get stuck in the trap of thinking that the way we are is the way we have to stay. Change is possible though, and we can both self-direct it and direct it in others.

The nineteenth-century American physician and poet Oliver Wendell Holmes Jnr once said, “A mind, once stretched by a new idea, never regains its original dimensions”. Although he was talking in a figurative sense, it turns out that he’s literally right as well.

As the wonders of neuroplasticity – the brain’s ability to change – have been explored by science, we have realised our brains are much more flexible than we dared to imagine.

Why might we need this flexibility? If there was one aspect you could change about how your brain works, what would you change? Would it be procrastination? Or that you are too quick to react to a negative situation? Flexibility becomes even more important when we’re talking about change on the organisational level.

Cells that fire together, wire together

As leaders, we may need to assist our people in developing high performance working habits. Our team needs to build habits around prioritising, time chunking, and possibly using new technology. How do we lead them to change?

To understand this process of change we have to first understand Hebb’s rule. We can sum it up nicely in the catch-phrase ‘Cells that fire together, wire together’. This tells us three important pieces of information about the brain:

  1. Existing wiring does not deconstruct
  2. We need to create new wiring to achieve change
  3. Attention and positive feedback create new wiring

Neurons have long, stem-like axons extending out like a starfish or a sea anemone. They meet at the synapse – the space between – the end of the axon. This is where the neurochemicals jump from one neuron to another.

In our brain, there are 100 billion neurons, and each of them has 1,000 to 100,000 connections. When we have a nice, strong connection, the neurochemicals jump easily from one neuron to another.

Don't break an old habit. Make a new one

Many employees (and many leaders) have built an ‘I need to check my email’ connection that is triggered every time they sit down at their desk. If we are interested in changing that habit, we need to create new wiring. Maybe instead of checking email to start the day, we grab a post-it note and write our three highest priority tasks on it.

Habits, new behaviours, or thoughts can only be realised by creating new wiring, not by deconstructing existing wiring. This is the biggest reason why people fail to break old habits.

Remember this: Don’t break an old habit. Make a new one.

Whatever it is that you have as a habit will stay there. But it will weaken if it gets less and less attention. Consciously turn your attention to the habit that you want instead. When you notice yourself switching to a new habit, congratulate yourself. Attention is a positive thing that changes the brain.

Understanding how the brain changes lets us get the best out of ourselves and others in organisations. We begin the process of helping whole organisations to change by learning how to change our own habits.

One final takeaway: Since the brain depends on oxygen and glucose, anything that enhances their delivery to brain tissue will consequently facilitate neuroplasticity.

When we bring together diet, sleep, and exercise in balance, we increase our ability to change our brains successfully.