If you’re having a bad day, this is really encouraging news, a scientific breakthrough, a story of redemption, but like all such stories it begins badly.
Lisa Allen began smoking and drinking at sixteen. Her excess weight reflected a lifetime of chronic overeating. She was deeply in debt and had never held a job for an entire year. She was in her thirties when her husband told her he was in love with another woman and wanted a divorce.
She did not respond well.
Her grief led her down a dark, obsessive road. She fell into depression and followed him around town in tears. Then she began to stalk her husband’s girlfriend. There were midnight phone calls and hang ups, eventually escalating to a drunken, screaming, door-banging visit where she threatened to burn down the girl’s condo.
Desperate to escape the embarrassment, she found a novel but questionable solution. She had always wanted to visit the pyramids and her credit card wasn’t maxed out, so she took off for Egypt.
The next morning she was shocked awake, jet-lagged and confused in the pitch dark, by loud Arabic calls to worship from a nearby mosque. Shaking, she fumbled in the blackness for a cigarette and promptly lit an ink pen. She jumped out of bed and knocked over a large water bottle which exploded into noisy shards in the darkness.
She collapsed back into the bed in tears, her life’s failures pressing down. She thought, I can’t even smoke right!
Later, she took a taxi to the Great Sphinx and the pyramids of Giza beside the Nile. On the dirt road, surrounded by vast, baking desert, she felt the desperate need to control something, anything, even just one thing in her life!
It was then that she had her life-changing idea.
She felt she needed a goal in her life, something to focus on, so she decided to trek across the desert. She had no idea if it was even possible. She was broke and her life was a train wreck. She didn’t even know the name of the desert she was riding in.
But the idea seized her imagination. It was big. One year from now she would return and cross the desert.
Without a clue, she had already decided it would take a year to prepare. She knew she would have to make sacrifices. And somehow she just knew she would have to quit smoking.
This was her one thing.
She had no idea it was the beginning of a chain of events that would ripple to every corner of her life over the next six months. First, she replaced smoking with running. As her wind improved, she began eating healthier. The exertion led to full nights of regenerative sleep. The goal meant she had to save money. She took control of her work schedule. She was planning and looking forward to the future.
As her endurance increased, she began running half-marathons and the weight fell away. She committed to a full marathon and completed one. She decided to go back to school and get her masters. She bought a house. Then she got engaged.
In the middle of this process, she went back to Egypt and took her trek across the desert, the Sahara Desert she now knew. The caravan of vehicles required for the luggage, food and water would have certainly held a carton of cigarettes.
It didn’t matter a bit.
At school pursuing her masters, she participated in a scientific study of people that had changed their lives in a short period of time. She became the researcher’s favorite participant.
They tempted her with every vice that had once held her captive while doing brain scans and discovered an amazing thing. The areas of her previous addictions lit up brightly, still very much active. But another area of her brain is what excited them.
The frontal lobe, the area of the brain responsible for impulse control and self-discipline, increased in activity with every single scan! Lisa was actually growing the part of her brain which over-rode the areas for hunger and cravings.
Starting with the dream of crossing the desert and quitting smoking, she had been building self-discipline and control with every task she accomplished. The improved part of her brain was then available for the next step which also grew her brain further. They could measure her progress. They could watch the change.
If she had tried to change everything at once, she most likely would not have had the resources. But the one thing, the thing that she needed to control, provided her with the growth to attack the next problem. The dream provided her with a tantalizing, tangible reward for her hard work.
By this time in the study she had lost sixty pounds, looked ten years younger, had been at a web design firm for thirty-nine months, could out exercise any scientist in the building and hadn’t had a cigarette in four years.
She was not the only one in the study.
What does this mean for you? According to Charles Duhigg, author of The Power of Habit: Why We Do What We Do in Life and Business, change is not only possible but can happen faster than we imagine.
It starts one thing at a time. It builds upon it’s own success. You get stronger as you go. You can actually grow self-discipline like a muscle. Your own personal dreams are possible.
Right now, for me, that possibility is enough to change my day. After that, who knows?