How do you feel about Monday’s?  I always rather dreaded them.

My Monday routine used to be – hit snooze more times than was sensible, put off leaving for work by prevaricating over what I was going to wear and whether or not I should make my lunch, and then decide at the last minute that it was absolutely necessary to wash my hair / iron my clothes / unstack the dishwasher, etc..  All of which meant I was generally rushing to avoid being late for Monday briefing.  I’d arrive, out of breath and cross, ready to be annoyed at anyone about anything, and in the process, prove to myself how awful Monday’s were.  It wasn’t the best way to start the week!

When I started my happy teacher experiment, one of the things I decided I needed to do in order to be happier at work was to make friends with Monday.  In reading about happiness I had learnt that it was possible to reinvent my relationship with, and my attitude towards, aspects of my job that didn’t necessarily bring me joy, but that weren’t going anywhere in a hurry.  Things like needing to turn up to work on a Monday!


Getting the brain onside

Dr Marcel Kinsbourne, a neuroscientist at the New School for Social Research in New York, found that the brain is organised to act on what we predict will happen, meaning our expectations create brain patterns that can be just as real as those created by events in the real world.  In the brain, expectation and experience can be one and the same. This is called expectancy theory.

The work of psychologists Crum and Langer (2007) illustrates this principle beautifully. They worked with the cleaning staff of seven different hotels. With half of the staff they emphasised how physical their job was, how much exercise they got day in and day out by vacuuming, changing sheets, lugging around laundry carts, scrubbing bathrooms etc. and how similar that work was to doing a hard core cardio workout at the gym.

As you can probably guess, the other half were given no such good news. The group that had been primed to expect to physically benefit from their job, did. They lost weight and their cholesterol went down. The difference wasn’t the work the two groups were doing, but how their brains conceived the work.

It’s powerful and exciting to know that we can train our brain in order to experience the reality we want. In my situation, I had trained my brain to expect to have a horrible start to the week, and, no surprises, I routinely had a horrible start to the week.

I decided that I wanted to start my week on a positive note so that I was energised and motivated to take on whatever the week was going to throw at me.  My challenge was to train my brain to think differently about Monday.


Brain training 101

Changing our behaviour isn’t easy.  In large part this is because our brains crave routine and predictability, therefore trying to do something new or different meets with resistance.

Dr Wendy Wood, professor at the University of Southern California, has been studying habit change for 30 years and she argues that successful behaviour change occurs when you actively engage in a process of conscious experimentation to discover what works for you.  She is adamant that we need to get curious and try different behaviours on for size, and through this process work out what fits.  There isn’t a one-size-fits all solution, meaning we need to do the work, not try and short cut the process by copying what your best friend’s sister did and hoping it works for you too!

When you’re trying to learn new habits, like a new Monday routine, a cycle of ACTION – ASSESSMENT – ADJUSTMENT can be helpful.  It reminds you that habit change is messy and non-linear and that if we really want to change, we need to be open to uncertainty and the possibility of failure.  Neither experience is comfortable, but this doesn’t mean that they’re reasons for giving up.  It’s like the Pantene advertisement from years ago: it won’t happen overnight, but it will happen!

Learning loop for habit change

Get help from your happy hormones

The feeling that we call happiness comes from four brain chemicals: dopamine, endorphin, oxytocin, and serotonin. These happy chemicals are turned on in your brain when you see a way to meet a basic need, such as food, safety, or social support. It’s also natural for these to be turned off at times.  I was curious to know if I could enlist my happy hormones to help my new Monday routines stick.

Dr Loretta Breuning, neuroscientist and founder of the Inner Mammal Institute, says you can.  It’s her belief that we can be more strategic in the way we use the chemical reactions that occur in our brains and that if we’re clever we can actually enlist our neurology to support habit change.

A new habit will only form if we consciously and repeatedly change the way we behave.  That’s not always easy.  This isn’t just because our old way of behaving is easy and comfortable, it’s also because our brain is associating that behaviour with survival.  Because of the brain’s preference for predictability and safety, we have to work hard to train it to do something other than what it is used to.  The secret to success is deliberately planning to repeat behaviours.   Repetition means that we build new neural pathways and ultimately form new habits.  And the good news is that we can enlist our happy hormones to support our planned changes, making our experience of habit change more enjoyable and our new routine more likely to stick.


How to change when change is hard


1. Build dopamine into goal setting

Dopamine has many functions, but one of the most familiar is its role in reward and pleasure.  When you’re totally focused on achieving an outcome, it might be changing your Monday routine, getting a promotion or becoming a teaching rock star, the end result can seem so far away that you lose sight of the progress you’re making.  If you’re too focused on the long term goal, you’re missing out on the dopamine reward.  To avoid this, design smaller goals, this allows you to recognise the progress you’re making and enjoy neurological rewards along the way.

For example: I wanted to start my Monday on a more positive note.  Part of that was avoiding rushing.  So I set myself the goal of getting up straightaway without hitting snooze.  If I did it, I got a reward – a takeaway coffee on the way to work. The reward meant I was more motivated to change my behaviour and the associated dopamine hit meant I was more likely to continue the new behaviour.


2. Give yourself and endorphin boost

Endorphins are released in response to pain and help you persevere when facing a difficult task.  The endorphin system regulates stress and motivation and the release of endorphins helps us know when something is done.  You can turn on your endorphin response with short regular bursts of movement.

For example: I needed to persevere with my new approach to Monday, even when I was finding some of the changes I was making difficult.  In order to enlist my endorphins to support my behaviour change efforts I made two small adjustments – I started to always use the stairs, on my way to and from work and at work, and I started using the reminder on my smart-watch as a cue to get up and move, no matter how tired or how engrossed in a task I was, every hour.  Being more active meant I benefitted from more regular endorphin boosts which in turn helped me to persist with my planned programme of behaviour change.

Does the magical Monday of my dreams exist?

The happy ending would be for me to assert that 4 years on, I bounce out of bed proclaiming I love of Monday’s, but it’s probably more accurate to say I don’t hate them!  I certainly don’t dread them anymore.

I tried lots of different things, some stuck and some didn’t.  Through experimenting I was able to figure out what was draining my energy, and by making small, planned changes to my behaviour, and repeating them over and over, I established new habits that have had a big impact on my mood.  Now I’ve got a Monday routine that works for me.  As a result, I am more positive, more motivated, more energised, and let’s be honest, more pleasant to be around on a Monday!

If you suffer from Monday-itis, why not try a bit of conscious experimentation to create a routine that works for you?  Until then – Happy Monday, I hope you have a great day.

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