Every possible thought, belief, action, behavior and habit lies within a dense and outstretched forest. Every time you bring one of these behaviors or thoughts into being, you start a path through the wooded thicket. Your first pass is a difficult one. Branches catch you in the face. You are scratched. It's work, hard work, cutting back the vines and overgrowth. But the second pass is easier, if only a little. Over time you beat down the path, smoothing it over until it's a nearly effortless pass. By the millionth time, you have invested in paving it as a superhighway, and there isn't a single obstruction in your way.
We've all been there: on a drive home or to work or somewhere, we arrive not even realizing how we got there. We've traveled the road so many times that it's on autopilot. It's effortless, because you've perfectly carved that trail through the forest. When we're faced with road construction on our familiar pathway, it's irritating and exhausting, because we are running a different combination of circuitry, a different pathway of action potentials firing across the brian. It's unfamiliar, uncomfortable, and depleting.
The forest, by the way, is the neural network of your brain; and, in fact, we do carve physical, visible grooves in it with repeated behaviors, thoughts, actions, beliefs, feelings, reactions, vices, work ethic, eating habits, anger management, immune function, addiction, etc.
These grooves are easy paths of neuron firing. So, when you decide to change a behavior or thought pattern, you are quite literally confronted with the option to either go down the old easy path or break out the machete and get to work. The good news is you can do it. The bad news is that even after you travel the new trail, the old one is smoother. And every time you start your day, you can either take the paved path or hack down some more vines and crawl over a few more logs and stones. When you're tired, sick, sad, or demotivated, which path ya gonna take?
It's going to take a long time for an abandoned superhighway to look unappealing. You have to invest a lot in the new trail. But, in time, your new path is easy and moss grows over the old one. Cracks form in the old highway's surface. Vines come snaking back across the way; and trees sprout up through the double yellow lines themselves. The forest will retake the old highway. But it's going to be a while. Meanwhile, you've yet to invest just as much in the new trail.
Any behavior, belief, emotion or action of the brain can change. Another path lies within the forest. But you must not only create it and travel it. You must cultivate it and commit to the destruction of the old one. It's a mistake to think that just because you've formed a new habit that the old ones are gone. They are still there, pristinely awaiting your return. Only when the old ways become unfamiliar will their appeal wane.
It takes time, a lot of time. But it's legitimate. Most of the "cheat" or "I-could-never-imagine-giving-up" foods are not actually food. My mind doesn't classify them as food anymore. When I look at wheat bread or processed foods with grain proteins I get the exact same response as when I gaze upon gravel on the ground. I can eat it. I could eat it. But why would I? It's not food. You never step out of your car, catch a glimpse of gravel, and say to yourself, "I could never imagine giving up eating gravel for the rest of my life." You have long ago committed to never eating gravel. You have given up gravel-eating for your whole life, because, in your mind, it isn't food.
This took me about 3-4 years. I'm not a robot or a superhuman. I'm just some guy. So I suspect most significant behavior changes will take 3-4 years of unbroken 99% compliance. The first pass is the hardest. Subsequent travels prove easier. But when you're tired and beat down, there is comfort in the old familiar which requires a redoubling of efforts to avoid for the next few passes. Some addictions and pathologically imprinted Pavlovian-conditioned beliefs and feelings will certainly take a lot longer. But longer is not forever.
So, when you break out the hatchet, the pruning shears, the chainsaw or bulldozer, remember that the battle isn't won just because you carved a new path. The battle isn't ever really won. Three months of great drive will not wipe your memory banks clear. Old demons will call you quite clearly for years to come. But at some point, as you invest in your new superhighway, your new you, your new brain, your new heart, your new behaviors and thoughts, the old path will be nothing but a largely forgotten, vaguely familiar, perilous and unappealing path. With the vast forest of possibilities, why travel down an old disrepaired road that gets uglier with every day? One day, there won't be a single reason left.