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Understanding Change

“When I let go of what I am, I become what I might be.”

Lao Tzu (601 BC – 531 BC)

I totally get that it’s possible to write multiple books and courses on how to initiate and facilitate change, but this post is an approach meant to explore our understanding of how our minds deal with change. With this understanding comes the ability to manipulate ourselves into helping us break the habits we don’t want and start the habits we do.

I like to think of change as a function of two separate processes.

The 1st: Knowing what to change into, a.k.a. Setting the Stage

The 2nd: Overcoming the resistance to change.

Setting the Stage

It’s not enough to want to change. You have to know what you want to change into. We can’t change into new clothes without having new clothes.

Two Schools of Thought

When it comes to thinking about setting the stage for change there are two schools of thought that tend to dominate most of the conversation.

The first are people who think they need to change everything about themselves. They don’t know enough and do everything wrong. These people usually don’t want any new undertakings since they see themselves as someone who isn’t capable.

The second are people who think they don’t need to change at all. They know everything and are oblivious to their mistakes. These people are usually arrogant, bite off more than they can chew, and rarely achieve anything substantial.

Most people fall somewhere in between.

How much change do you believe you need to make?

People who think like the former group, may have more to work with than they think and will probably want to focus on optimizing the skills and knowledge they already have.

People who think like the latter group, may want to reevaluate their value structures and ask themselves if they are still working properly. If you think your life is perfect, then they are working just fine, but to be honest no one’s life is perfect so let’s not pretend.

BUT…before you go and change everything, you will probably want to ask yourself:

“If I were to change and get my intended result, what would that do for me?” 

I got this question from Russell Brand and it is great because it gives us the real answer to focus on. Usually it isn’t the good grades that’s going to make us happy. It might be the feeling of accomplishment after completing something really hard or peace of mind knowing that you are doing everything right.

After asking myself this question, I found that a lot of the things I wanted to change about myself had overlapping benefits if they were completed and this helped me focus in on the few things I really needed to change.

This is also a great question because I see it as a sort of “cheat code” to life. Instead of focusing on what we think the problem is, we shift our focus to the source of what we want and go after that instead.

I asked myself this question last month when I was confronting my own physical Everest. I’ve always been skinny and I wanted to put on a few pounds to bulk up for summer. So instead of telling myself “I NEED to get buff!” I asked myself “If I were to get buff, what would that do for me?” and I realized that I wanted to get buff to earn the respect of others, feel more confident in myself, and be physically stronger. Spoiler Alert: I didn’t get buff. But, learning this new insight gave me the opportunity to focus on earning the respect of others, feeling more confident, and becoming physically stronger. I’m not saying we shouldn’t accomplish any goal we think we want to accomplish, I’m just saying be crystal clear on why we want to change ourselves.

Overcoming the Resistance

It is difficult for us to change because our pathological tendencies in adulthood were developed as solutions to problems when we were younger. We resist to let go of these tendencies because our identity is developed from these tendencies and we cling to them for self preservation. Therefore, changing requires intense effort for long periods of time and during that time one should expect to feel a gang of negative emotions. The negative emotions don’t mean that we’re on the wrong path, but on the right one.

Whenever we want to change, our brain looks for reasons to not.

According to Ramit Sethi, a NYT Best Selling Author who’s also received his Masters in Sociology from Stanford:

3 Manifestations of Doubt

  1. What if-ing – these can illicit powerful emotions from you but keep in mind that these scenarios are not always valid reasons to give in to doubt “everyone who’s created something valuable — whether it’s an online business, a work of art, even a great speech — faced doubts like these. The difference is, they trusted themselves enough to acknowledge these doubts, then set them aside and took action.”
  2. Slicing the Pie – the next easiest crutch for us to lean on is saying “I don’t have time” or “I can’t afford that” when we all have the same 24 hours in a day and can save money for the things we find important. Pay attention to the VALUE and vs. the cost of something. Keep in mind the cost of missing out as well. Ask yourself “how can I make time for this?” Or “how can I afford this?”
  3.  Alibi-hunting – people love to hunt for an alibi to use to not take action. And once they found an obscure reason not to join, suddenly they felt liberated to justify their inaction. Special Snowflake Syndrome. “I can’t do X because I have this super special situation that doesn’t allow me any freedom to do X.”

When we do something new for the first time we experience cognitive dissonance because our brain thinks we are doing something wrong but over time we will habituate. Anyone who’s tried to brute force change a behavior knows what I’m talking about. Mantras and affirmations helps override this cognitive dissonance. Tell yourself that you are doing the right thing and tell yourself often. There are other ways to hack our mind’s compliance systems.

Six Methods to Engineer Compliance (When Logic Fails Us) according to Tim Ferriss:

  1. Make it Conscious – mindfulness. Be aware and intentional when trying to start a new habit. Accidental habits are usually the worst for us.
  2. Make it a Game – stickiness of 5 sessions. Reward yourself when you get to 5 sessions of a new habits. According to Nike, it only takes 5 logged sessions of an activity to make it a new habit. Go for five. 🖐🏾
  3. Make it Competitive – fear of loss and benefit of comparison. It sucks to lose and its great to win. Adding a competitive element to whatever you do creates a natural Tracking-Loss Aversion dynamic but also brings another person into the mix for accountability. I’d say this is the most effective method Tim recommends.
  4. Make it Small and Temporary – easy and quick. If the new habit is little and doesn’t take much time, then you’ll have a higher success rate implementing it in your life. Anyone can do anything for two weeks but you don’t even have to commit yourself for that long. Just aim for the five sessions and watch yourself make progress.
  5. Lower Your Standards – lower your standards until you can start. Start with micro assignments. Can’t study a whole chapter for math? No worries, just do one problem. Can’t read that book for English? No worries, just read a page. Make the bar so low that starting is cake, then when let the momentum take you. IBM had the lowest quotas in the industry; there is a correlation between low standards and high performance.
  6. Keep Things Simple – I believed that I could handle complex things well and that gave me a competitive advantage since the games I played had a high barrier to entry and I could win but then realized that I’m just fighting myself. “What might this look like if it was easy?” – complexity can come later, but if it is complex at the beginning you will not want to do it.

By Chris

During the day, I’m a tutor and EMT.
In the evenings, I like to blog and produce music.

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