Post No.: 0243
Change is difficult because of our inherent ‘immunity’ to change – we find change threatening, even when we know it’d be for our own overall benefit. It’s as if we have an immune system that attacks change and seeks to maintain a homeostasis or status quo.
Even after the end of WWI, the immediate reaction of some Allied soldiers was to want the war to carry on because that’s all they’d known during their adult years as a career and routine. So it’s clear that people can be quite averse to change even when the change will be good for them and everyone. Even when we know that what we’re doing is less-than-best or even harmful in the long-term, we’d sometimes rather stick to a ‘known devil’ (what we personally know) than jump towards ‘unknown angels’ (what we’re personally unfamiliar with), hence a gap between knowing and doing i.e. education isn’t always enough to trigger action.
How we’re currently doing may be ‘fine’, and if so, we’ll likely not want to jeopardise this state, even if we knew that in the near future if we carry on then things likely won’t stay fine. Even the threat of extreme costs or death in the near future can lack enough impetus for us to change if we feel that we’re ‘currently doing fine’ (e.g. regarding modifying our current lifestyles in response to the major threat of ongoing global warming, or the pleasure of our indulgent diet today versus the health risks for tomorrow). We are also reluctant to change what seems to be currently working for us due to ‘loss aversion’, where the negative utility of giving up something feels greater than the positive utility associated with acquiring the exact same thing. This is especially true if the negative consequences of that tomorrow are not absolutely for certain and if our current life is comfortable and has become our comfort zone. Change often involves a lot of mental and/or physical effort too, and ‘personal energy conservation’ (or laziness) is thus frequently another factor. There’s also the fear of failure if we attempt a change. Of course, not all change is an improvement, but all improvement is a change.
Effective and ‘adaptive change’ is about trying to uncover and question your hidden subconscious beliefs, assumptions and fears that are holding you back from change. It’s about identifying not only what you need to do but also what’s holding you back (e.g. your conflicts of interests or hidden competing commitments). It’s about bringing to consciousness your unexamined subconscious beliefs and unfounded fears. It’s then about taking each assumption and experimenting by pushing your boundaries of comfort in small and gradual ways until you realise that your self-imposed and self-limiting fears were evidently unfounded. It’s about relying on actual data or consequences rather than imagined or preconceived ones, where the latter tend to be worse than the reality. It’s also about backing oneself and betting on oneself that one can change. Woof!
Firstly, you’ll need to decide on your big improvement goal. One that’ll make a big difference and one that you’ll want to achieve – the single most powerful change that’ll improve your life. And specify what concrete behaviours are necessary to achieve this goal – the things you’ll need to do differently, framed as positive statements (i.e. stated as things you want to do rather than as things you don’t want to do).
Secondly, identify the specific current behaviours you’re doing or not doing that go against or get in the way of your goal or hold you back – the things you’re currently doing instead of what you need to do. But you don’t need to explain or understand your obstructive behaviours – just notice them and write them down (i.e. define your actions, not your feelings).
Thirdly, identify your fears/worries in a list, and for each action/inaction listed in the previous step, imagine yourself doing the opposite and think of what the most uncomfortable fear/worry that comes up is, then accept what comes up without judgement. Use this list to uncover your hidden competing/counter commitments. You’ll then see how you’ve got one paw on the accelerator and one paw on the brakes, which is the ‘immune system’ ‘protecting’ you from the perceived frightening or undesirable outcomes and holding you back. (Even biological immune systems can sometimes attack otherwise harmless and innocent allergens, and these allergic reactions become the real problems themselves. Our ‘cognitive immune system’ sometimes overreacts and creates errors of judgement too, and our reluctance to change becomes the real problem itself.)
Next, identify the big assumptions – the internalised truths or ‘truths’ and subconscious beliefs you’re holding about how the world works, how you work, and how other people respond to you, that anchor or inform your specific hidden commitments above. They’re assumptions that make each hidden commitment feel necessary, as if a ‘protective’ behaviour, because you assume that if you don’t continue with your competing commitments then each fear/worry from the previous list will materialise. Notice how they lead to the very behaviours that undermine rather than support your goal. You may experience an ‘aha’ moment of realisation here!
Finally, to get unstuck from your current ways – examine your beliefs and question and reconsider these assumptions or ‘truths’ by designing a test of your assumptions. Experiment with and update your big assumptions. Start with the single biggest assumption that, if acted against/changed, would make the biggest impact on your life. Do the things that directly cause you the above fears, that stop your assumed ‘protective’ behaviours for a moment, and see what happens? But do experiment with safety (so that if it does fail then it’s not a big deal), with modest (start from very small steps that are easy then gradually work your way up) and actionable (do things you can physically do and not just think about) steps, and with a research-and-testing focus (you’re primarily gathering data here, not trying to prove your assumptions wrong or trying to immediately change your behaviours). It’s a test targeted towards gaining a better insight into the accuracy of your beliefs and how they do or don’t serve you, so try to be objective and scientific about it all.
After some time and dedication (it can take many months, starting from maybe 30-60 minutes per week), the assumptions that were holding you back will hopefully be adjusted and your life will be improved in one way or an unexpected other. It might help to practice with a partner or coach to maintain your momentum and motivation.
Whilst many people can share the same obstructive behaviours (e.g. overeating), the individual motivations and assumptions behind such behaviours can be different for each person. The first two steps may be similar, but the underlying fears and competing commitments may be different, meaning that each person’s adaptive challenge will likely be different.
In essence, it’s not about just identifying the actions one needs to do and then attempting to do them – it’s about getting to the root(s) of the problem. It’s about identifying what’s holding you back, your concerns, then challenging these assumptions and testing to see if your ‘protective’ behaviours are actually helpful or counter-productive, in a systematic way. This will then hopefully change your mindset at a deeper and more enduring level to alleviate those concerns. It’s similar to cognitive behavioural therapy in that it involves identifying and challenging one’s fuzzy assumptions and fears, then soothing or reframing them so that change naturally feels like the next thing to do. It’s about changing your mental perspectives rather than merely forcing yourself through the motions while your fears are still unresolved. This is why this technique will more likely lead to attainable, maintainable and sustainable results.
Just being told what to do or to follow a program with an assumed ‘one-size-fits-all’ perspective of incentives, fears and obstacles, is not a very effective way to motivate people for lasting change. People often generally resist against what they’ve been told to do by someone else anyway (reactance), especially if they don’t trust their motives or authority. Meanwhile, ‘adaptive change’ is a tailored approach that involves researching one’s own circumstances and behaviours to make personal change happen.
We normally prioritise avoiding a fear/loss before seeking a pleasure/gain (a classic example is most people want to become rich (obtain a gain) yet relatively few will actually become entrepreneurs and undertake a risky venture with their own money and time (face a potential loss)) and this is why we must allay those fears/losses and competing commitments before thinking that we can be motivated by the promised or potential pleasures/gains.
We must challenge our worldviews and assumptions otherwise we’ll never know for sure if they’re flawed or right to continue holding onto. It still unavoidably takes a lot of personal cognitive effort (being externally coaxed, incentivised or forced to change, such as via laws or nudging, is the only way to reduce this personal effort) but with this methodical and constructive approach of self-inquiry and self-exploration, and a small dose of courage, one will hopefully experience more empowerment, fewer assumed limits and more control of one’s life!