Mindful Humans

The art of changing.

To change is difficult.
Even if you understand rationally in what ways you should behave to improve yourself and have a positive impact on others, even if you deeply feel the desire to evolve, it remains challenging.

This article was published on May 4, 2022, on the Revue Gestion website.

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Indeed, over time and through experiences, you have developed habits that have served you rather well. These are deeply ingrained in your brain. That’s why you constantly repeat the same behaviors, even if some of them are now causing you problems, or even suffering.

Therefore, to change, you need to create and reinforce new automatic responses. And it’s not enough to rationally understand the new behaviors to adopt; you also need to identify triggers, be attentive to a habit that is about to manifest… and decide to do things differently.

How to generate a change in behavior If you have an interest in personal and professional development, you are probably looking for tools as well as new practices and methods to improve yourself.

Some tools, once learned, can be put into practice at the earliest opportunity.

However, when the change to be made is deeper and requires you to change some of your habits and behaviors, implementing a better working method can be challenging.

An example among many: you know you need to improve your ability to delegate tasks. After attending training on this topic, you are convinced of the relevance of the method you have learned. However, will you be able to implement it at the right time? Do you have habits that prevent you from following the steps correctly?

Understanding a new approach rationally does not mean that it will be easy to adopt it. Here’s why.

 

The essential steps for change
  1. Being aware that a change is necessary; this can result from realizations, feedback received, observations of yourself and the impact you have on others, etc.
  2. Identifying the new behavior to adopt, precisely (through readings, training, observation, etc.). Up to this point, it’s easy… but it’s not enough. Recognizing the moment when this new behavior is required.
  3. Making the decision in the moment to adopt the new behavior.
  4. Observing the results. Identifying what needs to be improved next time.
  5. Returning to point 3.

Therefore, the art of change requires that you don’t stop at step 2!

 

The source of your behaviors and habits

Through experience, you have learned to react automatically to many triggers. With practice, your reactions become automatic, especially if they have been helpful to you in the past.

Identifying the cause behind certain actions typically falls under psychotherapy. However, in many cases, it’s not necessary to identify the past cause of your behaviors to improve.

You can change by becoming aware, in the present moment, of a trigger, the automatic response that is about to manifest, and deciding to act differently in the future.

Let’s delve into what this implies:

  • Your thoughts are the source of your behaviors.
  • While some thoughts are conscious, many escape your attention and lead to automatic responses or habits.

 

Habits manifest as follows:
  • First, there’s a trigger.
  • Then, you experience a physical response (tension, energy, tightness, warmth, etc.).
  • Almost simultaneously, you feel an emotional response (aversion, attachment, anger, anxiety, joy, excitement, etc.).
  • Then comes a mental response; a thought interprets the trigger, passes judgment, and finds justification.
  • Ultimately, a behavior results from these responses generated in a fraction of a second.
  • Your actions are then observable.

 

Therefore, if you don’t pay enough attention to each of these steps, you will repeatedly fall back on your old habits. The cycle won’t be broken.

Let’s revisit the delegation example. You’re criticized – and you also notice – for not delegating tasks enough; as a result, you neglect some of your responsibilities due to lack of time. So, you attended training on the subject; thus, steps 1 and 2 mentioned earlier are checked off.

 

  • However, an analysis report needs to be produced by Friday, and you want to take the opportunity to practice your new way of delegating tasks. Here’s a trigger.
  • You feel muscle tension at the thought of delegating something. Here’s a physical response.
  • You feel both apprehensive about imagining one of your employees doing the work and excited about the idea of doing the analysis yourself (after all, you’re an expert!). Here’s your emotional response.
  • Knowing that you’re best suited to produce the report on time, you decide not to delegate this task. Here’s your mental response and the resulting behavior.
  • Result: you missed the opportunity to practice what you learned during your training (and to develop the skills of an employee!).

 

As long as you don’t pay attention to the traps that await you, you’ll repeat the same behaviors.

What to do, then?

 

Develop your attention capacity

Know that the human brain’s attention capacity is naturally limited. Have you ever been so engrossed in an activity you’re passionate about that you didn’t even hear your child calling you? Or have you been so stressed about the upcoming meeting that you didn’t follow the conversation happening in the present moment?

If your attention is distracted by your environment, or conversely, if it’s captivated by your thoughts or emotions – or even by the stress you’re feeling – then you might be blind to what’s happening within and around you.

If you miss certain cues, your ability to understand what’s really going on and to adjust is far from optimal. Unfortunately, sources of distraction abound for everyone: technology, environment, thoughts (founded or unfounded), emotions, stress…

Yet, your attention capacity is essential for detecting a trigger and sensing your physical, emotional, and mental responses rising within you. Without it, you won’t be able to change behavior; you’ll act automatically.

By developing your attention, you can eventually choose to act differently as soon as the trigger arises, before the chain of events repeats. Indeed, you have a veto power.

Research in neuroscience has established that there is a time gap between the moment we become aware of a decision and the moment we take action, as demonstrated by the work of David Rock and Linda Page.

Indeed, these two professionals observed in the laboratory that there is a gap of about two-tenths of a second between the awareness of the impulse that drives us to act and the transition to action.

The sequence of events is as follows:

  • 0.5 seconds before we make a move, laboratory instruments record a state of readiness in our brain (unconscious);
  • 0.2 seconds before performing the action, we become aware of the impulse that will prompt us to act;
  • at 0 seconds, we take action.

 

Thus, there is a 0.2-second gap between the moment we become aware of an impulse and the moment we take action. It is in this precise space that we can decide not to follow through with our habit. It is in this space, therefore, that we can rationally exercise our veto power.

If you want to generate change, consider the idea of observing yourself BEFORE trying to change. Take a week or two and note down each day what you have observed.

A specific example: you would like to stop interrupting people.

Every day, take a few minutes to remind yourself when you interrupted someone during the day.

 

  • How did you feel at the time?
  • What were you thinking at that moment?
  • What impact did it have on your interlocutor?

 

Soon enough, you realize, in the present moment, that you have once again interrupted your interlocutor. Yes, yet again, unfortunately! Then you continue to assess it in your journal.

After a few days, you may notice the excitement that arises in you when you are about to interrupt someone. You give in to the temptation, but suddenly you become aware of the physical sensation that occurs just before you cut someone off. Essential information for improvement!

Over time, you learn to detect your excitement, and you remember that you must listen without interrupting. You take a deep breath, relax… and listen. You’ve succeeded; congratulations!

With practice, this behavior will become your new normal, a benevolent automatism that will delight you!

And if you want to further cultivate your capacity for present moment attention, then consider adopting a mindfulness practice. Indeed, it has been scientifically demonstrated – repeatedly – that approaches associated with mindfulness allow (and essentially aim) to develop human attention capacity. Meditation, yoga, and tai chi are just a few examples. Strangely, in our society, physical exercise is highly encouraged, without emphasizing the importance and usefulness of training the brain – which is nevertheless the most important organ in the body!

It’s up to you to discover the path that inspires you!

Key takeaway
  • Too many changes at once prove impossible to achieve because it requires sustained attention capacity at all times. However, our attention capacity is limited.
  • Take the time to observe yourself, even before thinking about changing. Because even if you know what to do from now on, if you can’t implement it at the right time, you won’t make progress.
  • Be aware of your behaviors and their impact.
  • Practice your ability to observe yourself and exercise your veto power.
  • Proceed step by step.
  • Make progress; don’t aim for perfection!

Reference

[1] ROCK, David et Lind J. PAGE, Coaching With the Brain in Mind, Hoboken, John Wiley & Sons, 2009.

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