Many of us have a love-hate relationship when it comes to making changes in our life. We think a lot about wanting to eat better, exercise more, drink less, manage our time more productively, be kinder and gentler with our loved ones, and continually improve our current selves. The desire for self-improvement is a hard-wired component of human nature, an essential reflection of our ability to analyze, adapt and learn from experience.
So if the desire for self-improvement is so pervasive, deep-seated and universal why do we find ourselves procrastinating, equivocating and otherwise failing so regularly in the effort to make desirable behavioral changes?
1. Our present self doesn’t want to pay the price required to improve the life of our future self. Bacon cheeseburgers taste good now (are desirable to present self) but may cause problems for future self (weight gain, health problems).
Which motivator is more powerful? An immediate and certain positive reinforcement (the cheeseburger will definitely taste good now) or a future and uncertain negative reinforcement (the cheeseburger may cause some health problems in the future)? This a not even close to a fair fight right? Yet that is exactly what we are up against when we are trying to talk ourselves out of that cheeseburger.
2. We routinely underestimate the power of habit to defeat the power of rational thought. We prize our analytic skills and like to think of ourselves as independent beings who make our own choices based on intelligence, judgment and experience. We don’t like to acknowledge how much of what we do is a result of blindly repeating what we have done before. Charles Duhigg’s “The Power of Habit” recently became a best seller by detailing the many ways that habit routinely defeats common sense.
3. Change makes us anxious. There is a structure in our midbrain called the amygdala that has a tendency to set off an alarm whenever we want to make a departure from our usual and safe routines. This alarm (fear/anxiety) can be triggered when we meet a new person or when we think about changing the way we do something. When this fear arises we often abandon our plan for change to make the anxiety disappear.
So what can we do to overcome these obstacles and make the changes we desire? UCLA psychologist Robert Maurer has developed a fascinating approach in his book: One Small Step Can Change Your Life: The Kaizen Way.
Take Smaller Steps
• Smaller steps help us fly under the amygdala’s radar and trick the brain into thinking: “Hey this change is so tiny that its no big deal. No need to get worked up. No risk of failure or unhappiness here.”
• Small steps move us away from “all-or-nothing” thinking. When our motivation is high we can choose the salad over the whopper and fries. Great. But if our motivation is low it’s ok to go for a smaller step and choose a whopper junior.
• Think of the student driver who first practices in an empty parking lot, first just sitting in the car and trying out the equipment and then driving a few minutes at a time. The key is learning to master the smallest steps of change in the lowest anxiety environment.
• Small steps help us defeat the fear of change in another way. Small actions are also soothing because they satisfy our brain’s need to do something.
Ask Questions That Generate Ideas For Small Steps
• For example: how can I incorporate a few more minutes (note: small step) of physical activity into my daily routine?
• After our brain contemplates this type of question for a few days our creativity begins to come up with solutions and ways to incorporate improved (small) habits into our routines.
• The critical step in achieving change is to specify goals. As yourself: exactly what behavior do I wish to change? How can I measure and track my progress?
• Don’t fool yourself into waiting for the “perfect moment” (when things slow down) to make a big change. Don’t look for “miracle” cures, like dieters who purchase an endless number of fad diet books. Make the goal small enough so that you can succeed now and “just do it.”
If you are able to make big changes in your life go for it. However, if you are struggling with big changes embrace the achievable. Embrace small steps. If you are frustrated by the pace of change don’t give up.
Isn’t slow change better than no change at all?