Wednesday, March 08, 2020

Making Change Stick

People set themselves objectives for change—yet find after a while their old behaviors are as firmly entrenched as ever. They start a new venture with enthusiasm—only to lose interest and give up before achieving success. There seems to be a malevolent demon in human affairs that undermines our best intentions and returns us—sometimes again and again—to the exact situation we determined to give up for ever.

Richard's comment on a previous posting is typical of such situations:
6 months ago the workload on my team was reasonable to 40 or so hours. As new projects are brought on and hiring decisions are being delayed, we are slowly approaching the 50 hour week with on-call support to go along with it. I compare my situation to putting a frog in boiling water; if you throw a frog in boiling water it jumps out, but if you put him in cold water and slowly raise the temperature the frog will eventually boil to death. What advice can you give to prevent from being sucked into that life again?
The demon that assails Richard and his team, of course, is habit.

Humans are creatures of habit, mentally and physically. Try using some muscles you haven't exercised in a while. Your body will swiftly respond with pain and stiffness. Change your bed or chair and you'll likely feel awkward and uncomfortable at first. Try to cause yourself to think differently—or see the world in a new light—and you'll fall back into your old ways again and again, especially if you're under pressure.

You're used to seeing the world in familiar ways; using well-known mental paths and assumptions you've probably held for many years. Such habitual mental patterns eventually become virtually invisible. They're like the wallpaper of your life; you no longer register the pattern, even though it's the backdrop to everything you do. And the familiar feels so comfortable. It offers responses you know: safe, predictable and reliable ones—at least, that's what your mind keeps telling you. You've used them successfully before. Why fix them, if they aren't broken?

But many of them are broken. The world changes, even if you don't. What used to work in the circumstances of the past becomes less and less effective. People cling to their habits for all the wrong reasons: because they're familiar; because change seems risky; because they don't know what else to do. And the more pressure they're under—like Richard and his team—the more they slip back into easy, familiar ways. When it takes most of your strength merely to get through the day, adding the extra stress of unfamiliar ways of doing things can seem suicidal.

Change of any kind disrupts habits. That's why people resist it. It makes them feel anxious and fearful. They long for the "comfort blanket" of what they know. The more fearful they become—and fear seems ever more prevalent in our world—the more they cling to anything that seems familiar. Many of people's opinions are mostly habit; they would be hard-pressed to justify them logically or factually, even if they acknowledged the need to do so. Their values are based more on habit than conscious choice. They rely constantly on rules of thumb and past experience to solve problems, not investigation, thought or creativity. They're trying to force their world back into paths they believe they know and understand. It's a hopeless task, of course, and bound to end in tears.

More than 2000 years ago, the Buddha recognized that "attachment"—clinging to the way you want things to be and ignoring the reality of how they really are—is the major cause of pain and suffering in the world. His solution is still the only one that works. You must let them go.

Fighting your habits doesn't work. It focuses your attention on them so they grow even stronger. Many start with more power than your motivation for change. All are deeply entrenched, where change has, as yet, only the shallowest roots. Besides, the contest is rigged. You can "beat" your habits a dozen times or more and they'll return with their strength scarcely dented. Yet if they overcome your new-founded resolution to change just once, it will be badly damaged. Proponents of the old, "tried and true" ways know this well. They can endure multiple defeats, yet remain a potent force. The agent of change can be ruined by a single failure.

Let them go. Acknowledge the pull of the past as an interesting phenomenon—then ignore it. The past is over. Letting go is the essential key to change that sticks. Don't fight. Don't struggle. Don't blame yourself or feel guilt. However often the old habits trip you up, just acknowledge that it happened again and let it go. Return to your desired change. As Christopher Marlowe wrote:
Friar Barnadine: "Thou hast committed—"
Barabas: "Fornication—but that was in another country; and besides, the wench is dead."
The past is another country. It too is dead. Let it go. If you find yourself backsliding, don't feel anxious or upset. That too will pass. It's nothing to get excited about. Simply return to the new path you've set for yourself, a hundred times—a thousand times—if necessary.

Depriving old habits of the oxygen of approval or attention will kill them. It takes time. Imagine them as tough, deep-rooted weeds. Killing the tops with weedkiller once won't stop them springing up again. But if you do it often enough, they'll be unable to grow back. Attention, guilt and self-criticism are the fertilizer these weeds need to return in full strength. Don't give it to them. Starve them to death.

Being drawn back into old ways is natural. Don't worry about it. If it happens, it happens. So, is there a solution? Indeed there is: let go, ignore the pull of the past and move on. If you don't cling to the past, it can't cling to you.

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Dave J. said...

Great post!

11:08 AM  
Carmine Coyote said...

Thanks, Dave. Glad you liked it.

11:24 AM  

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