The Change Paradox

December 23, 2008

When was the last time you wore your watch on the opposite wrist or tried writing your name with the other hand? If you’re like me, I’m guessing it’s been a while. (But now that I’ve suggested it, go ahead. Try.)

These are exactly the kinds of exercises that help our brain open up to new ways of doing things. When we challenge routine activities, our brain senses a new experience and forces us to change our behaviour. Still, why is change so difficult?

In an article published by the Scientific American Mind, author Nikolas Westerhoff suggests that age might have something to do with the challenges of changing our behaviour. Westerhoff writes that as people get older, they tend to become less inclined to change, even though they claim to be open to new ideas.

Some researchers say this conundrum exists because as we get older, the demands of adult responsibilities require us to maintain a certain level of consistency, stability and predictability. As adults pass the 30-year mark, they generally begin to care for young children or commit to a career. In doing so, they are much less open to changing their daily routines because it could jeopardize their efforts to survive.

As these commitments subside, you would think that we would become open to change again. But here’s where the paradox lies: our brain is so used to routine, that we have a hard time kicking old habits. Even though aging makes us less open to new ideas and behaviours, various experiences in adulthood can lead us to want dramatic and sweeping changes in our lives. In doing so, we set ourselves up for failure because we want too much, too soon, too fast.

Take for instance the recently divorced woman who thinks that losing 20 lbs will allow her to meet prince charming, and live happily every after. First of all, losing 20 lbs is incredibly difficult. And secondly, anyone who thinks happiness lies in 20 lbs is in for a big surprise. That’s why people inevitably abandon diets and health improvement plans – these expectations are overblown and unrealistic. Change takes time, effort and discipline.

So how do we break through this barrier?

For one, experts suggest to set achievable goals that eventually lead to your vision. Most runners will agree that a great technique to running a marathon is to begin by setting small, incremental goals. First, start with two minutes around the block. Then add another minute to make it up the hill and past the first tree. With time you’ll build your skill, endurance and confidence to run the entire 42 kilometers.

Second, understand that your small incremental changes have to be aligned with one vision. Running a marathon requires end-to-end changes in your life: you’ll have to adjust your sleeping and eating habits too. Again, start small. Try to get an extra ten minutes a night per week. Cut out the extra cup of coffee.

Third: practice, practice, practice. Repeating small changes in various aspects of your life makes bigger changes far less daunting. Use a new route to work. Try a new dish for lunch. Wear your watch on your other wrist. Then observe what happens throughout the day. The first few times out of habit you’ll look at the ‘usual’ wrist. Eventually, you’ll train your brain to immediately send a signal to look at the other hand, because it’s inefficient to always look at one arm, and then the other.

These are all practice changes that open your mind to new experiences. So when the time comes to making bigger adjustments in your life, it’s not so overwhelming. All of a sudden a new job becomes an exciting challenge rather than a dreaded move. Fighting an illness will seem less insurmountable. Losing a loved one doesn’t mean life stops there. Granted these are all difficult situations, but when we’re used to change, our behaviour becomes that much more adaptable.

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