Change can be brutal. In fact, it can seem impossible.
Why is change so hard? Because to change a behavior, you actually have to change your biology on a cellular, and sometimes even on a molecular level.
Understanding how that works can help you more successfully manage change in your own life.
The easiest metaphor to understand this is a game called FLOverload, for the iPhone. (There’s been several renditions of this game over time, this is just one of the more recent ones).
Here, you start out with a screen where you’ve got several “pipes” of different shapes scattered throughout the screen. Each time you touch one of those pipes, it rotates.
The idea is that you have to rotate some of the available pipes to create a channel for the water to flow through, before the water gets to an open-ended pipe, and you lose.
Here’s a video of how the game works.
This is very much like your brain.
Each of these pipe segments are like the neurons in your brain, but on a ridiculously larger scale.
You have roughly 100 billion of these pipe segments, or neurons, in your brain.
When the need arises for you to complete an action, the “water” starts to flow.
Except, in your brain, it’s not water, it’s electricity, which “flows” from neuron to neuron looking for a conduit, or a path that produces the right action.
When it can’t find one, it has to physically create one (which is why learning new behavior is hard too, and often you fail several times before you get it right).
When no pathway is found to produce a specific action, you instantly begin changing the actual cellular structure of your brain. Some neurons go looking for other neurons (their dendrites reaching out to form new connections).
Sometimes they try sending different signals to connections they’ve already established (by using different neurotransmitters, or molecules that transfer a signal from neuron to neuron).
And they’ll just keep doing this, changing their very shape and structure, releasing and reabsorbing chemicals, and shooting off electric sparks. All this is happening in an instant, and simultaneously over billions of neurons. Learning is a rather substantial endeavor, on a cellular level.
No wonder it makes us tired (did you know your brain, while accounting for only about 2 percent of your body weight, accounts for about 20% of your total energy usage?).
This is not inconsequential work. We really should learn to be more patient with ourselves.
In any event, somehow, miraculously, through unfathomable instances of trial and error, we stumble on a pathway that produces the desired results (or sometimes we simply won’t, in which case we never “learn” the new behavior).
Now here’s where it gets interesting (in case that part wasn’t).
That action is now physically mapped. It’s a structural, chemical conduit that represents that particular action, just like a series of pipes through which water can flow. That action has become part of our very biology.
Coincidentally, the more you repeat that action, the more pronounced those connections become. The neurons along that path will even form additional, redundant connections to make sure flow along that path is smooth.
In short, the more you repeat an action, the more physical connections there are that represent that action. This is known as memory. It’s why “practice”, and “repetition” are so important to learning.
Unfortunately, it’s also why change is so hard.
See, your brain, being the marvelous, efficient thing that it is, knows when water (or electricity, in this case) starts flowing down that particular path, and desperately wants to let it follow the path of least resistance.
After all, it’s gone through all that trouble physically building that conduit.
But if you want to change (a behavior, a belief, a memory, anything), suddenly you’re telling your brain “Hey, wait just a doggone minute. I know you’ve already spent so much effort creating this beautiful, efficient path, but I don’t want that anymore, I want to create a new path”.
Needless to say, if your brain could feel, it would probably feel a bit offended.
Still, it sets to work finding, and creating a new path. Again it starts looking for new connections, reaching out, trying different signals, and keeps at it as long as you’re willing to keep providing it attention and energy.
So now let’s get to the important stuff, at least the stuff important to you on a conscious level, as an individual wanting to change their life.
Here are some crucial principles of change management, learned from looking at change at a cellular and molecular level.
1. You must be deliberate, and engaged
Remember, that your brain will want to follow the path of least resistance (the strongest, most robust set of connections). That means when the electrical flow hits the critical point where you want to divert it, you have to be consciously, actively, deliberately, and passionately engaged in order to force it to take a new path. It’s an extremely deliberate process. At least at first.
It’s a lot like a railroad conductor who has to go out and physically pull a lever on the tracks so that when the train gets there, it follows the desired path.
Until your new action gets habitualized and becomes subconscious (the result of doing the rest of these steps), you have to walk out and flip that switch whenever you see the train coming.
If you’re disengaged at all, at that critical moment of divergence, you’ll simply do what you’ve always done, or think what you’ve always thought, and no change will occur. (Incidentally, this is why changing environments is so crucial to creativity – you’re changing the path, before it gets to the “results” end, more here).
2. Identify the point of divergence
Knowing how deliberately involved you have to be, especially initially, it’s critical then that you know WHEN to get involved. This simply means identifying a stage in the path where you know the train is coming, and it’s time to go flip the switch.
No matter what behavior you’re trying to change, there are predictable points that inevitably lead up to that unwanted behavior. They are always there, even though sometimes they’re more hidden than others.
You need to identify these precursors, and then choose the one at which point you know you need to step in and deliberately manage the change.
3. Early warning systems
Now that you’ve identified some of these predictable precursors to the action you’re trying to avoid, you need to “install” warning systems. Trigers that will tell you the train is coming, so you’re ready and aware before the train gets to the point of divergence.
Smokers, for instance, are able to recognize times (or environments) where they’re most tempted to buy cigarettes, or light up. By identifying these precursors, they can avoid ever even letting the train get to that point of required intervention. They can avoid the decision-moment’s altogether.
Incidentally, this is why some people find that change is easier when they change their whole environment. Some people will move, change friends, or take a prolonged vacation when they’re trying to change something substantial. By changing your environment, your mind creates new connections that represent where you are. It lessens the “sameness”, which helps force your brain to look for new pathways. It’s often very difficult to change when you’re surrounded by the same things, especially when those things often are mentally or emotionally associated, or connected with what you’re trying to change.
4. Script the critical moves
When the decision-point comes, when the train is at the switch, or when the neural pathway is at the point of divergence, you don’t want to be deciding what to do. You need to have the decisions already made. You need to have it scripted, in detail, what you’ll do.
Remember, the strongest connection is the one with the propensity to win when you’re not deliberately involved. So crucial to sustaining change, is strengthening the connections that support your new actions. That’s done through repetition.
Once you successfully produce a behavior that adequately represents the change you want in your life, you’ve got to repeat it, over, and over, and over, CONSCIOUSLY, until it becomes second nature.
This is why some say that you’ve got to repeat a new behavior for several weeks in a row before it becomes a habit.
This is critical. The more repetition you can get in, and the quicker you get it in, the sooner your able to ease off on the “deliberate” end, and the less likely you’ll be to slip into old habits if you drop your guard, or your early warning systems fail you.
6. Visualization and simulation
It’s actually possible to physically strengthen the desired connections, without having to physically perform the actual act.
The mind is usually unable to distinguish between what is real, and what is not. That’s why you can wake up from a dream, with your heart pounding in your chest. It’s why you can raise or lower your pulse, just by focusing on a memory, or a particular thought.
This is a powerful tool for change, and is often used by professional athletes, or military personnel, or other instances where there’s high risk (cost) associated with failure.
Pilots will spend hours in a simulator before ever taking a plane off the ground. I’ve written a lot more on the power of simulation and visualization here.
Suffice it to say that the more you practice that action mentally, before it actually happens, the more likely you are to be able to perform appropriately when the time comes in real life.
When the behavior you’re trying to change is highly complex, it’s valuable to deconstruct it into several smaller components that you approach independently. It’s hard enough to get your brain to follow a single, new pathway, but complex behaviors entail hundreds of pathways, and sometimes more.
Even the most engaged, deliberate “train conductors”, can’t manage all of that in the moment.
So it pays to simplify. Find the sub-elements of the behavior that are easily segmented out. Work on them independently (following all the steps here), so that when you need to put them together as a whole, those neural connections are already “prepped and ready”.
A lot more on the idea of segmentation and the use of microcosms here.
8. Create an environment of change
Realize that changing the biological structure of your brain on a cellular and molecular level requires a lot of energy. We’re talking real energy, as in blood glucose. Managing change is hard, if not impossible if you’re not providing your brain with ample energy to manage it. Critical to this energy supply is rest, exercise, and diet.
Contrary to popular belief, your brain IS producing new brain cells constantly. It’s called neurogenesis, which is crucial to learning (and that’s what change is… learning a new behavior), and memory (how strong those connections are). This takes place primarily in your hippocampus, which is highly involved in memory.
Neurogenesis is fueled by a chemical known as BDNF (Brain Derived Neurotrophic Factor), which acts as a fertilizer to fuel growth of existing neurons, as well as creating new ones. BDNF creation is enhanced by exercise.
Exercise also increases circulation, or the ability of your brain to deliver energy (glucose) and oxygen to your brain.
It’s simply irrational to assume your brain, using as much energy as it does, can substantially change it’s physical structure without you creating an environment conducive to that change.
In short, change is going to be hard, as I’ve mentioned. Your mind will have to work overtime. So give it a rest. Give it some food. Give it exercise. And be committed to investing in your change for a while, until your new actions become habits.
It’s highly unlikely that all your attempts to change are going to be successful. You’re going to fail. That’s natural. Don’t get overly upset by it. Get upset enough to be motivated to keep working, but realize that failure is part of the path to success.
Use your failures as learning points to identify breakdowns, and holes in your prevention system. Find the weak spots, fix them, and move on. Just don’t get discouraged and stop.
10. Introduce pain points and fail-safes
The effects of failure can be mitigated by successfully employing some of the prior steps, like simulation, segmentation, and visualization, but even then, you can’t avoid all failure.
Consequently, if you really care about sustaining change, you’ll want to install fail-safe’s.
Fail-safe’s are devices which ensure, in the event of failure, that there will be minimal harm done. Like when you’re driving down a canyon and you see those side-rails along the rode where the edge is particularly steep.
Those are fail-safe’s. If you suddenly lose control, it’s likely going to keep you on the road. You’ll still suffer some damage, but you won’t go plunging into the ravine.
You can take the same approach to changing your action. For instance, if you’re an alcoholic wanting to quit, you could ensure that any alcohol in your house is kept in very small quantities (best to remove them altogether, but if you’re not ready for that…).
Similarly, you can help avoid certain behaviors by introducing pain into the system. For instance, people with credit card spending problems will sometimes freeze their credit cards in a block of ice. It ensures that if they want to use it, there’s a certain amount of pain associated with getting it out. During which time they’re able to “cool down”. It gives our metaphorical conductor time to get out and take control of the situation.
Change is inevitable. It’s part of living a healthy, productive life. Don’t beat yourself up about your need to change. Just follow these 10 steps, which will work wonders on enhancing your ability to initiate and sustain meaningful change in your life.
And good luck.