Change is a tricky thing. The erratic relationship we share with change is best showcased by the fanaticism surrounding the new year.
It’s seen as a clean break, a fresh start. As the new year gets closer, it becomes a beacon for the beginning of our transformation into our final form. Those of us who get extremely infatuated with the amorous pull of thinking this is the year, follow a familiar cycle:
- The run up to New Year’s Eve becomes a life of pure hedonism, akin to an addict going to Vegas for one last blow out weekend before going directly to Betty Ford
- Waking up in a haze on the first of the year trying to determine at what point in the night our soul abandoned us (the truly devoted will push on with their new goals even with the crushing hangover)
- Falling into a temporary passion fueled obsession with our new goals and habits, our new identities
But by Valentine’s Day the vast majority of us have fallen completely off the proverbial wagon.1 We go right back into the muscle memory of all the things we wanted to change. We feel like a new person, making the same old mistakes.2
The common idea here is simply a weak a constitution. A failure of an individual’s will power and determination.
While there is definitely some truth to that, accepting that as the entirety of the situation can have some nasty implications.
Humans are very good at a lot of interesting things. One area we display true mastery is being tremendously hard on ourselves; in not showing ourselves self-compassion. While will power and discipline are objective and real components of slipping on progress, it is common for that explanation to spin into a narrative of worthlessness. And developing a narrative of worthlessness, of inadequacy, creates a dangerously binary world.3
It creates a breeding ground for thoughts of futility. If you see falling out of your routine as a systemic failure which is indicative of a fault in your character, something deeply rooted in you, well why would you try again? You’re corrupted at the core, failing is just what you do. Whatever this thing is, is simply impossible for you to change. You just happen to be weak in that regard.
The exclusive focus on perfection and the desired final output can cause any small failure to develop into a psychological disaster – the perfect path we were on is now permanently ruined. The program we promised ourselves of being totally shredded in just twelve weeks is now impossible. We prioritize the results and see the process as an inconvenient burden, a temporal purgatory we just happen to be in.
We have to focus on the behavior before we focus on the result.4
Rewiring Grey Matter
It’s difficult to see personal failures as anything other than failures of will power and ability. To a motivated person, everything else is simply noise. An excuse.
The pressure that comes from that sort of thinking, the constant rumination of being on the brink of failure as a motivator, is hard to sustain. It’s even harder to maintain a healthy, productive relationship with those emotions. Building momentum becomes incredibly challenging because every day becomes a battle to keep up perfection. Not just to work out or meditate or read each day, but to do those things at the same time, for the same period of time, with the same intensity every day. While this should be something to aspire to, it is a challenging binary to exist in. And it makes starting any new behaviors or real change almost impossible to sustain.
In 71/2 Lessons About The Brain, Neuroscientist Lisa Feldman Barrett discusses how our brains are prediction factories. The main driving force behind all that we do, is the brain quietly, yet feverishly, processing the patterns of all our experiences, up to that given moment, which then drives us into action before we even sense or realize what is happening. The brain is wired to predict and act now, evaluate later. This drives consistency (habits and impulses), and to the brain, comfort and survival.
It’s all based on the complex network of past experiences and choices which wire our behavior today. This is precisely why changing in the moment feels impossible. We can be screaming internally to stop and yet compulsively devour half a pizza for breakfast.5 We can sit on the couch fantasizing about all the great things we could be doing, making ourselves feel terrible, while still sitting in place watching hours fall off the clock while Netflix asks us if we’re still watching.
Through Barrett’s writing, we can find an enormously helpful perspective to the same problem. Knowing that the brain’s predominant function is to be a predictive engine to drive action, Barrett states:
“It’s impossible to change your past, but right now, with some effort, you can change how your brain will predict in the future. You can invest a little time and energy to learn new ideas. You can curate new experiences. You can try new activities. Everything you learn today seeds your brain to predict tomorrow differently.”
Another way to phrase it: focus on the behavior first. Realize that what we choose to do, or more likely not do, is not simply about getting to far off goals or supercharging ourselves with twelve week self-help sprints, but the smaller choices we make each day, will inform the choices we naturally, impulsively, make in the future. While magnitude and intensity are critical, neither are relevant if we’re not working on the right things. So read that one page, do that one pull up. Choose to engage in the activities that you want your brain to begin to stop seeing as a challenge and to begin predicting as the standard, expected action.
If we discourage ourselves from doing anything different when things cannot be done perfectly, then we can never hope to change. It’s better that we rewire the brain to instinctively push us to do a subpar workout or halfhearted work session on our hobby than to never start. It’s better to show up.
You have to be your own harshest critic to be exceptional at anything, but that often isn’t the whole picture. There is another perspective that encourages any progress rather than perfect progress. The perspective that small, deliberate choices today can help become the predictive, habitual actions normalized in our brain tomorrow.
1 – James Clear – between 81% and 92% of New Year’s Resolutions Fail
2 – Surprise Tame Impala – New Person, Same Old Mistakes
3 – Brené Brown discusses ideas of shame and worthiness masterfully in her book Daring Greatly, which I often lean on for inspiration and reference
4 – Concept from James Clear / Atomic Habits
5 – I did this last Tuesday