For the past couple of years I made a New Year’s resolution to floss my teeth every day.
Every year I’ve managed to stick to the regime for a few days before falling off the wagon.
My hygienist’s stern advice and disapproving comments get me back on the wagon periodically, but they haven’t helped me stick to a regular routine. When a group of friends gathered at our house this past New Years—as they are wont to do—the question of resolutions came up between bottles of champagne. Most were of the opinion that there was no point in making one; after all, it was not as if any of us were going to keep them.
Who was I to argue given my track record? Nevertheless, in the spirit of third times the charm, I resolved yet again to floss my teeth every day. My friends laughed, having been there before. One even opined that Einstein had said, “Doing the same thing again and expecting different results was the definition of insanity.” Einstein didn’t actually say that, and I’m not of the opinion that persistence is insane.
As a student in the Leadership program at Royal Roads University, I am all too familiar with how hard change can be for individuals and organizations. Given what I have learned over the past two years in the program, shouldn’t I be able to lead myself to do this one simple thing? It’s not as if I had resolved to run a marathon—as my wife has—yet I repeatedly failed in the past. When I reflected upon my daily routine, it was plain to see that there are a number of opportunities to floss: I brush my teeth several times a day and there is dental floss in ready supply.
How could this simple act have proved so difficult to have turn into a habit?
This made me wonder what answers lie in the nature of the human mind. Dr. Sandy Pentland, of MIT’s Human Dynamics lab, has found we are not the rational, deliberate creatures we believe ourselves to be.
Here’s a simple test you can take to prove this to yourself:
- Sit completely still and do absolutely nothing.
- Don’t blink or draw a breath without consciously forming the intention to do so.
- See how long you can last.
If you regularly participate in Tai Chi, Yoga, or another form of meditation, you might last a while. Many will not as we, as humans, are wired to act on imperceptible stimuli—intentionality is a discipline. Furthermore, neuroscientists David Rock and Jeffrey Schwartz have found that we are wired to resist change. Repetition of past patterns of behavior makes us feel good, rewarding us for doing things the way we have done them before. On the other hand, the development of new patterns of behavior and thought take concentrated effort: failures are inevitable and persistence is required. Even worse, we experience change as pain.
The sense of wrongness that comes from trying something new or thinking in a different way is a form of pain.
Try saying something grammatically incorrect such as “quickly blueberry” as fast as you can; you will want to stop before the headache gets too bad.
So what is a poor soul to do when the deck is seemingly stacked against change? Know that people kick far worse habits (think cigarette, alcohol, and drug addictions) than your resolution adjustment likely is. Rock and Schwartz have found that change requires focused attention on the new pattern of behavior and avoidance of the old: addicts kick the habit, yet the old patterns are waiting to draw them back in. It’s not enough to make a resolution; you need a plan to go with it as well—a very focused plan.
Complex adaptive systems theory gives a clue to what this plan will look like. Dave Snowden, of Cognitive Edge, has described how patterns of behavior form around attractors such as a television in the middle of a party—conversation dies as people’s attention is drawn to it. The tricky part is that these patterns can be positive or negative. Sooner or later someone will say, “Turn off the damn TV!” Everyone will be relieved, and conversation will resume again. As a host in this situation you must be aware of the attractors and have a plan to manage the patterns of behaviour that result: positive or negative.
What does this say about the importance of the company you keep? As an example, if people you associate with drink in excess socially, inevitably so will you. When you were young, your mother probably advised you to stay away from the “bad sort”, but Sandy Pentland has found that you can leverage that company as well.
Most of us have grown up being rewarded for what we do: annual bonuses, carrots and sticks, and that special something if you achieve the goal you set in your New Year’s resolution. Contrary to belief, this model has never truly worked. B.F. Skinner identified that an anticipated award, particularly one that is received consistently, quickly fails to motivate. The Harvard Psychologist found that random, unanticipated rewards for behavior are actually the way to go—hence why wiser managers will randomly take their teams out to lunch. It’s hard to randomly surprise yourself with a reward though, no? This is where the gap is in Skinner’s theory: His conceptions involve a dyadic relationship of giver and receiver. Advances in the study of the complex adaptive systems that are human networks have revealed different and more effective modes. Sandy Pentland and his team found that small rewards given to close connections for behavioural change in others reinforce the pattern of change. This may seem a bit counter-intuitive, but “under the covers” human beings are profoundly affected by the relationships they have.
Generosity rewards both the giver and the receiver, and reinforces behavior.
Could more focused support also help the process of personal change? If you are struggling, a coach can certainly help you work through obstacles and maintain motivation. Keep in mind, however, that not all coaches are created equal. Most will support you in identifying a change that needs to be made, but the better sort will also push you to make a plan of action, and hold your feet to the fire to achieve it. The best will encourage you to enlist the help of others in achieving that goal. While rewarding others for your successes is not common practice, I would bet dollars to doughnuts that your last weight loss bets rewarded the winner. Now imagine the difference if at each weigh-in those who had lost the most bought the drinks…
You might think all of this sounds crazy, but that’s because we’ve been brought up to believe in cause and effect. At times this notion creates confusion, however, our thin veneer of rationality can serve us well in this situation. Everything in consideration this approach makes sense; we need to own the goal, live a plan, and have supporters with a vested interest in our success.
For my own part, I’m going to give my children the biggest hug ever after we have all brushed and flossed. Why? Because it makes us all feel great and it’s working. It would be crazy to stop.
So, what are you crazy enough to try?
Article by Nicholas A. Cioran
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