Human beings are hardwired to resist change. Don’t believe us? Try swapping the spoons and forks in your silverware drawer or switching around the keys on your keyboard.
Change is difficult and uncomfortable. It can even prompt us to react physically—we might seize up, fidget, or start to sweat. If the change is large enough, as many are experiencing during the COVID-19 pandemic, we may become depressed or despondent.
Why do our brains fight so fiercely against change?
Change avoidance represents lingering survival instincts we adopted eons ago. Our reptilian brain, composed of the basal ganglia and brainstem, governs our primitive drives and habits. Much of the time, this part of the brain operates on “autopilot,” so we scarcely have to think about everyday activities, such as peeling a banana or walking from the shower to the bedroom. In a world brimming with stimulation (sights, sounds, smells, tastes, and touch), it is essential to let some of the “program” run in the background of our minds, governed by habit and our reptilian brains.
Another reason we’re programmed to cling to the familiarity of habit is our innate aversion to risk. Our Stone Age ancestors lived in harsh environments, and one misstep could spell disaster. As Nigel Nicholson says in How Hardwired Is Human Behavior, “When you are living on the edge, to lose even a little would mean that your very existence was in jeopardy. Thus, it follows that ancient hunter-gatherers who had just enough food and shelter to survive weren’t big risk takers.” He goes on to say, “Indeed, any kind of change is risky when you are comfortable with the status quo.”
So, what happens when your status quo—the comfortable world in which you operate day in, day out—is blasted to pieces?
Such an earth-shattering change might occur if you are ejected from your job or if your health takes a sudden turn for the worse. In fact, such change has occurred for the millions of people affected by the COVID-19 pandemic.
As we write this article, the world today is vastly different than it was only a couple of months ago. Most states required everyone but essential workers to “shelter in place,” meaning that, suddenly, people had to adjust to working from home, caring for or homeschooling their children, or adjusting to an abrupt reduction in hours or, in some cases, a furlough. Routines are thrown off-kilter, and our comfort-craving reptilian brains are roaring in protest.
In the blink of an eye, we’ve been required to create new habits and develop new routines.
We know, in theory, we have to adjust, but it’s so damn difficult. Our brains feel threatened, and our fight or flight instinct, rooted deeply in the brain’s amygdala, is in high gear.
How can we possibly win the battle against our change-resistant brains? How can we rewire our neurological pathways to accept and, eventually, embrace change? Whether you’re dealing with a new COVID-caused routine or simply trying to adjust to a new role or new company, change takes time and concerted effort.
We suggest starting with three easy steps
Step 1: BUILD AWARENESS
How often do you truly monitor your thoughts and reactions? If you’re like most people, you’re probably not terribly in tune with your inner narrative and instinctive reactions. That’s normal. Most of us are comfortable humming along in the status quo, paying little attention to our thoughts.
If you’re trying to break a deeply-entrenched habit, however, it’s time to start paying attention.
Begin noticing the choices you make throughout the day, and reflect on why you make them. If you find yourself opting for the comfortable route, rather than the right route, you may want to pause and think about that choice. Why are you gravitating toward safety and convenience? What is driving that decision?
Let’s say, for example, you’ve been awarded a new leadership position. Part of your job involves delegating tasks to other employees, but you’re already in the habit of doing this type of work yourself. What’s more, you know you will do quality work, and get it done in a fraction of the time of your co-workers.
Your inclination is to complete the task yourself. It’s easy, it’s comfortable, and delegating the work sounds like a daunting chore. Logically, you know your co-workers should be doing this task (you’re in a leadership position now, and it’s no longer in your scope of work), but your habit-driven brain is wired to continue processing familiar functions, including the tasks you grew accustomed to before stepping into your new role.
Once you’ve built an awareness of your tendencies and the emotions they provoke, move on to Step Two…
It’s time to pay attention to your daily habits. Notice when you fall back on comfort and convenience, rather than taking the more difficult and less familiar route.
Step 2: ASK YOURSELF A ‘THINKING QUESTION’
When you find yourself in a situation where your brain feels challenged, uncomfortable, or even threatened, it’s time to pause and ask yourself a “thinking question” or two.
This involves asking a provocative, open-ended question that prompts you to think about the heart of the issue and motivate action.
Ideally, the questions will move you into a positive, problem-solving state of mind. For example:
“Why am I resisting this, and what can I do to stop resisting?”
“I notice I feel anxious and annoyed when I have to do XYZ. I wonder what others in my position have done to overcome those feelings?”
These questions cannot be resolved with a simple yes or no answer. They require some reflection and follow-up action. This way of thinking will take your mind off the discomfort of changing your habit and guide you into a problem-solving mentality. Our brains are wired that in order to ‘think’, we have to get out of the emotional and automatic parts of our brains.
By asking a non-yes or no question, you are guaranteed to be less emotional, less threatened, and access more problem solving/creative alternatives!
Applying this strategy to the scenario of a new leader, you might frame your thinking question in the following way:
“I recognize that delegating does not come naturally for me. What if I made a conscious effort to assign a simple task to a team member every day this week?”
Another question you might ask is this: “What if I consulted other members of leadership about my struggles?”
Notice that these questions are open-ended, thought-provoking, and require further action.
Step 3: ACT ON YOUR THINKING QUESTIONS
Asking thinking questions inevitably leads to action. In this step, you bring your thinking questions to life and start strategizing and engaging others who are involved in your problem-solving. Start gathering relevant information with the goal of answering your thinking questions and successfully carving out a new habit or methodology for yourself.
In the case of the new leader, you may choose to either talk with your team, your superiors (who have, perhaps, been in the same position at one time or another), or both. If you talk with your team, you might reframe your thinking questions and say something like this:
“I am preparing to increase your involvement in the company’s daily tasks. How can we work together to make sure you have the resources and support you need to complete your assignments in an accurate and timely manner?”
If, as a new leader, you decide to consult your company’s leadership team, you could reword your thinking questions as follows:
“I would like to improve my delegation skills. Could you advise me on strategies you have found effective as a leader?”
When you take action to retrain your brain and pull yourself out of a deeply ingrained habits, you are taking the first step toward developing new habits. Action is crucial – it distances you from the fear and anxiety associated with stepping out of your comfort zone. Action can and should be small incremental steps.
We have to trick our brain into change, as it will naturally resist it otherwise. To do that, start with small steps that build upon each other. This creates a ninja-like move with our brain, and before you know it, you are working in a change environment that now feels normal.
Today, it is more crucial than ever to learn how to retrain your brain and reprogram your automatic tendencies. The COVID pandemic has pulled us collectively into an uncomfortable and habit-breaking time, and the best way to adapt is to take intentional, conscious steps. By reforming your habitual behaviors, you are giving yourself a gift: a more comfortable future. Though life may seem chaotic and unpredictable right now, you can conquer uncertainty and fear. It just takes time, patience, and a strategy. Start with the three steps above, take a deep breath, and begin taking control of the panic stirred up by your habit-loving reptilian brain.
ABOUT THE DISRUPTIVE ELEMENT
The Disruptive Element is a leadership performance company that helps businesses identify and ignite potential in their people. Our model revolves around a nucleus of neuroscience—because change is an inside job. We help individuals, teams, and organizations meet their desired results through our Organization Development (OD), Leadership Development, and Coaching services.