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Why Your Brain is SO Not Okay With Change

(and how to ease into changes anyway)

Human beings are hardwired to resist change. Don’t believe us? Try swapping the spoons and forks in your silverware drawer, or flipping your toilet paper to spin in the opposite direction, 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 might become depressed or despondent.

Why do our brains fight so fiercely against change?

This tendency has to do with the 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. And, as Nigel Nicholson says in a Harvard Business Review article, “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? What happens when your routines are upended and even your most mundane tasks are altered?

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. Such a change, in fact, 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 have required everyone but essential workers to “shelter in place,” meaning that, suddenly, people have 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 have been 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 these three steps (and if you’re curious to learn more, please feel free to contact us):

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 or convenient route, rather than the right route, you may want to pause and think about that choice. Why are you gravitating toward safety and convenience, rather than doing what you’re supposed to do? 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.

It’s time for you (the new leader) 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.

Notice how you feel (frustrated, nervous, upset) when confronted with a habit-breaking event or assignment. Once you’ve built an awareness of your tendencies and the emotions they provoke, move on to Step Two…

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.

Try asking yourself questions that challenge the status quo and motivate action. Ideally, the questions will move you into a positive, problem-solving state of mind. For example:

“What would happen if I did XYZ?”

“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?”

Notice that 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 A) help take your mind off the discomfort of changing your habit and B) guide you into a problem-solving mentality. This is because our brains are wired in a way that in order to ‘think’, we have to get out of the emotional and automatic parts of our brains.

So, 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 above (in which you are a newly appointed 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 the leadership about my struggles?”

Notice that these questions are open-ended, thought-provoking, and require further action.

3. Act on Your Thinking Questions

Asking thinking questions inevitably leads to action. In this step, you will bring your thinking question(s) to life and start strategizing and/or 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.

Taking action may involve a certain amount of pride-swallowing. You know there’s an issue (stemming from your struggles to develop a new way of doing things), and you may have to brainstorm or collaborate with others to begin solving it.

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 real step toward developing new habits. Action is crucial. It distances you from the fear/anxiety associated with stepping out of your comfort zone. Actions can be and should be small incremental steps.

It is important to note that when it comes to change and taking action to move to change, our brain will naturally resist it. So, we sort of have to trick our brain into the change! 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 instead of like change.

Today, it is more crucial than ever to learn how to retrain your brain and reprogram your automatic tendencies. With the COVID pandemic, we have been collectively pulled 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.

If you would like to discuss brain training in greater detail, please feel free to send us a note.

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