Building Paths Towards Change

A photo of a path in the forest
Photo by Giuseppe Renzi on Unsplash

Change can be really difficult – especially when we’re looking to change our own behavioral patterns.  Whether you’re trying to give up smoking, become a more empathetic leader, or trying to stop checking up on your employees, the difficulty in changing these behaviors gets down to the fact that it’s hard to get out of the patterns that we’ve built for ourselves.

People like patterns

You see, as human beings, we really, really, really like patterns.  Our brains crave patterns.  We like knowing that green lights mean go, hungry alligators might bite us, and that cake will taste sweet and lemons sour.  We use patterns so we’re not always faced with processing new information every second of every day.  

Imagine turning on your television every day and having no idea whether it’s going to display a television show, blow up, or suddenly turn into a robotic hamster.  Or turning on your bathroom sink and being unsure of what is going to happen next.  Life would be filled with too many surprises, and we’d likely not be able to function.

Shortcuts aren’t the best path to change

We’ve created these mental shortcuts and habits in order to save on processing power.  The danger in these mental shortcuts is that because we’re doing the same thing over and over again, our brains begin to literally create new neural pathways that allow for our own personal autopilots to kick in.

If you’ve ever been driving and suddenly you find yourself in your driveway and you don’t remember how you got home from work, that’s the autopilot.  Have you been snacking and suddenly find the bag of chips empty?   Have you found yourself scrolling through your Instagram feed without even realizing that you had picked up your phone?  These cases are instances of the autopilot.  

Having the autopilot kick in is not necessarily a bad thing as often times it can save us precious mental energy, but these neural grooves can also make harmful habits second nature, whether it’s showing up late to meetings, procrastinating when things need to get done, or unconsciously disregarding an employment candidate who doesn’t fit your stereotype of the type of people that work at your company.

Two ways to overcome autopilot and make change happen

So how might we be more mindful of the neural pathways that we build, and how do we choose which habits to build? 

The first step is to become aware of your habits and biases.  We might never fully escape these, but we can minimize them by even becoming more aware that we are biased in the first place.  It’s been shown that literally no one, myself included, can completely be unbiased.  But if you read up on the most common cognitive biases that we can fall into, you’ll be able to identify what areas of your life you are most likely to fall into a cognitive bias.  This is the first step towards being able to catch yourself more readily and more often.  

How else might we become more present and aware of the mental grooves we’re currently stuck in?  Often, the autopilot relies on us reacting and not thinking with intention.  So we can start to build out some thinking space by pausing before you respond.  I’d suggest starting by simply taking two deep breaths before responding to anything.  Your employee gives you bad news?  Take those two breaths before responding.  Get in a fender bender?  Wait two deep breaths before getting out of your car to survey the damage.   Someone hit a hot-button issue for you on Twitter?  Definitely take two deep breaths before even starting to respond.  

Ask yourself: What kind of response do I want to have? What’s my intention and what kind of response is most productive?  

When I’m upset, typically the response I first think I want to have is something akin to “off with their heads,” but often I realize after taking a deep breath or two that I’m reacting (or even overreacting) instead of thinking.  That little pause allows me to respond in a more productive way – usually one of empathy, curiosity, and gratitude.  

Building new pathways for changemaking

By being aware of our brain’s shortcuts and making more space for thinking instead of reacting, we can begin to build new neural pathways so our default reactions are more productive. We can move from pathways of getting caught up in anger or making assumptions about people, to new and more constructive pathways that help us lead from a place of calm, thoughtfulness, care, connection, and compassion.

These skills are reinforced by constant practice – the more reps you put in, the deeper the grooves in your brain.  These neural paths are like paths in the forest.  The more you walk on a path, the more defined it becomes, but if you don’t walk on a path for a really long time, eventually those paths are swallowed back up by nature.  

So if there’s something you want to change about yourself, it’s not impossible.  It might not be easy, and it almost certainly won’t happen overnight, but it is possible.  By identifying your patterns, making space for thinking over reacting, and committing to practicing, you’ll be surprised at how fast you can make change in yourself.