Neuroscientists and biologists have shown that we are indeed creatures of habit. The neural pathways in our brains and bodies actively grow to support our ability to do the things we do repeatedly. One of the reasons we are often resistant to change is that we have established physical systems that support doing things the way we currently do them. That was a great evolutionary strategy for our ancient ancestors — it helped to keep them alive by, say, using fire to ward off predators. It worked yesterday, so it’ll probably work today too. Pretty soon it becomes the one and only answer to the problem. Warding off perceived danger is often not a great strategy in today’s world, where being adaptable to change is likely to be the most valuable evolutionary capacity we can have. The rate of change is increasing all around us, and that’s one thing we can pretty much count on to stay the same.
The good news is that our brains are pattern-making as well as pattern-holding devices. Changing habits is a matter of re-patterning our existing pathways through repetition — what I like to call practice. If we make a concerted effort to practice a new habit every time we feel like doing something the old way, we begin to develop physiological resources that support the new habit. Some scientists say it takes 20 or 25 consecutive repetitions of a new behavior to begin to pattern it in the brain.
So if you want to stop procrastinating, you might try the following: Every time you feel like you’re procrastinating, immediately stop what you’re doing and work on the thing you’re putting off for 30 minutes. If two hours later you feel like you’re procrastinating again, stop and give it another 30 minutes. If you’re as good a procrastinator as I have been in my life, you will repeat this pattern 25 times in just a few weeks.
After a month, re-evaluate. Are you able to notice you are procrastinating earlier than you used to? Does the urge to “just do it” take over so that perhaps you don’t feel like you’re procrastinating as much?
Let me know about your re-patterning experiment. I’m curious to hear if your experience matches what scientists are saying.
Organization leaders who are helping their people work with change are facing the same kinds of patterns. They exist at a neuro-physiological level in every person in a company. Framing the experience as practice helps people take themselves more lightly as they work to establish new patterns. Using change methodologies such as those described in The Change Handbook helps to set a collective context of practice and possibility. As we engage peoples’ creativity, we create space for new patterns to form more quickly. Perhaps more important, learning to engage creativity on a regular basis helps to establish a pattern of greater ease with change.