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Why the Worst Time to Change Things Can Be the Best Time to Change Things



There are all kinds of levels of challenge when it comes to changing our habits. If I’m trying to get along with people better, for instance, there may be times when I’m well-rested, don’t need to be anywhere, and run into someone I genuinely like on a sunny day. Under these circumstances, being a little kinder than usual should be a walk in the part.

But at other times I might be running late for work, having only gotten five hours of sleep because the neighbor’s cat is in heat and was yowling all night, preoccupied with a weird sound my car just started making, and facing an inattentive Downwind Donuts worker who just tried to serve me (and charge me for) a decaf Chococinno Frothy instead of my regular morning cup of high-test. Under the circumstances, maybe a person could be forgiven for being gruff.

But in terms of really changing my habits, that second situation is a far better opportunity–even if I try and fail.

When we change habits, we’re both acquiring new knowledge and reinforcing behaviors. Acquiring new knowledge is just making realizations about how to do a task better, getting information that helps us make better decisions, like: “Hey, if I just take a few deep breaths instead of talking right away, I can usually be pretty civil even when things suck,” and “Maybe I shouldn’t try to smile when I’m really angry, considering how bad that looked in the reflection of myself I caught just now.”

Reinforcing behavior means strengthening neural pathways in the brain that support one particular course of action instead of another. If you find yourself automatically reaching for gum a few weeks after you stopped smoking instead of thinking about a cigarette, or reflexively pulling out class materials as soon as you get home because you’ve been cultivating new study habits, these are examples of having reinforced behaviors to the point of doing them without thinking. Automatically doing things the way we want to see ourselves doing them is the real victory in the course of changing habits: when a behavior has been rehearsed enough, in enough situations, we find that we don’t need any “willpower” per se any more. We’re just making good choices automatically. The harder we work at willpower, the less effort it takes to get good results.

Which brings us back to the worker at Downwind Donuts: of course this guy is much harder to be kind to than the friend we meet on the street. But that also means that we’re having to be more resourceful to act civilly toward him, and having to be more resourceful means we’re forced to try out new things, learn more, and work harder. In other words, changing our behavior when it’s difficult to do so requires more effort for us and therefore pays off more quickly and more powerfully. In the same way that lifting a heavy weight ten times builds muscles faster than lifting something light ten times, rising to challenges does a better job of building desirable habits.

To look at it from a different perspective, getting really good at anything means practicing it well and often, and practicing well means doing stuff that’s hard. Just doing something easy over and over does little to improve our skills.

Besides, what better way to confound inattentive coffee servers than to be friendly with them when they make mistakes? Sometimes disruption is its own reward.

Photo by Brayhan Hawryliszyn

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