“A little knowledge that acts is worth infinitely more than much knowledge that is idle.” ~Kahlil Gibran
Have you ever read a book or a blog post and felt a profound sense of clarity—like you knew exactly what you needed to do—only to find yourself feeling paralyzed by the same old struggles hours or days later?
Have you ever listened to advice and felt certain you could apply it, only to find your resolve weakening when you were left to your own devices?
I have had these experiences many times before.
I remember when I was going through my hardest break up, many years back. After a long pep talk with a friend, I’d feel confident that I could get past it—and committed to taking care of myself to for my healing and overall well-being.
Mere hours later, I’d be curled up in bed with dirty, matted hair, drinking a mixed drink that was as strong as lighter fluid, sitting around feeling sorry for myself.
When I was overcoming my darkest depression, a few years after that, I stocked my shelves with self-help books (along with Ramen Noodles and Marlboros).
I must have had at least a dozen journals with exercises and notes, representing hours of self-reflection and analysis, yet days would go by when I wouldn’t do a single thing I wrote about.
I’d find excuses to stay alone, or stay bitter, or stay scared, or stay safe. Though I made some efforts to make changes in my life, I struggled to do anything positive regularly.
While I’ve made major progress with some of my biggest demons, I still go through times when I’m inconsistent with the things that I know serve me well.
In recent years, I’ve put a lot of effort into becoming more patient, and yet I still find myself rushing people and situations when I start to feel that familiar sense of anxiousness.
I know I feel better about myself when I’m more easy going—and that it’s kinder for the people around me—but I still struggle to apply what I’ve learned at times.
Since I want to continue making progress, I’ve put some thought into why it’s so hard to act on our knowledge, and how we can overcome internal resistance for lasting positive change.
1. Recognize the payoff in doing what you usually do.
We do things how we’ve always done them because there’s some type of pay off—something we think we gain—or something painful we think we avoid.
In some cases, this may be obvious, but sometimes we need to really dig beneath the surface to understand why we’re keeping ourselves stuck.
When I give in to impatience, it’s usually because this gives me a sense of control. It’s not so much that I don’t like to wait; it’s more that I dislike not knowing how long I’ll have to wait. That feels powerless to me, so I try to control the situation.
When we understand the payoff we’re seeking, and what we’re afraid of or trying to avoid, we’re better able to work with our own inner workings.
2. Acknowledge what you lose by doing what you always do.
Though there may be a payoff, clearly we’re also losing something, or else we wouldn’t want to change.
As I wrote in my book, Tiny Buddha, Psychologist Edgar Schein has identified three precursors to a change in behavior: a sense that the situation causes pain or dissatisfaction; survival anxiety, which is the awareness that you will be more uncomfortable if you don’t change; and psychological safety, which means that you feel safe to explore and make mistakes without fear of repercussions.
How will you be more uncomfortable for not making a change? What pain is this behavior causing you? Are you struggling financially because of it? Is it putting your health at risk and limiting your day-to-day joy? Are you feeling depressed, isolated, or lethargic?
When you get to that situation, when you want to do what you always do, recognize the emotional payoff—the thinking from step 1. Then take a deep breath and remind yourself that the consequences of doing what you always do are worse.
In my case, when I feel that out-of-control, impatient feeling, I remind myself, “If I rush right now, I will be inconsiderate of someone else and I’ll feel bad about myself. Patience may not come instinctively, but this is an opportunity to practice.”
3. Take every opportunity to practice, and take the pressure off.
Changing a behavior is about consistency. The more often we do something, the more instinctive it will become—and the better we’ll get at it. Think about working at it as often as possible, not doing it perfectly (whatever “it” may be).
Someone recently told me about an interesting study that involved two groups of students.
An instructor told the first group of students that they had to make one perfect vase, and told the other group to make as many vases as possible, without regard for how they turned out.
The group that made as many as possible ended up producing far superior work. Because they weren’t worried about perfection, they felt free to try new things and have fun with it—and through the process of pressure-free repetition, they naturally improved.
Think about applying what you know as a numbers game, and strive to do it more often than not. If you mess up, chalk it up to a learning experience and try again.
4. Change your inner monologue.
We all tell ourselves stories about the things we can and can’t do, and sometimes they can be paralyzing. The first step is recognizing our limiting thoughts, beliefs, and stories. The next part is replacing them with empowering ones.
So if you start thinking, “I can’t go out and meet new people. I never form any new relationships, so what’s the point?” replace that thought with, “I can meet new friends at any time if I’m open to it.”
It may seem like lying to yourself if you generally don’t believe it. You’re not. You’re entertaining a new thought so that you can form a new belief.
We tend to find evidence to back up what we think we know, thanks to our reticular activating system, which filters out stimuli that’s inconsistent with our beliefs, as a mental shortcut.
If you tell yourself something different, and look for evidence to back it up, you will start to change that filter, which will go a long way in tackling the internal resistance that keeps you from applying what you’ve learned.
In this way, you take what you know intellectually and transform it into something you fully believe.
5. Understand your triggers.
It’s easier to sustain a change if you anticipate challenges, and plan a way to overcome them.
For example, I know when I go to a doctor’s appointment I am likely going to feel that familiar sense of impatience bubbling up inside me.
This means I can go into it expecting to wait—and I can plan to use that time however I see fit, whether it’s relaxing with a magazine, writing in my journal, or simply doing nothing.
If you’re struggling to get over a breakup, identify the things that keep you stuck—looking at old pictures, talking to mutual friends, or whatever. Then plan to avoid triggers that are avoidable, and deal with unavoidable ones in a healthy way.
If you’re having a hard time changing your diet, recognize which things tempt you to make unhealthy choices—having certain food in the house, or getting a large portion at a restaurant. Then plan to tackle those triggers, by only buying healthy items, or by asking your waiter to put half your meal in a doggy bag in advance.
Whatever the case may be, knowing your triggers helps you work with them.
6. Track your progress.
In a recent post about overcoming the fear of loss, I mentioned an interesting observation from a blog post on Money Ning.
Just as we don’t like losing time, money, or people and things we value, we don’t want to lose momentum.
If you create some type of tracking system, either a log in a journal, or a large calendar with stars with every improvement, you’ll create a psychological need to keep that streak going.
We live in a world where we have more access than ever to information, but it isn’t knowledge that creates change. It also isn’t wisdom or will.
Change entails intention and consistent effort. Consistency doesn’t mean perfection. It means trying over and over again, and learning something from every setback to create meaningful internal change.
When we create tiny shifts in our minds, we start seeing major shifts in our choices—and in our lives.
Photo by Moyan_Brenn