Article by Miriam Yates, Psychologist at Within Consulting
The way we think about, feel towards issues and people, and do our daily lives can be undertaken with automaticity. I’ll bet if you take a minute, you can recall an example: the driver who reacts to another’s’ impatience by slowing down, the impatient shopper that brushes off the check-out assistant, or maybe it was you this morning sighing at the person in front of you when they ordered the mocha-frappuccino-with-a-caramel-shot-on-soy. Then they complained it was too cold and you had to wait another few moments before being served and starting your work day. These emotion-based reactions can be understood from different perspectives, but let’s simply focus on your experience. What did you think in response to the above examples? Did you recall the time you were the impatient shopper trying to simply pay for your groceries and race home, I know I did. What did you feel in reflecting on these examples? I immediately recalled feeling frustrated while waiting for a coffee aficionado who ordered that specific combination of beans and water that requires the barrister to craft art in a coffee cup. Confession: I’ve also been the mocha-frappuccino-with-a-caramel-shot-on-soy purchasee too. Sorry, not sorry.
What I am interested in, is your reactions while you reflected on these simple examples. We’re big on reflective practice here at Within Consulting, and we don’t just talk about it, we do it. Engaging in reflection can happen before, during, or after an event (or anytime really – I did when I caught myself experiencing frustration with the coffee lover mentioned above), and its an incredibly powerful tool for behavioural change particularly combined with a learning mindset and behavioural experiments. The learning or growth mindset can take time to develop, but in my experience, is pivotal to success within the workplace.
Behavioural experiments can be a useful way of initiating subtle behavioural change, but insight into what you want to change and why, is the first step – cue reflective practice! A reflective practice approach to understanding adaptive and maladaptive behaviour both in and outside of the workplace largely relies on examining the antecedents that led to the outcome state you experience. This requires a bit of a juggling act between asking questions about the ‘now’, as well as asking questions about the ‘then’ and the ‘why’ (careful of the rabbit warrens here!).
Noticing behaviour, that is, insight or self-awareness and re-calibrating the subsequent behavioural experiment over time is vital to sustained improvement. But, before you start conjuring up mental images of electrodes and lab rats, let me quickly clarify what I mean by ‘experimenting’. In this context, I’m referring to small and subtle changes in the way we think about, feel and do things within our environment that can impact the outcomes we reap. Like Jessie Potter said in 1981 “If you always do what you’ve always done, you always get what you’ve always gotten”. So how do we initiate the process? Behaviour change is hard, right? If you have a pattern of behaviour (or dare I say habit) that you have engaged with for a long period of time, its unlikely you’ll suddenly decide to cease your modus operandi without the appropriate motivator or plan to change.
If you hadn’t noticed, Motivation and A Plan are key. If you’re the huffing-puffing shopper, maybe on reflection you decided it wasn’t an appropriate response, or perhaps you felt it wasn’t consistent with your values of patience and understanding. Or, maybe you just want to stop being so rushed or irritable. All of these scenarios are plausible. So, you’ve got some motivation. But, what next?
First, identify what you are trying to achieve. Why? You might start by reflecting on the outcome you experienced, maybe you felt unhappy, frustrated, mildly upset, or perhaps you just didn’t feel right about the experience. Reflect back on what you were thinking and feeling before, and during the brief experience, why were you irritated, why were you impatient? Were you in a mood? Were you running late? Again, any answer is fine, this part of the exercise is about asking the question without judgement of your own response.
Second, you’ll need to develop a course of action for what you will do in future. Inevitably, there’ll be another time you will run late, or you will be irritated. What action and planning can you do now? Will you plan to call ahead to let others know you’re running late? Will you start leaving home earlier? The caveat here is this process does rely on you recognising signs of irritability or impatience (i.e., foot tapping, speeding up your actions, sighing, etc.). You might try some basic breathing exercises here to establish your baseline, then combine this with reflective practice when you notice your baseline has been disrupted to help identify your ‘markers’ of impatience.
This process of reflective practice, behavioural experimentation combined with the growth mindset can be applied to both adaptive and maladaptive behaviour. A fun example Tamara and I recently discussed was the difference in the way we each processed running as exercise. On the one hand, I think about the larger goal (i.e., “I want to run 5 kilometres”) and count down from the top 5kms – 1km. On the contrary, Tamara thinks of the goal stepwise and counts up (i.e., “I’ve run 1 kilometre, so why not run another?”). I was struggling with motivation and feeling as though I wasn’t able to achieve my goal earlier this week. I tried this subtle change in thinking described by Tamara and it worked a treat! I also borrowed this way of thinking it in a recent endurance event and it was incredibly helpful for finishing (and I actually enjoyed it!). Interestingly, the distinction between our strategies has parallels with Carol Dweck’s work on the ‘fixed’ versus ‘growth’ mindsets (outlined in the footnote above), wherein fixed is a focus on goal-achievement whereas growth is a focus on process.
The approach of experimentation won’t always be perfect and sometimes where the stakes are high (e.g., a month before your annual performance review), perhaps an alternative is more suitable. But, in other instances, the way we think, feel and do things can be adjusted ever so slightly with positive benefits. This brings me to the third point of a behavioural experiment. That is, try it! What is one small or subtle change you might implement to assist you to think about something differently, feel about your problem differently, or do something differently within your immediate environment? Start small. Be kind to yourself. Remember, the more difficult the change or more ingrained the habit, the longer it is likely to take to adjust and re-calibrate to develop more positive habits and behaviours. Jeremy Dean, a Psychologist and researcher of habit formation notes, “on average … it took 66 days until a habit was formed. As you might imagine, there was considerable variation in how long habits took to form depending on what people tried to do.”
Perhaps the key here is to approach your experiment with a growth mindset, that is, see it as a learning process. If like Wang Ken says “No pleasure, no learning. No learning, no pleasure”, then perhaps learning a thing or two through changing the way you think, feel and do things within your life might be just the thing you can pick up when you order your next mocha-frappuccino-with-a-caramel-shot-on-soy.
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