Wednesday, October 7, 2009

How to Change Your Life in One Step

Maybe I'm just an incorrigible optimist, but I hope that by now most people have figured out that insight does not cure. Knowing why you get things wrong does not tell you how to get them right.

Once we stop worrying about why we get things wrong, we free up mental space to think about how we can effect real change. On this topic Peter Bregman makes an excellent suggestion. In fact, his idea is so good that it feels simple and obvious. Thus, likely to be ignored. Link here.

Let's imagine that we are no longer awaiting a flash of insight, an epiphany, that will solve all of our problems. Still, we tend to imagine that our problems are so daunting that we need to mount an all-out attack, in several ways from several directions at once.

We crave complexity. We repugn simplicity. If we have agonized over a problem for days, weeks, and years... unable to find a solution... we are not likely to be happy to discover that the solution was simple and direct.

Too many of us have invested our self-esteem in the notion that we are intellectually sophisticated. We traffic in nuance. We happily forgo solutions if we can see ourselves engaged in advanced lucubrations.

Even if we hear about a simple solution, we are likely to reject it. Perhaps it will work for a lesser mortal, but it will do nothing for us. We are too complex. If the simple solution fails that confirms how smart we are.

For those who feel that this notion needs stronger intellectual credentials I would recommend study of Ockham's razor, the principle that says that when you have a simple and complex explanation of a phenomenon, the simpler one is more likely to be closer to the truth. For more detail, see here.

Anyone who has been involved with cognitive therapy knows that when a cognitive therapist hands out a homework assignment no small number of patients will reject the task a beneath them.

As for Peter Bregman,he wanted to lose some weight. After satisfying himself that all diets were variations on the simple theme of restricting caloric intake, he decided to do one and only one thing to lose weight. He decided to cut sugar out of his diet. No more ice cream; no more cookies; no more candies.

He lost eighteen pounds.

In Bregman's view this strategy worked because, by adopting it, he: "...sidestepped millions of complex decisions most diets require-- counting, weighing, choosing, deciding. No phases, no recipes, no thinking."

More than that, his decision saved him from considerable mental static. He did not have to stress about whether he was fulfilling all of the multitude of tasks that each diet required.

Simplicity made the plan easier to follow. Simplicity increased the chances that he would succeed.

Complexity often leads to failure, then to over-eating to soothe one's stressed-out nervous system.

Of course, following one and only one rule requires discipline and focus. You cannot trick yourself into believing that you are following the diet by fulfilling some conditions some of the time.

We talk a lot about focus. We all know that it is a good thing. Yet, it feels as though we are saying that there is a 'focus' switch somewhere in the cerebral cortex, and that you need but turn it on to achieve focus.

Would that it were that easy.

Bregman's way of gaining focus is noteworthy because it is external, not internal. It involves keeping faith with a single decision that addresses a single issue.

If your mind is tasked with multiple activities you are likely to lose focus. It will almost feel like the diet is asking you to do so.

If we apply Bregman's principle more widely, we would see that it is not a good idea to tell people that they can improve their health by going on a diet and developing an exercise routine.

These are both good things. But they should be undertaken one at a time. Perhaps it would be more constructive to make exercise a daily habit before you attack your caloric intake.

Too many changes at once are confusing. They disrupt so many routines that they disorient and even depersonnalize the individual. Make too many changes and you will not recognize yourself. And that is stressful. So stressful that you will likely retreat back into your old habits, the better to discover a Self that feels like an old friend.

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