Petals fall from the last rose of summer. Autumn is here. Watching the petals peel away from the roses in my garden, my mind turns to the nature of change. Change is an event. Like moving from one season to another. Transition is about the process of accepting change. The rose passes smoothly from one state to another from rose flower to rose hip. I wonder how different life would be if human beings dealt with change as gracefully.
Instead, change often scares people and puts them in a defensive frame of mind. This instinctive reaction can cause unhelpful attitudes and behaviours. The result? A toxic mix of fear, uncertainty and self-doubt. Sometimes, depending on the nature of the change, we can feel excited about a new challenge or an expectation of better things to come. Often, we experience a confusing mixture of both sets of these feelings. Then change becomes even harder as we are exhausted by an emotional roller-coaster over which we feel we have no control.
How to have a good day
So, what can be done to deal with this? The key to mastering our reaction to change is to understand how it impacts us and why. Fortunately, there is plenty of helpful reading on this subject which can provide insight into the inner journey that takes place when we are faced with change. My current favourite is ‘How to have a good day’ by Caroline Webb. It is a well-researched book drawing on neuroscience, psychology and behaviour economics and written in a breezy, conversational style that is stimulating to read.
Webb explains how the human brain has a dual operating system: the rational mind and the emotional mind. The rational mind governs our long-term strategic planning, ability to learn and cognitive processes. However, it is limited because it is slow to react and relies on working memory which is the information that we hold in our minds while we decide what to do.
Fight, flight or freeze
The emotional mind tends to be content with the status quo. It responds to short-term rewards and instant gratification. It is the primitive part of the brain that controls our ‘fight, flight or freeze’ response to any perceived threat. It is always on high alert for anything that might represent danger. Most of the time it is helpful as it operates on auto-pilot. This process enables us to live our lives without having to think about the minute detail of everyday things.
Trouble occurs when there is a clash between the two systems. Resistance to change comes from the emotional mind reacting to the new and the different as if it were a threat. This perception of danger causes the primitive survival instinct to kick in flooding the body with adrenaline. The rational mind may be contemplating the change with an open-mind by being interested and keen to learn more. However, as resources divert away from the calm cognitive process, it is severely hampered from doing its job.
Then change becomes an internal struggle, and that is where the real problems begin. When people talk about having mixed emotions about something or feel indecisive about acting, this is what is going on. Armed with this understanding, we can set about developing some simple strategies that will not only help us cope with change but also to thrive:
Take a single-focus approach. An essential takeaway is that what we think of as multi-tasking is just switching focus in our working memory from one thing to another. Left unchecked, we quickly become exhausted. Without regular rest and recuperation, our reasoning, self-control and planning decline sharply. It is vital to remember this when tackling any task, and especially when planning change. Asking people to make multiple alternations at once soon depletes the working memory and reduces resilience. Try breaking the change down into bite-sized chunks. Change becomes less intimidating, and this allows the rational mind to work at its best – one task at a time.
Master the art of stillness. We can train our brains to focus on one task at a time by practising mindfulness. Find a quiet, safe space, then pause for a few minutes and notice the act of breathing. It is natural for attention to wander as we are unused to stilling our minds. Gently refocus on the breath and enjoy feeling calmer, more rested and energised. There are many mindfulness apps, and other resources help with techniques. Check out the excellent TED talk by mindfulness expert, Andy Puddicombe which is entitled “All it takes is ten mindful minutes”.
Choose a growth mindset. Our mindset has an enormous impact on how we behave and deal with change situations. Mindsets are not fixed as they are beliefs that we hold about ourselves. So, if we choose our beliefs, this will determine our mindset. Self-awareness is the key. Pause and notice when our emotional mind is taking control and driving unhelpful beliefs. Deliberately slowing down this instinctive reaction will take us off autopilot and allow us to choose a better response. A growth mindset says hard work and perseverance coupled with a flexible and resourceful attitude will conquer the most challenging change. So, mind your mindset.
Remove ambiguity. If we desire to change, we must be clear on what it is we want to change. Our emotional mind hates vagueness, and the result is procrastination. It becomes straightforward to act once we achieve clarity about what we must do because the next step is then concrete. Start by visualising the destination as if already reached, then work backwards and track the steps that led there. The simple act of writing down the actions that led to the desired change will make all the difference to moving forward.
Celebrate success along the way. Change takes effort, and it can be especially hard in the face of setbacks. Keep on track by taking the time to celebrate small successes along the way. It helps to note down any reflections on what has worked and what else might provide the necessary motivation to keep going. It will also help build resilience for when things get tough.
Encourage good habits. We know there is a difference between knowing how to act and being motivated to act. Feeling alone or unsupported during challenging situations will encourage self-doubt and erode new good habits. Find ways of strengthening the good habits that support change. For example, buddy up with a friend or colleague to create a supportive network. This support will enable new behaviour to become habitual, and this will help it becomes smoother, more natural and eventually easier to keep up.
Show self-compassion. Most of us experience a strong response to any change. One of the strongest can be a feeling of loss, along with the struggle to accept the reality of the situation. Even if a change is self-initiated, there may be regret about giving up something familiar when embracing anything new. Any loss can trigger an emotional response that resembles grief. It is important to remember that this is a normal part of the transition. Accept this and show self-compassion. This act helps to smooth the transition process and make quicker progress.
We can improve our chance of success by remembering that when change works it tends to follow a pattern. People who change are self-awareness, make conscious choices, have a clear direction and find motivation by developing a supportive network to help them. Habits can change. It just takes time and effort supported by the right mindset.
Beverly Landais is an accredited executive coach with a successful senior business background, including at board-level.
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Professional Certified Coach with a senior business background, including at board level.