Change is a constant factor in our everyday lives. Now, when the whole world is practicing social distance and/or quarantine, in a situation that only a few anticipated, change is even more relevant. But we, humans, are not built flexible. Most of our brains’ efforts are spent to find a safe behavior and make us stick to it. This is a challenge because nothing is safe in times of uncertainty and change.
In this article I will show you how to adopt a habit of embracing change. There are many things that can help you be successful in your personal and professional life, but this skill is going to make you successful at almost anything. As we get further into the twenty-first century, I believe that there will be two skills which will be more and more valuable. Learning how to learn fast and learning how to embrace change.
Time to read
Time to read: 10 minutes (based on 150 words per minute).
What is change?
You’ve settled at work on your position and you finally feel comfortable with all your responsibilities. You are familiar with all your colleagues and you’ve established a synergy with most of them. And then, suddenly, your skip-level manager announces a massive re-org that is going to send you in another department. Sounds familiar?
You are an athlete and you are preparing for the Olympics. This is the culmination of four years of struggles, training, and competitions. And then, guess what, the Olympic committee announces that the games will either be postponed or even cancelled. Imagine if you are that person?
You’ve planned the first half of the year meticulously. You’ve bought tickets to send your kid to his grandparents for the summer. You have even planned a vacation with your significant other during that time. And then, suddenly, the whole world stops moving because of a virus. How do you feel?
The common part of all these imaginary scenarios is that they are out of your control. There is nothing you can do about it. The only thing in your control is how to respond. You can always fall back into blaming the world for the injustice. Or, you can embrace the change and the new normal and get busy working.
There is this quote from the movie “Shawshank Redemption” that I really like and often remind myself about in times of change:
I guess it comes down to a simple choice, really. Get busy living or get busy dying.Andy Dufresne
If you have not watched the movie Andy is thrown in jail for a crime he did not commit. In that extreme situation, his freedom of choice is narrowed down to those two options. Which one did he choose?
Why do you suck at change?
About 50% of your life is running on the semi-automatic programs called habits. Half of your waking life you act on autopilot. Your mind is trying to do everything possible to help you adapt to your present situation. And it does not like change. Change is the enemy. Change is bad. This is why adopting a new exercise routine feels awkward. This is why you cannot fold your hands the other way around.
But there is a cure, there is a path forward. You can get comfortable with change. You can teach yourself the habit of embracing change. All this follows into the same lines – if you cannot do anything about change, then at least teach yourself gradually to embrace it.
How do you adopt or change a habit?
There is a lot of literature on this topic and I really recommend Charles Duhigg’s book The Power of Habit (link to Goodreads). In summary a habit has three components – cue (or a trigger, something that starts it), behavior, and reward. Duhigg argues that you cannot uproot an existing habit, you can only change it by understanding your cues and adopting a different behavior with the same result.
In case of the habit to respond change, the cue should be pretty obvious – when something changes. You can probably dig a bit deeper and find other triggers as well which you can use to train. Your existing behavior is also clear – worry, denial, blame game. Nothing productive. And your reward is … tricky. Maybe you feel better when you offload the blame to someone or something else. Maybe you feel that you can pretend it did not happen. Think about it and find what lies in the root of the reward to your normal reaction to change.
And finally, the new mindset that I recommend when responding to change is to adopt the change mindset.
How can you adopt a change mindset?
Step 1: The old situation is dead
First and foremost, if you think about wasting time and energy thinking about what is was or what it could have been, forget it. Useless! Whatever it was before, get your stuff and get going with the new reality. Did you like that view from your window in your old office? Forget it! Somebody else will sit there from now on. Did you look forward to your summer plans? Forget them! The liberating part of all that is that you can start fresh.
Step 2: Salvage what you can
If you can, do not leave your desk and all your belongings for somebody to clean up and throw in the trash. Just because the situation changes it does not mean that you need to start completely fresh. You can carry with you your skills, your relationships, your processes. Everything that made you successful before the change could also make you successful in the new world.
Step 3: Get strategic
It is Day 2 after the change. You have forgotten the past and you have salvaged whatever you could. What do you do now? You create a strategy. You could start with a mid-term strategy, but if it makes sense form a long-term strategy as well. What are you doing in the next sixty or ninety days? It is somewhat like starting a new job. You need to have a plan when you get to the office for your first day.
Think about the habits that you need to adopt in the new situation. If it is about working from home for an extended period of time, think about the habits that you will need. If is about a new role, think about the habits that will make you successful. The situation itself does not really matter once you start thinking about habits.
Think about the people that you will interact with in the new reality. How can you learn more about them? What are their triggers? Remember, this is also a change for them. And, of course, a chance to start fresh as well.
Step 4: Get tactical
At the same time when figuring out the mid-term strategy, try to define some short-term easy wins. You need to give your brain a few rewards in order to start forming the new habits. And, of course, start doing them and start getting these small rewards. This will start reinforcing the new habits.
Step 5: Explore
The next step is to allow yourself to explore the new situation after the change. Yes, it probably looked horrible when you learned about it, but it cannot be that bad. There must be some positive things to consider. As you are executing on your mid-term plan and as you get those small easy wins along the way, allow yourself the luxury to explore. You will make mistakes, there will be failures, but position your mind to learn from them, not avoid them.
One of the best processes that I have found for that step is expanding from the known to the unknown. There should be some parts of the new reality which are similar to the old one. Use them as a spring board to start exploring the new reality. Find similarities.
Step 6: Face the brutal facts …
Remember that it is easy fool yourself. You need to face and accept the brutal facts. Maybe the situation is not temporarily. Maybe it will not be resolved by Christmas. This is called the Stockdale paradox, which was popularized by Jim Collins’s book From Good to Great (this is my review of the book on Goodreads). James Stockdale was held a prisoner during the Vietnam War for over seven years. Facing this most difficult to accept change, Stockdale was tortured repeatedly. He only survived by embracing the harshness of the situation and mixing it with a healthy level of optimism.
Step 7: … yet keep relentless optimism into the situation
This one goes hand in hand with the previous step and Stockdale’s example. You need to keep the relentless conviction that things are going to get better. But, most probably, they are going to get worse before they get better.
Step 8: Be patient
Nothing will be exactly the same like before. It will feel awkward, uncomfortable, even painful. Have patience, keep working, keep doing what you are supposed to be doing. By the time your ninety-day plan is over, you will need to have already created a new one. Keep executing on it as well. By the time you know it, there will be another change around the corner.
Step 9: Prepare for the next change
As we already established in the beginning, we are living in a world where change is the predominant factor. Only a generation ago, our predecessors could rely in a predictable life. Now, this is no longer the case. If you are not recovering from the previous change, you should be preparing for the next one.
Step 10: Practice with smaller changes
If you really want to adopt the habit of embracing change, then you need to start causing change in your life. Do social experiments on yourself and learn how to adapt to change quickly. For example, you could stop drinking coffee. Or you could completely change your exercise routine. You could take on a new project at work for which you know nothing about. Get yourself into a hole and learn by digging yourself out.
Change is everywhere and change is here to stay. You can either suffer constantly when the next change hits you, or you can learn to embrace each change, anticipate it, and prepare for it. And, even better, you could teach yourself the habit of embracing change. You can adopt the mindset of always being on the move.
What are the next steps?
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