Brain researchers have found that when we consciously develop new habits, we create new brain cells and parallel synaptic paths that can transform our thinking in new, innovative tracks. Why, then, is it so hard to change?
We are all creatures of habit. We have to be. We couldn’t function if we didn’t have habits to help us deal with the sheer volume of information and decisions we have to make every day. When we’re doing something habitually, we put our brains on autopilot and can relax into the comfort of a routine. As William Wordsworth said, “Not choice, but habit rules the unreflecting herd.”
How can we consciously develop new habits to increase our ability to innovate and direct our own change? To improve your odds, experiment with the Japanese technique of kaizen, which calls for tiny, continuous improvements. This will help you avoid the main reason most people aren’t able to change their thinking—or any habits—permanently: the gap between where they are now and where they want to be is too wide. When this happens, the stress people feel activates their flight-or-fight response and their brain encourages them to settle for the safety of what they’ve always done.
Instead, set a stretch goal for your new habit. It will feel challenging but not impossible. According to M.J. Ryan, author of This Year I Will…, “The small steps in kaizen don’t set off fight or flight, but rather keep us in our thinking brain, where we have access to our creativity and playfulness.”
Get ideas by watching how your colleagues approach challenges, especially those who think differently than you do. Consciously apply their decision-making to your own thinking. It will feel odd, and that’s what you want. You are confusing your brain, asking it make different associations. If you do this often enough, your brain will create new synaptic connections, which prevents you from doing the same thing over and over again.
As Dawna Markova, author of The Open Mind, says, “You cannot have innovation unless you are willing and able to move through the unknown and go from curiosity to wonder.”