THE ART OF RENOVATING YOUR LIFE: CREATING YOUR FUTURE
What’s involved in making changes in our lives so that we continue to live creatively and productively.
If you were going to renovate your house where would you start?
1. Some type of design and planning comes first – a list of changes you want to make; resources you might need, like various people to help you.
2. Prioritize and schedule a sequence of things to be done and time-line for them.
3. Get going. Hire the contractors and do what you have to do.
It’s not so different in regards to making change in your life.
You may have heard the saying “You can’t teach an old dog new tricks. Ask yourself if you really believe it.
People often say this with great conviction, believing that when we get older we can’t change. It may be a somewhat cynical outlook on life, but on the other hand unless a person is prepared to change something about themselves, a bad habit for example, they are unlikely to change.
A willing old dog can learn new tricks.
So we could alter that expression to “You can’t teach an unwilling dog new tricks.”
I’m going to talk later about a model of change by two researchers named Prochaska and DiClemente. They break change down into six different stages. We’ve already touched on the first one called pre-contemplation – the unwilling dog, not currently considering or will to change: “Ignorance is bliss.
Before I go into the other stages of change let’s consider who we are, each one of us reading this blog.
Most of us believe that we have a “self’ that makes us who we are. And many people resist change because they believe this self is a fixed or unchangeable identity.
You may have heard that the brain is “plastic.” No, I’m not saying the brain is just another consumer product to be displayed at a Tupperware party – although some brains I’ve encountered were like storage containers with contents long past their shelf life.
The reality according to current research into the brain is that the self is actually “plastic” in the sense of being changeable, malleable, flexible. The brain has the amazing ability to reorganize itself by forming new connections between brain cells (neurons). The fact is that neurons that fire together wire together. Remember that one. Keep it in mind as I talk further about renovating any part of your life …think welding, joining one piece of metal to another permanently.
Neuroplasticity or brain plasticity refers to the brain’s ability to CHANGE throughout life. This article talks about how meditation can change your brain. http://www.noetic.org/noetic/issue-nine-april/self-directed-neuroplasticity/
Norman Doidge, a native of Toronto, a psychiatrist, psychoanalyst, researcher, author and faculty member of both Columbia University and the University of Toronto’s Department of Psychiatry has written a groundbreaking book some of you may have heard about, The Brain That Changes Itself: Stories of Personal Triumph from the Frontiers of Brain Science.”
The New York Times wrote of his book “The power of positive thinking finally gains scientific credibility”.
The discovery that our thoughts can actually change the structure and function of our brains, even into old age, is the most important breakthrough in our understanding of the brain in four hundred years.
The message of hope in this knowledge is that we can make positive changes in our lives by taking action, by doing something actively, rather than just letting the aging process do all the changing for you. We can slow down the aging process and even reverse it.
Let’s go back to the subject of who we are. That funny little thing called “self”.
The implications of brain plasticity tell us that who we are is a combination of biology/ genetics, our environment/ experience, and the actions/decisions we make in life.
The age-old question of nature versus nurture has been turned on it’s head and recognized for what it is – a limited either/or question. What we’re talking about here is nature via nurture, the idea that biology affects experience and experience also affects biology. For example, we may have a gene that could cause cancer in us but that gene may have to be switched on by some non-genetic factor such as the ingredients of tobacco smoke, causing our genes to behave (or “express themselves”) differently.
So, in addition to genetic factors, the environment in which a person lives, as well as the actions or decisions of that person, play a role in plasticity.
Plasticity, learning and memory
For a long time, it was believed that as we aged, the connections in the brain became fixed. Research has shown that in fact the brain never stops changing through learning. Plasticity IS the capacity of the brain to change with learning. Changes associated with learning occur mostly at the level of the connections between neurons. New connections can form and the internal structure of the existing synapses can change.
I hope I’ve made my case that our brains can change and in the process we are creating a new self.
This is what I am calling “the art of renovating your life: creating your future.”
Now, returning to the model of the various stages of change, we started with pre-contemplation where a person is not considering making change. Prochaska and DiClemente’s Stages of Change Model has four steps towards actually implementing:
Stage of Change
||Not currently considering change: “Ignorance is bliss”
||Ambivalent about change: “Sitting on the fence.”
||Some experience with change and are trying to change: “Testing the waters.” Gathering information, Planning to act within 1 month
||Practicing new behavior for 3-6 months
||Continued commitment to sustaining new behavior -6 months to 5 years
||Resumption of old behaviors: “Fall from grace”
RESISTANCE TO CHANGE
There is something about human nature that resists change. Why would this be? Because, generally speaking, we have a desire for permanence, stability, predictability, security and control.
There are two major kinds of change we experience. The first is outside or imposed change where we have no choice. Changes in government legislation for example or organizational change, or personal illness ; the second is self imposed where we do have choice.
Which of the two is easiest to live with? Our own choice for change, naturally. They are easier because we’ve prepared out brains for them.We move to another part of the city, we go back to school, we change jobs or careers, we buy a new house. But still we feel a sense of loss, of displacement, of identity.
We need to differentiate between change and transition to fully understand the challenges of change. Change itself is an event, the moving, the new job, etc. But transition is a process, a psychological process of adaptation.
Every change brings with it a feeling of loss, a grieving for what was, a clinging or attachment to what we are leaving behind. And this is the area that makes change the most difficult – adapting to the new identity, situation or status before adopting it fully.
It’s not the change itself that is problematic, it’s the stress of adapting to change, it’s the transitioning that can cause us to retreat and want to go back to our previous position or ways of behaving. We don’t necessarily proceed in a straight line as we’re making change. Sometimes it’s one step forward and two back. We need to understand that there may be a learning curve involved – the number of times we practice or rehearse something before we become adept at it. How do we get to Carnegie Hall, as the old joke goes. Practice. Practice. Practice.
Making change and undergoing the transition process is stressful. Learning something new involves the brain adapting itself to the new learning and incorporating it into its systems.
Stress, as defined by the Canadian endocrinologist Hans Selye, refers to the adaptation process when demands are made on an organism. Change is stressful because it makes physical and emotional demands on our bodies. And depending on what other stresses we have in our lives, we can become overwhelmed even to the point of distress.
That’s why it’s important not to try to make too many changes at once. Too much stress can interfere with learning. We can become tired, irritable, anxious, have sleep disturbances, overuse alcohol and drugs and become discouraged.
SMART goal setting is: Specific, Measurable, Achievable, Relevant, and Time-oriented.
Specific: The goal should be described as specifically as possible. A goal of losing weight is not specific. A goal of losing twenty pounds from a current weight of one-ninety is specific. Even better is to set a specific target weight of one-seventy pounds.
Measurable: To be effective, the goal must be measurable. Obviously, weight is measurable, whereas being more generous, being a better friend, and working harder at your volunteer job are not measurable as stated. If your goal is in an area like the latter, such as being a better friend or partner to someone, identify some aspects of better relating that are measurable. Perhaps spending a couple of hours each week in an activity that your friend or partner selects would be appropriate.
Achievable: There’s an art to goal setting that revolves around the goal’s difficulty. A goal too easy is not energizing. A goal too difficult seems hopeless. Both too easy and too difficult are goal setting no-no’s. Set the level of challenge somewhere in between. A good way to decide that a goal is achievable but challenging is to visualize yourself reaching the goal. Can you see yourself there? Are you energized by seeing the vision? If both of these are not present, revisit your goal. If your goal involves weight loss, do you know all you should know about nutrition, calorie content, and metabolism to achieve your goal? If not, perhaps your first goal should be to gather this information.
Relevant: Does it fit with your purpose and what you want to achieve in your life? Do you have the knowledge, skill set, and competency to reach your goal?
Time oriented: Setting a deadline provides necessary positive tension to give you the energy to get on with it. The time frame you select should be realistic. Losing twenty pounds in twenty weeks is realistic, whereas losing it in five weeks is not only unrealistic but unhealthy.
Let’s stop here for a moment and summarize what I’ve talked about so far.
1. You can teach an old dog new tricks if he or she is willing. The brain, even the aging brain is plastic and can change.
2. There are distinct stages of preparation and readiness for change.
3. Change is an event; transition is a psychological process of adaptation and is the stressful part of change.
4. Setting SMART goals is the key to making successful change.
“Just like physical exercise is a part of every well organized life in the contemporary period…(so will) a
- Mentally and physically active people experience less cognitive decline.
consideration of how to nurture yourself. Now you know, science is telling us that you are in charge, that it’s under your control, that your happiness, your well-being, your abilities, your capacities, are capable of continuous modification, continuous improvement, and you’re the responsible agent and party.” – Michael Merzenich
Although cognitive decline is a normal part of aging, a number of studies have shown that people who remain mentally and physically active seem to experience less cognitive decline.
The more we become engaged and challenged by the surrounding world, the more our brain continues to generate new brain cells and reassign how existing cells communicate. New learning accelerates this process.
Every time our brain has to tackle a new challenge, it allows the new cells to mature and fuse themselves into the brain’s on-going processes. If our brains are not continually challenged, those new cells essentially starve and wither and die. That old adage, “Use it or Lose it” is true.
What scientists have clearly shown is that varieties of new and challenging activities, at any age, are good for the development of the brain. New hobbies, new experiences, new explorations all nourish and enrich the brain cells that continue to be generated.
The key is that the activities must be rigorous and repeated over time. A good trainer at a gym does not help us get stronger by doing normal daily activities on a routine basis. To get stronger, our muscles have to be increasingly challenged. In some ways, our brains function similar to a muscle. Enhancing brain plasticity amounts to exercising new brain cells so they get stronger and stronger.
I encourage you to keep learning, growing and exploring the world. It will enrich your brains and your life.
Not to be reprinted without permission. Copyright 2011 Jack Cunningham