Patterns of Change

I’ve been dealing with a lot of unwanted changes, and it’s not easy. Losses, disappointments, changes—we all struggle when life doesn’t go our way. Why is it so hard to handle change? Then there are the changes we want to make, fight hard to make—losing weight, giving up smoking, being more organized. Why is it so hard to create change?

The answer is patterns—human beings are hardwired to seek out patterns and operate according to them. Every waking moment we are bombarded by overwhelming floods of data, infinite numbers of choices, confusing and conflicting information. Sheer survival depends upon your brain being able to sort through all of this every minute. The ingenious solution, built right in to your brain and nervous system, is the ability to operate according to patterns. 

Your brain automatically searches and identifies many kinds of patterns. Patterns of sight mean that you can identify the chair from the table, the dining room from the bedroom, whether you see them in their three-dimensional form, or see a photograph, or even see the drawing created by your six-year-old. A table on a canvas by Van Gogh or Picasso is recognizable even though the perspective is skewed and the colors are strange. It still fits the pattern of table. Kinesthetic patterns mean you can reach for a utensil, pot or dish in the kitchen without even looking where you reach, or grab your toothbrush in the bathroom before you’re really awake. A combination of kinesthetic and visual patterns means you can drive the familiar drive to work without even thinking about it and if you get a new job or move, you’ll find yourself taking the old route if you don’t pay attention.

The stress of paying attention is one of the major reasons why patterns are important. Research shows that moving to a new home is one of the most stressful experiences you can have, right up there with the death of a loved one. This doesn’t appear to make sense—since moving to a new home is usually a desirable thing—until you think about patterns. All those kinesthetic, visual patterns have suddenly changed—the pots, dishes and your toothbrush (not to mention the bathroom) are all in different places. So is the furniture. You’re tripping over chairs that seem to be in the wrong places. You have to think every minute of the drive to work, because the route is unfamiliar. Each of these changed patterns represents a lot of stress. When you’re operating within old, familiar patterns, you don’t need to think about what you’re doing. Your body is wired to do familiar things without having to think about them. This leaves your mind free to wander, and to de_stress. 

As I write this, I’m touch-typing. I don’t have to think about the spelling of the words, or which finger hits which key. There was a time, of course, when I couldn’t type even one word without hunting and pecking for each letter, but (in the beginning) painstaking practice and repetition, and now many years of experience, mean that I can even talk to someone else while I type. Repetition and practice made the patterns part of my consciousness. 

If you want to change a habit (for example, to develop a habit of wearing your car seat belt) you develop a pattern that incorporates the change (I’ll get in my car, put the key in the ignition, fasten my seat belt, and then start car.) At first, you may even need a written note to remind you of the pattern, but if you consistently follow your new routine, it will be a pattern in a week or two. If you do it for several weeks, it will become ingrained enough to feel automatic you won’t need to think about it at all.  Changing even really tough patterns, like smoking, is possible if you break it down into each smoking habit you have (after dinner, at work, hanging out with friends) and develop a replacement pattern for each one (chew mint gum after dinner, take a short, brisk walk during work breaks, hang out in non_smoking places with friends,) and follow each new pattern consistently until all are changed. Having something different to focus on makes the psychological withdrawal easier. 

Here’s something that will help: We have a brain mechanism psychologists call "preparatory set." It's one of the mechanisms the mind uses to sort through the enormous amounts of data that flow in daily, and keep it manageable. By writing down the things you want to accomplish and making them clear, you can "program" that mechanism. Once programmed, it directs your attention to certain events and occurrences. To illustrate: When you decide you want a certain car (an SUV, a hybrid or a PT Cruiser) you see that model everywhere, you notice every one on the freeway, you see every ad or commercial. Preparatory set works that way. Once you program it with your goals (visualizing in addition to writing is most effective) you will automatically be more aware of certain events, opportunities and people who can be helpful. You'll also be more clear about what you want, and this will sneak into your conversation and your general attitude, where others can pick up on it. It's not really magic, unless you believe as I do, that the mind is a miracle in itself.


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