We like to do things fast.
“Clear the to-do list.”
“Check the box.”
Our need for speed will almost always backfire when we’re trying to make changes to our behaviors or mindset. To make a sustainable change, we need to slow down and pay attention to what we are currently up to, our “as-is” state.
Think about New Year’s resolutions. Anecdotally it’s safe to say that a significant majority of those desired behavioral shifts fall by the wayside fairly quickly. The gyms are full in January; February, not so much.
One missing ingredient is self-observation. For illustrative purposes, let’s imagine you have a self-limiting behavior of “frequently interrupting others” and have a stated aspirational goal of becoming a great listener.
Instead of simply biting your tongue to stop interrupting others (which might work for a few days or even a few weeks), my experience working with many individuals over time suggests that your best bet is to start by developing a self-observation practice.
However counter-intuitive it may seem, one needs to spend a fair amount of time simply noticing their as-is state.
A Non-Judgmental Stance – You Are a Scientist
When you start paying attention to a behavior that you see as “needing improvement,” your Inner Critic is likely to become agitated and vocal. (“Wow, I had no idea I interrupt others THIS often, dang, I really do suck.”) On average, a person has between 60,000 to 70,000 thoughts a day. Stanford researcher Fred Luskin states that 90% of them are the same thoughts that we recycle constantly. Sadly, the majority of those thoughts are inaccurate and negative.
Our thoughts are so troubling that we actually become uncomfortable with any mental down time. One study even showed that the average adult male would rather experience electroshock therapy than be left alone with his thoughts.
An approach I suggest is to consider yourself a scientist collecting information about an interesting specimen. That specimen is you! Scientists are trained to be objective neutral observers. The data itself is interesting and insightful.
The Inner Critic will not go away but there is hope. When you shift your inner dialogue from beating yourself up (“I can’t believe I interrupt others this often”) to one of curiosity (“Wow, this is fascinating, I had no idea I interrupted others this often. I wonder what’s up with that?), amazing opportunities to affect change can happen.
Just as a scientist records her/his observations, I suggest getting started by picking a self-limiting behavior and recording the answers to a few questions like these a few times a week.
- How often in the last few days did I interrupt others?
- Roughly how much time elapsed between my interrupting others and my awareness of it?
Over time, your brain will realize that you are paying attention to this self-limiting behavior (interrupting others) and will bring it to your attention more quickly. This allows you to start digging underneath the surface behavior (interrupting others) to investigate the underlying “stories” at play.
Doing the Inner Work to Support the Outer Change
Those underlying “stories” (the inner work) hold the key to making a sustainable shift in an self-limiting behavior (the outer work).
For example, with the self-limiting behavior of interrupting others, a person may find an underlying story that “I need to speak over people in order to ensure my ideas are heard” or “If I dominate the conversation I will ultimately get what I want” or maybe even “I know I am right and don’t want to waste my time hearing other ideas.”
Whatever it is, seeing what is truly going on underneath the surface gives you new awareness/insight into the behavior. And this is where the real opportunity is. If you simply change the outer behavior (bite your tongue and stop interrupting others) without addressing what’s going on inside of you, I can assure you the behavior change will be short-lived.
So, before you race ahead to make your next behavioral change, do yourself a favor and give yourself permission to spend some time to more fully understand your current as-is state. Watch yourself.
This blog post is adapted from the original article, reprinted with permission from the author.