family law supervisor, relationship counseling, wellbeing coaching, Mindfulness teacher

When ‘doing’ change might not work as well as ‘being’ change.

Is there something that you want to change in your life? Have you been trying to change it for a while but it’s just not happening for you? Maybe it’s a self -destructive habit like always leaving your work to the last minute so you end up burning the midnight oil and turning up to work the next day sleep deprived and cranky. Or perhaps it’s something more tangible like tidying your workspace up so you can see some clear wood on the desk or finally getting to grips with a new piece of software

When you think about that desired change, are you baffled why you can never quite manage to achieve it? Can you not fathom why in your career you have learned many new things, completed may tasks but this one thing seems to defeat you every time?

It could be because you are not taking into account the difference between technical change and adaptive change, each of which requires different approaches.

Making technical change is a question of cycling between acquiring knowledge and doing a new task. When coronavirus hit Jane was not comfortable with using Zoom. She called me, I guided her through it and she had a practice call that night. Then she realised there were advanced features like backgrounds and whiteboards, so she called me back and we had another tutorial. Then she went away and practised. Now she can use Zoom. That’s technical change.  Learn do, learn, do. That’s the cycle.

Adaptive change cannot be fixed by knowledge and practice.  Rather it requires a cycle of being and doing, being and doing. The lack of change cannot be fixed by an external teacher; it requires us to look deeper at the mindsets that underpin the behaviour. 

I suffered from that messy desk syndrome. It wasn’t a knowledge problem. I was more than aware of how to pick books up and put them on a shelf. I was fully aware of the system of tidying up as you go or working paper free and I’d not only read Marie Kondo, but watched her entire Netflix series. And yet, at the end of the day my desk was strewn with stacks of paper, sticky notes, open books.. you get the idea. It annoyed me. It cluttered my brain and made me feel overwhelmed, but I still did it. To change meant going through the process of adaptive change.

There are four key questions you can ask to get underneath the obstacles to change.

  1.  In what ways do you fail to fulfil your commitment to the change? 

Go beyond the obvious to look at the supporting habits. With my desk I found that I didn’t manage my time to allow for even the couple of minutes it would take at lunch and at the end of the day to reorder my space.  I worked until the very moment my husband told me dinner was ready. I wasn’t working with any awareness of the present moment. Instead  my head was always in the future so I didn’t even notice the space beyond my keyboard. I didn’t move from the desk to eat so there were mugs and plate on the periphery.  As soon as I listed these ways in which I failed to fulfil my commitment, the ways I sabotaged my own goal, I saw that these behaviours also contributed to the fact I was noticing feelings of stress and ‘running out of time’ as I worked on my new coaching practice.

  • What are the prizes you get from not making the change?

Again, dig deep to look for the real payoffs for your behaviour. There are usually surprisingly deep psychological reasons why we avoid making an adaptive change. My failure to give myself time to tidy allowed me to maintain the image of myself as busy, busy, busy, a professional image that was a hangover from my previous job where working full out was expected.  As I went into self-employment it was a behaviour that allowed me to block out the fear that I would not succeed in the new business. Not giving myself the time to clear my desk meant I could avoid bigger questions now I was self-employed in an entirely different industry. What does work mean now? How am I going to be my own boss and where are the boundaries between work and home? Leaving things open and never finished at the end of the day allowed me to avoid any feelings of emptiness and unknowing which were slightly uncomfortable for me.

  • How do you and the rest of the world get punished by not making this change?

For the sake of taking two minutes every couple of hours to rearrange things on my desk I was feeling distracted when I came to write. The physical space became a manifestation of my internal headspace. I was clinging on to habits of working that had already made me ill and yet I was subtly reintroducing them. As a result, I was not producing as much work as I knew I would if I sat down with a clear head and clear desk. Because my desk was messy, I was unable to serve my new clients to the best of my ability.

Pause here to evaluate these prizes and punishments. If the prizes genuinely do outweigh the punishments, consider whether this is change that you are really wanting to make. Perhaps it’s more something that you feel you ‘ought to do’ and not something that in fact is right for or important to you. If the punishments outweigh the prizes, ask:

  • What do you need to change about who you are being, so that you are able to then change what you are doing?

I needed to have a really long think about how I was going to treat myself now I was my own boss. Was I going to set up my practice and expect myself to work in exactly the same way as I had when I was employed? Was I going to import the expectation of others into my new practice? I sat down and spent some time in a journal writing my own job description and negotiating with the boss lady in my head what my work conditions would be and what kind of employer I wanted to be to myself. I applied mindfulness to my sitting at my desk so I simply noticed the placement of my papers and tools more.  Then I practised being that employer, telling myself what was and was not expected and watching how it changed my work behaviour even in the very small ways. Be, do, be, do. Adaptive change requires practice in that cycle until the new chance becomes second nature. 

Once I allowed myself to take my foot off the gas and create an attitude towards work that was more helpful, I had no problem about taking time to keep my space clear. That in itself was helpful but the process of asking the questions and working through the deeper underlying questions made a much wider impact on my new practice. So often that is how coaching techniques works: we tackle one relatively small practical problem, working at the level of our habitual thinking and find that not only do we change the example situation, but we change and grow as a person.

What adaptive change would you like to start to practice today?