I sometimes wonder about the extent to which we see change as the need to switch from one state to another. To see things this way is to see change in terms of levers to be pulled, states to change, programmes to ‘get with’, things to stop and start, resolutions to make and keep. If only it was so easy as flicking a switch. Instead, I tend to think about systems for change.
Over the last year I’ve almost completely cut meat out of my diet. I kind of slipped into it; it wasn’t a clear ambition or plan. In doing so, I’ve not considered myself flipping from carnivore to vegetarian; that’s too simple and smacks of a desire to label myself or otherwise associate a lifestyle choice with that of others of similar persuasion (and thereby feel a sense of belonging with a new tribe, and perhaps a moral superiority over my new ‘out-groups’). No, for me the idea that I might never eat meat again feels too big a step. I definitely now feel much more aligned with those who see not eating other animals as a moral choice. That’s shifted deep in my beliefs, slowly, over recent years. But I realise that I’ve seen this change as much more of an emergent and experimental one, more evolution than revolution. I make more life-affirming – and healthier – choices in the moment, whether cooking at home or eating out. I prepare for those moments with if/then options. I experiment with new recipes. I still eat fish, to make any transition more palatable, and eggs and cheese. Just no other meat. Bite-sized steps, if you will. Who knows where this might go.
On the other hand, stopping smoking was one of the hardest things I’ve ever done, but on the surface it would have appeared as if flicking a switch. From smoker to non-smoker with that final inhale. It really passed off quite smoothly. I experienced none of the withdrawal symptoms that tobacco companies and the makers of nicotine replacement products assured me I would experience; at a purely physiological level it was pretty easy. But there was a lot of work I had to do.
The transition to non-smoker was hard socially; avoiding the situations and, hardest of all, the people that served as triggers for my smoking behaviour. I may have shifted my perceptions of who I was, but others still saw me as a smoker. When these triggers couldn’t be avoided I replaced smoking as an automatic response to them with something else. Not intellectually difficult, just requiring of a little time, effort, imagination and support. For example, I realised a big part of what made smoking a stress response was the regulation of breathing. When else did I breathe in for three, hold for three, and exhale for three? Wait, doesn’t that sound familiar? I’ve done meditative breathing ever since, only without the poisons.
The psychological challenges also play out, of course, because the notion of dependency is implanted in our brains and so we believe it. We feel losses harder than gains and yet our work to change focuses all too often on the new, as though we should all be grateful and appreciative of the next big thing or initiative. There is little attendance to that which is being lost. I had my smoking paraphernalia and I created a small ritual to give thanks to the zippo, ashtray, etc, that had kept me such comforting company on my smoking journey. Their useful time for me had come to an end, and it was time to acknowledge their role and to let them go, graciously.
And so even those changes that look as though you’ve flipped from one state to another in an instant mask a different reality. There is always a transition, however hidden. Big changes can be made out to be big challenges and yet so often they can be achieved through small and manageable steps. This is the transitional phase: preparing for it, entering it, surviving it and emerging from it as a changed person. A ’hero’s journey’ in microcosm, to draw on mythologies the world over.
A part of this is avoiding the traps, too. It can be pervasive to rule something out completely – ‘I never smoke’, ‘I never eat meat’. Your energy follows your focus, so perhaps best not to focus on what we’ve given up, what we’ve lost from our lives. I will always be a smoker, a meat eater. I know I won’t choose to smoke again (in all likelihood). I also know it’s likely that, from time to time, on occasion, I’ll eat meat. But it won’t be my default. And, within that possibility, is the possibility I might never eat meat again.
Another challenge is the pressure to maintain your status. Pressure with grows with each day, particularly if you use one of those habit-tracking apps or a calendar on which you mark each successful day with a big red X. As soon as you get a good streak going, maintaining the streak itself becomes the goal, and so you lose sight of the real thing you are actually working towards. At some point it is likely the pressure to keep it up will become oppressive and over-bearing and then – wham! – before you realise it you have to spectacularly give up on the streak just to release the pressure and r e l a x. Before getting back to it and starting the whole sequence all over again. Not entirely helpful. Now I think about it, at no point did I start tracking how many days, months, years its been since I stopped smoking. As I write this I’d have to pause to even remember the year; I can’t be sure but I think it was around 2002.
The world of goals, achievements, utility, successes is (in western societies) still a largely individually-centred, productivity-focused one. Yet to create change we really need a wider view than this. Network theory tells us that we are influenced by people in our network up to three degrees of separation. If we have 12 close friends and family, that’s a network of 1728 people, most of whom we clearly don’t know. If one of them starts smoking, stops eating meat, or runs a marathon it increases the likelihood of us doing so too. In such circumstances, how can we be held to account for 100% of everything we do or that happens to us? And yet we continue to teach that performance is 100% in our grasp.
We tend to see failures of achievement as stemming from a moral weakness or flaw that is inherent in the person and not a result of the context within which they are living. In a world driven by individual goal attainment we might label as ‘low achievers’ those whose talents lie outside the academic sphere. Smokers might be labeled as having an ‘addictive personality’. We diagnose and categorise the failings (smoker!) before prescribing some help (nicotine replacement!).
A fix-the person approach for a fix-it world.
Change context, change the behaviour, change the outcomes. Everthing is so much more entangled than we like to acknowledge, for in a productivity-driven individualist world this opens us up to the possibilities that we are not 100% in control of what happens. Then what! What if you are used to playing this game and being successful, what do you do when you enter a realm where the tools and techniques that have served you well in one domain don’t work in a more complex one? Do you double down on your processes and competitive individualism, or do you make a change? After all, all we can truly control is how we react to the events that happen and what we learn from them.
Perhaps, if I were to summarise this article in a sentence, it might be this. Change as a dance with context is a more appropriate metaphor than change as a plan to be implemented.