the properties for change: what we know so far by yvonne thackray

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Tackling change is something which we can both have a hand in and be plunged into regardless of whether we want it or not. Change is inevitable, and we may catch the signs, or we might not. But when change or the unknown and unexpected brushes against us and creates emotions that unsettle us - that is often the time when we focus on them, assess all the incoming data and make a decision to do something about it or not. Emotions are a useful indicator as long as we don’t allow them to run away and guide us under the guise of fear. If we recognise that they are, in fact, a signal warning us of potential and imminent danger, then we need to use them to help us solve the problem and apply rational thinking to create a unique strategy in the face of the unexpected.  This is what Daniel Kahneman, a recipient of the Nobel Prize in Economics Sciences, calls System 1 and System 2 thinking: “System 1 is fast, intuitive and emotional; System 2 is slower, more deliberative, and more logical.” (Kahneman, 2011). We have a bias to focus on one more than the other, however, when we harness both we often create outcomes that even surprises ourselves.

Our capacity to make changes has progressed beyond what was supposedly something only the young is able to do or if only you had the talent for.  Recent discoveries from modern neuroscience, though we are still some ways from fully understanding how the brain works and exploring how the mind and brain work together, shares with us that our brain has more than one hundred billion interconnected neurons, and they work together creating an infinite number of patterns associated (fires off) with specific mental functions e.g. recalling a past event, feeling pain or happiness. As Dan Siegel (M.D.) points out, “Mental activity stimulates brain firing as much as brain firing creates mental activity”.   Each experience we have the neurons become activated, and through “repetition, emotional arousal, novelty and the careful focus of attention, the synaptic linkages between the neurons strengthens and that is how we learn from experiences”. Hence, if we want to make changes we need to focus our attention and create new patterns of neural firing to create new links, whether it’s a skill or a behaviour, and persevere to strengthen them.

Knowing that we all personally have the capabilities to make a change, we must also be aware of other influencing factors that can impede its progress: our character and the environment we live in. The rate at which we change needs to match who we are and align with our values and identity in order for it to be sustainable. Some individuals have a particular strength of character that transition through the change quicker than others because they have the confidence to live with uncertainty and chaos, and the capacity to let go of the past, whilst others take longer. Hence, to the best of one’s ability pace the change according to one’s own beat.  Also, we need to have the discipline or self-control to help us in transition in the environment we live in. We need ways to distract ourselves: to minimize those temptations of falling back into ways that heeds our progress to change right now - check out the Marshmallow Test. Extracting oneself from bad situations. Have that support network – those individuals who truly want the best for you and believe you have the potential to make those changes – could make it that more meaningful as well as fun to work on. By creating meaningful manageable goals that focus on the now, particularly as it’s hard to contemplate the future, and then to evolve those important goals with the future, it's more likely that those changes can be attained and sustained.

References: Kahneman, Daniel (2011) Thinking Fast and Slow; Siegel, Daniel (2011) mindsight: The new science of personal transformation; Lehrer, Jonah (2009) The Decisive Moment: How the Brain Makes Up Its Mind