Sunday, July 13, 2014

The Magic Key to Changing a Harmful Behavior Pattern

Last week, on two separate occasions I spent time with some guy friends. They were very different people, but with one striking similarity: both were significantly overweight and had diabetes issues. And even though they had tried, they hadn't been able to change the eating habits that caused their health problems.

Changing a behavior pattern is hard.

The reason is that if you repeat a behavior enough times, the brain cells involved in the behavior will connect into a physical circuit. Over time, your brain will literally wire itself to make any repeated behavior - whether beneficial or harmful - an easy, unconscious automatic pattern.

How do you change a habit like that, when the brain has wired itself to produce it? Like I said, it's hard.

But even though it's hard, people do break bad habits all the time.

But you really gotta wanna.

Yes, motivation is helpful, but that's not the secret. Even though strong motivation is crucial, there's more to it than that. There's a magic key to changing a behavior pattern.

It starts with understanding how successfully changing a behavior pattern works. The process has four phases.

1. Unconscious incompetence. Your habitual way of doing something is harmful, but you aren't aware that it's causing problems or that there's a better way.

2. Conscious incompetence. Somehow you're made aware that what you're doing is causing problems. The issues that are a consequence of your behavior become obvious. Maybe they cause pain or discomfort. Maybe someone gives you feedback - holds a mirror up to your behavior. You haven't committed to change yet, but you're not blissfully unaware anymore.

3. Conscious competence. You've learned what you should be doing and you're making an effort to change. This effort has to be a conscious decision, because the new way isn't a habit yet. This is challenging because the old way is still an ingrained habit. And because the old way is physically wired in your brain, it won't just unconnect itself and go away, no matter how much you wish it would. The trick is to repeat the new behavior so many times that your brain wires itself for a new, more rewarding habit.

But you're not there yet. So when you're not consciously paying attention to what you're doing, the old habit kicks in automatically. Frustration, regret and discouragement usually follow. I call this the "crunch point," because when it happens most people give up and relax back into their old ways.

4. Unconscious competence. If instead of giving up, you push past your lapses and consciously try again, after a while your success rate will improve. You'll still have occasional lapses, but if you don't give up, if you keep trying, eventually your brain will wire itself for the new habit. This means that doing the right thing will begin to kick in automatically without a conscious effort on your part.

The "secret" is actually quite simple, but it works like magic. It's this: even though your failures are disheartening, don't give up. Keep trying to make that conscious choice to do what you've committed to do. Understand that lapses are an inevitable part of the process and that each time you repeat the behavior, it will make that conscious decision easier, and your success rate will improve.

It will probably take time, but if you don't give up, if you persist past your failures and keep trying, eventually the new pattern will start happening automatically. And you'll become one of the millions of people who've changed a bad habit.

Post by Dennis E. Coates, Ph.D., Copyright 2014. Building Personal Strength .

Friday, June 27, 2014

Spirituality without Religion

Most people seek spirituality within the framework of a belief system or religion. This is the traditional approach.

I have a good friend who said to me that she wasn't religious, but she wanted to believe in something. She wanted an authentic experience of spirituality without having to believe in a supreme being.

There are millions of people like her. On forms that ask for "Religious Preference," they enter "none." At this point in human history, there's no tried-and-true system my friend can turn to to get what she wants.

I recommended that she read Eckhart Tolle's book, The Power of Now: A Guide to Spiritual Enlightenment. His approach to spirituality is to silence the chatter of the mind to achieve a hear-and-now awareness of the present moment. Life is sacred, being alive is sacred, and he considers this pure, unfiltered experience of the self to be a central aspect of spirituality.

Also, Tolle chooses to see the universe as a kind of cosmic intelligence. He envisions a grand consciousness, something purposeful that is larger than ourselves. I don't relate to this concept, but I do like the way he coaches us to achieve an awareness of being alive. Being conscious of our existence, appreciating that we are alive, experiencing what we are - surely this is an important aspect of spirituality.

Beyond the self there are billions of other human beings, each one alive and sacred, though usually not aware of his or her spiritual nature. Being "in the moment" with another human being, appreciating another person's reality and sacredness, the special aliveness of another individual - this, it seems to me, expands our spirituality to another level - that of relationships.

And of course there are all the "non-human" beings we can relate to, which we often refer to as "creatures." Like Ernest and Baby Girl, the affectionate, intelligent cats that are a part of our family. We can achieve spiritual relationships with the rest of nature, by experiencing it for what it is without the chatter of human nonsense.

And beyond our relationships and communities, there is the larger natural world, including the universe beyond our planet-home, Earth. Can we achieve a spiritual relationship with the universe?

I believe so, but I think this is more challenging, because even though the universe beyond Earth is quite real, when we look up on a dark night, all we see are tiny points of light. Scientists say some of these points of light aren't stars, but massive clusters of stars. This is new knowledge. They found proof of other galaxies beyond our own Milky Way galaxy less than a century ago. Scientists tell us this, and we can see the photos of various galaxies taken by powerful telescopes. These are awesome and beautiful images, though it takes some effort to achieve the stirrings of spirituality staring at second-hand, two-dimensional pictures.

Let me tell you about a personal experience. I live in Texas, and my wife and some friends decided to visit the McDonald Observatory in the mountains of west Texas. It was a moonless night, and as we sat on benches outside, a guide gave us an orientation of the night sky. Afterward, several different telescopes were set up for visitor viewing. In one of the telescopes I saw a clear view of Saturn's rings. It was like being there, though Saturn is about 750 million miles from Earth - eight times the distance from the Earth to the sun. This was not a photo but a direct view of the planet as it existed in that moment. I let that sink in, and I felt a sense of awe at this reality and my relation to it.

As I peered through another, stronger telescope I saw something that swept me away. It was not a planet. It was not a star. It was the Andromeda galaxy. I saw its swirling shape and that it consisted of an untold number of stars. Not a photo. Not an animation. But the galaxy itself, far from Earth.

The Andromeda Galaxy

I learned that the Andromeda galaxy is 2.5 million light years from Earth, which is a distance impossible for any human being to imagine, and that it contains a trillion stars, more than twice as many as our own Milky Way galaxy. Our guide also said that it was moving through space towards our galaxy and would merge with it three or four billion years from now. For me, this surge of awareness and knowledge and awe was unmistakably spiritual. This vision of Andromeda, seen through a looking glass, helped define me and my place in the universe.

It was humbling.

I've written this post partly for my friend, to affirm that you can, if you seek it, find authentic spirituality not only in yourself, but in relation to others and to the universe. It has to be a personal quest, not an easy journey, because this kind of spirituality isn't a packaged belief system as most religions are. But it's achievable.

Post by Dennis E. Coates, Ph.D., Copyright 2014. Building Personal Strength .

Wednesday, June 25, 2014

Zombies and Personal Decision Making

You have four ways of moving to action...

1. You do what other people tell you to do. Boss. Friend. Parent. Spouse. Your TV set.

2. You react instinctively, emotionally.

3. You unconsciously act out of habit. Your brain is wired for a particular behavior pattern.

4. You consciously evaluate your situation and your options and decide what to do.

If you aren't aware of why you're doing things, you're out of control.

There are good habits. There are bad habits.

There are good decisions. There are bad decisions.

If you aren't trying to improve your habits, if you acquire habits without thought and do things that are to your own detriment or the detriment of others, you're out of control.

When consciously making decisions, if you aren't carefully evaluating your options, you're out of control.

All actions have consequences. Some small. Some big. Some huge.

These consequences show up, impact your life and cause you to take more action. If you aren't aware of the role of your actions in a chain of events, you're life is out of control.

The truth is not many people think about why they do things. It's as if they're not accepting responsibility, not in charge of their own lives. Moving around in space but not fully alive. Like zombies.

How about you? Are you in control?

Are you aware of how and why you do things?

Post by Dennis E. Coates, Ph.D., Copyright 2014. Building Personal Strength .

Wednesday, June 11, 2014

From Texas: A Two-Step Dance That Improves Performance in the Workplace

I’ve lived in Texas just outside San Antonio for almost a decade now, and one of the cool things we enjoy here is Texas country music. Dance halls, ice houses and other venues feature live music almost every night. The tiny town of Gruene has three or four different venues, including Gruene Hall, the oldest continuously operating honky-tonk dance hall in Texas.

And yes, couples actually get on the floor and dance while the music is playing.

The dance step you see most is called the “Texas two-step.” Outside of Texas it’s known as the “country two-step.” Quick-quick slow, slow. Check it out:



You see how easy it is, and when it comes to dancing (which everyone knows is a form of foreplay) that’s how cowboys like it – easy.

When I’m not enjoying a local craft beer at a live music event, I’m probably thinking about more serious matters, such as learning and development and behavior change.

But it dawned on me recently that the difficult, all-important business of improving skills and changing behavior also involves a two-step.

At the most fundamental level, for training programs to succeed they need to be deployed in two steps - a kind of “learning and development dance,” so to speak.

Step One is feedback.

People need to know that something they’re doing is causing problems. Step One is to hold a mirror up to their behavior to help them acknowledge the issue, so they can begin doing the work to change and improve.

The unspoken assumption is that if intelligent, committed and well-intentioned managers and employees discover they need to change something, they’ll want to address it. They’ll make an effort to do so.

The assumption is that this kind of helpful feedback will empower the desired improvement.

This assumption is false.

Yes, most people are intelligent, committed and well-intentioned. But old behavior patterns have been reinforced and ingrained for years. Peoples’ brains are literally wired for the old behaviors.

So even if people want to make a conscious effort, in a fast-paced, challenging workplace old habits kick in automatically, and the conscious effort to do something differently often doesn’t happen. After several discouraging lapses, most people give up trying to change.

The only way to improve or change an ingrained behavior pattern is to rewire the brain – to stimulate the brain cells to connect in new neural pathways. This is the only approach that works. But it requires a long-term effort involving reinforcement, ongoing feedback, encouragement, and accountability.

This is the Step Two of the behavior change dance.

Most learning and development professionals and the managers they serve already understand Step One. For decades now, organizations have been using technology to help employees get the feedback they need.

The problem is, few of them understand Step Two. They don’t appreciate the kind of reinforcement, 
ongoing feedback, encouragement, and accountability that will give employees enough “reps” to rewire their brains. They don't appreciate how long it will take, and they don’t know if there’s a coaching technology that will support the follow-through efforts.

They do Step One. But there’s no Step Two.

So there’s no dance. And in most cases, behavior change doesn't happen.

So here I am working on my 20-ounce glass of brew, listening to Willie Nelson and watching couples dance. Yes, Willie Nelson – for real. This is Texas, man.

And the two-step is working its magic.

What most organizations don’t realize is that affordable technology support for both Step One and Step Two already exists.

20/20 Insight is the preferred feedback technology for a great many organizations worldwide. It has been making Step One easy for over 20 years now.

Strong for Performance, introduced in 2013, supports Step Two, the long-term coaching effort to ingrain automatic behavior patterns.

The learning and development dance really can happen. If you do Step One, followed by Step Two.

Post by Dennis E. Coates, Ph.D., Copyright 2014. Building Personal Strength .

Friday, June 6, 2014

How Henry David Thoreau Changed My Life

I share a lot of wisdom on this blog, on Twitter, on Facebook, on YouTube, and on Pinterest. Much of it comes from quotes from the great minds of the past 2,500 years.

For me, this collection of wisdom started over 40 years ago while I was a graduate student at Duke University. While reading Henry David Thoreau, an early 19th-century American philosopher, I came across this statement, which may have been the first quote I ever saved. It knocked my socks off then, and it still means a great deal to me now...


I accepted Thoreau's words as a promise. Have a dream. Advance confidently towards it, and my actions will meet with success. I believed it, and it became a framework that inspired me during the difficult years of my graduate studies. And I did achieve my dream, which at the time was to earn a Ph.D., and it did lead to unexpected success.

Here's what I learned from the experience.

Success starts with a dream, a vision of an important, highly desirable goal.

The dream fires the motivation towards action, which is the most important part, by far.

Because you have to do things. Hard things. It's not enough to want, or to dream.

Each action produces consequences, which are the stuff of a new situation. And in that new place, you make more choices and take more actions.

Which lead to more consequences - new situations. It's a long-term cascade of decisions and cause and effect.

It's a journey. Not a journey that happens to you. Not a journey to which you've been invited, but one you create for yourself by making the best choices you can and then working hard to implement the choices.

You are responsible for the journey. The journey is your life. Any success you achieve you earn with all the difficult choices and hard work.

And, of course, some luck. Because much of what happens in life is beyond your control.

The Thoreau quote is a classic. I hope it inspires you as much as it has inspired me.

Post by Dennis E. Coates, Ph.D., Copyright 2014. Building Personal Strength .