“Change is a skill you can learn, but you have to have the guts to do it”, says author Julien Smith. If you want to make change in your life, it starts with recognising some of the bad patterns that are holding you back, and taking appropriate action.
Our brain is now maladapted to our goals, and its patterns are hard to break because, 100,000 years ago, learning about the world meant just surviving.
You can only get good at change by trying to do it, in small ways, on purpose.
The entire human brain is a complex pattern-recognition system that, at one point, was largely there to help you survive and reproduce. Patterns were recognised to help you react properly to a new stimulus, which kept you alive long enough to have as many kids as possible (after which, you could basically die as far as your genes were concerned).
The problem is, that’s no longer our biggest priority, at least as far as the conscious mind is concerned. Now we want to write books, and we want six-pack abs with only four hours of gym time, blah blah. We want to know ten languages and have a gorgeous, smart and successful significant other, etc. etc. Oh yeah, and we want to be happy.
The problem is that our whole brain is still largely designed to keep you alive until puberty, and then, when that moment happens you’re like “I’m a man” or whatever, your brain’s job is to get you to reproduce as often as possible, doing your part in the long-standing, subconscious war to stay in the gene pool.
In other words, your conscious brain is trying to do one thing, while the rest of your brain is trying to do another. Our brain is now maladapted to our goals, and its patterns are hard to break because, 100,000 years ago, learning about the world meant just surviving, which was fairly easy, and once that was under control, you could stop learning entirely because the forest you lived in wasn’t going to be changing anytime soon.
Now, our world is changing all the time, and in order to change ourselves, we need to ease into and embrace the coming chaos. Those that are most comfortable with change for change’s sake will adapt better to the future, and you can only get good at change by trying to do it, in small ways, on purpose.
In other words, you have to try and break your patterns and build new habits around them, constantly, because that’s how the world now works. You also have to gather infrastructure around you that helps you do this, because your brain is simply not built for it.
This, by the way, is central to my thinking about challenge, and how your reactions to any bet or dare will shape your future. You need to get good at challenges– in other words, at reacting to unexpected stimulus– if you are going to be capable of change.
Now, I know that some people would say that people’s problem with change is fear– I know that some people would argue that it’s the number one thing stopping most people– but I don’t actually think that’s true, on a conscious level. I think most people’s primary problems is that they literally forget to keep doing the thing they wanted to do. “Dammit,” they think, “I wanted to write today. I forgot. Oh well, tomorrow’s another day.” And then they forget tomorrow and they day after, and it’s all shot to hell until next New Year’s. Don’t pretend you don’t know what I’m talking about.
So while fear is a problem, building a habit of doing things that need to be done, whether you like them or not, is often a good first step. Let’s start by listing some ways to do that.
Find the moment where you have the most energy. For me this is usually early in the morning. I have a dog, so I may walk him, or my girlfriend may, but I keep all the lights turned off, launch Freedom on my computer (as it is on right now) and then write for one hour. I have no goal but to sit down and do it. This takes the pressure off. I know that if I don’t do it before I do anything else, it just doesn’t happen. I learned this the hard way.
Do the hardest things first. The way life works is that easy things will get done anyway. You look at your list of stuff and think, “what is going to be the most difficult thing to do?” If you work on this one first, you’ll discover that your day will get easier, and the rewards will get better as time goes on. So the first thing is hard, but next is easier, and then easier still, and so on until you have the most fun doing the easiest things on your task list.
Have a list of five things you want to do, maximum. Don’t start with five world-changing acts, though. Begin with one and do it for as little time as you can so it gets done. I know that Zenhabits recommends you start with five minutes a day, but I’ll often start with 15 or 30 minute chunks. It’s how I started drawing again, 10 years after dropping out of art school.
The goal is not to succeed. It is just to sit and do it. As I’ve said before, ugly is just a step on the way to beautiful. If you sit down and expect anything, you will freeze up. So just sit down with no expectations. Like the gym– the goal is just to go and do your best, not to deadlift 500 pounds, but to lift just a little more than last time. And even if you failed at that, it’s fine, because you’ll be doing it again next week. No rush. Just sit down and begin.
Homework assignment. I know you guys like homework, so here’s something for you to do right now. List the five most important things you can do to improve your day. Then, place them in order of difficulty, starting with the hardest. Next, set your alarm right now at one hour earlier than you’re used to waking up, and begin tomorrow morning with the hardest task you have.
Julien Smith is the CEO of Breather, an on-demand space company, as well as the New York Times bestselling author of three books.