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The Secret to Behavior Change

October 17, 2018

Performance Practice: The Power of Insight


A client of mine who is a senior leader at a large organization often speaks about what he calls the "knowing-doing gap." During every big change, he believes, there is a point where everyone knows what the change is, why it's needed, and even how to do it—but that doesn't mean they do it. I think the knowing-doing gap is every bit as true for personal change as it is for organizational change.

As I've
written before, an easy trap to fall into is thinking that intellectually understanding something is the same thing as doing it. Being an expert on meditation isn't the same thing as meditating. If you are a coach, teacher, or manager, you can convince yourself that because you've explained something to your people over and over again and they "get it," they'll do it. Not always true.

How can you go from knowing to doing? You need to set up the conditions for insight. People must come to change on their own. Generally this is about feeling both the motivation to do the thing and the motivation to continue doing it. Too much pressing—either on yourself or others—and there's no space for this kind of genuine, felt insight to occur.  

Here's the ever-wise
Thich Nhat Hanh: "You cannot force [something] on others. You may force them to accept your idea, but then it is simply an idea, not a real insight. Insight is not an idea. The way to share your insight is to help create the conditions so that others [or you] can realize the insight—through their (or your) own experience, not just believing what you or someone else says. This takes skillfulness and patience."

Whether you are leading yourself or others, your job is to plant seeds, but the insight that allows those seeds to sprout has to happen on it's own. You can water those seeds with more information and by creating an environment conducive to insight, but insight itself can't be forced. 

For example, I can write and speak about meditation for hours and hours. But what keeps me coming back to the cushion is a much more visceral felt insight I had on a specific day during a specific session. That had to happen on it's own time and occur in a place that logic doesn't touch. My job was to create the conditions for it to happen (learning, practicing regularly, attending talks by wise teachers) and be patient (my insight happened after 6 months or regular practice...either forever or really quickly depending on who ask). But once the insight occured, I knew—really knew—the benefits of meditation.

The point is this: behavior change is hard. Our controlling, logical, human brains want to take the reigns and make it happen. But this is another example of when the best thing to do is get out of your (or your people's) way. This doesn't mean doing nothing. It means doing just enough. Not forcing the insight but creating the space for it to happen on it's own. More and more I think that's the job of a good coach; whether you are coaching yourself or someone else. Creating the space and conditions to let things happen.


Coaching Corner: There Is No Magical Mindset


During my running heyday I had a penchant for running aggressively. The gun would go off and I’d bolt off the line towards the front of the race, often attempting to lead for as long as I could. This didn’t just apply to racing, but also in training. I’d lead my teammates through repeats, often starting a bit too quick. It was in my nature to be aggressive and push from the get-go. On the track, this tactic served me well. Even in cross-country, in which the races were only 5 kilometers, if I went out a bit too hard, I could still hang on fairly well.


When I began my college career, I attempted to bring this same mentality to the collegiate cross country course. In my first 5-mile race on a hilly course, I bolted off the line and got right next to Wesley Keating, a competitor who would go on to place top 10 at the NCAA championships. As Keating dragged me through the first mile in sub 4:40, I quickly realized my mistake. Over the next 4 miles, I slowly fizzled out, falling a minute and a half behind Keating by the time I crossed the finish line.


Dejected and worn out, I remember thinking that I had to change my approach to cross-country if I was ever going to survive. After all, the next race would be even further (10k). As I lined up for that next race, the leaders went out even faster, but I stuck to my plan. Be patient. Get through 5k feeling good. Pass more people than people pass you. After the first mile, I was not in the lead, but in around 60th place. Slowly, gradually over 10k, I worked my way through the field, to finish around 10th place, bettering my 5k personal best twice in a row in my very first 10k.


In a Ted talk about his swim across a glacial lake near Mt. Everest, endurance swimmer extraordinaire Lewis Pugh shares a similar experience. Pugh is world-renowned for his swimming feats in often freezing water. In his previous swims, such as his one in the North Pole, Pugh attacked the swim with reckless abandon. He got himself hyped up and dove into the water with a simple goal: complete it as quickly as he could before the freezing water made his body inoperable. When he began his Everest swim, he went in with the same mindsets and tactic. He went all out.


Shortly after his attempt began, he found himself exhausted, unable to continue, throwing up mid-swim, and ultimately sinking to the bottom of the glacial lake. He made his way to the side of the lake, abandoning his attempt. His team pulled him aside, and told him if he wanted to complete the task, he’d have to abandon everything that had worked before and change his mindset. The altitude made any aggressive attempt impossible. He needed to be patient and conserve energy, dolling it out gradually, and all while dealing with the discomfort of swimming in an ice-cold lake.


Two days later, Pugh completed the task.


In both my and Pugh’s example the lesson is clear. When something works, we tend to think it will work for everything. We assume we’ve found the holy grail to performance and come in with the same mindset and tactics that worked previously. Success often leads to getting stuck in a “this worked in the past, so it will work in the future,” mindset. Yet, every challenge presents a different problem. We need to develop the ability to switch mindsets as needed; to not become overly reliant on one, but instead choose the mindset and tactics that give us the best possible to chance to succeed at whatever challenge sits before us. The mindset is the one that serves you best in the present moment. And the present moment isn't static. It's always changing.


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