Can You Become a Creature of New Habits?

rewire.jpgI was a bit startled to see the New York Times article by the above title, as I had just finished leading a 2-day program in Trinidad called “NewHabits-NewGoals.”

(It uses the 2Time principles to help people build their own time management systems.)

The author, Janet Rae-Dupree, shares the discovery that habits can be used as the pathway to creativity, and are far more than the bad things that we spend so much time to get rid of.

She says “Rather than dismissing ourselves as unchangeable creatures of habit, we can instead direct our own change by consciously developing new habits. In fact, the more new things we try — the more we step outside our comfort zone — the more inherently creative we become, both in the workplace and in our personal lives.” This is very good news for those of us who are in the process of crafting our own time management systems.

She also reports that it’s better to focus on creating new habits, than on trying to kill off old ones.

“But don’t bother trying to kill off old habits; once those ruts of procedure are worn into the hippocampus, they’re there to stay. Instead, the new habits we deliberately ingrain into ourselves create parallel pathways that can bypass those old roads.”

That reaffirms much of the 2Time approach, which is largely based on the idea that new habits or practices are the key to increasing productivity. When people complain about their habit of procrastination, for example, it’s a better idea for them to focus on developing new habits, than to try to stop procrastinating.

She also points out some research done by M.J. Ryan and Dawna Markova:

“Ms. Ryan and Ms. Markova have found what they call three zones of existence: comfort, stretch and stress. Comfort is the realm of existing habit. Stress occurs when a challenge is so far beyond current experience as to be overwhelming. It’s that stretch zone in the middle — activities that feel a bit awkward and unfamiliar — where true change occurs.”

“Getting into the stretch zone is good for you,” Ms. Ryan says in “This Year I Will… .” “It helps keep your brain healthy. It turns out that unless we continue to learn new things, which challenges our brains to create new pathways, they literally begin to atrophy, which may result in dementia, Alzheimer’s and other brain diseases.”

Wow — it sounds like they are saying that a focus on creating and refining a time management system could ward off senility!! LOL

As a 42-year old, I have enough mad days to make me hope that this is true!

One a more serious note, they perfectly capture the middle ground that I have wanted the belt system to embody. Most time management systems that I have observed are presented in all or nothing terms. In the experience of the user, they either produce comfort (I already know this stuff) or stress (all this new stuff is overwhelming.) In adding in a belt system to 2Time, my hope was that each user would find their own “stretch” point, and be able to pick a set of habits to focus on that would carry them to the next belt level (if they desired,) at a pace that kept them engaged.

The researchers link this engagement to a commitment to achieving improvements in small steps, and she uses the Japanese concept of kaizen, which simply means small, continuous improvements. It’s one of the cornerstones of the Toyota Production System, and other manufacturing techniques that they have been using so effectively. (As an industrial engineer, this concept became part of my bread and butter at a young age.)

“Whenever we initiate change, even a positive one, we activate fear in our emotional brain,” Ms. Ryan notes in her book. “If the fear is big enough, the fight-or-flight response will go off and we’ll run from what we’re trying to do. The small steps in kaizen don’t set off fight or flight, but rather keep us in the thinking brain, where we have access to our creativity and playfulness.”

That’s just the reaction that I hope users experience when they use the belt system for the first time — a way to take control of small, incremental improvements, with only hints of direction from the 2Time system itself. Once these improvements are practiced long enough, an interesting thing happens in the brain.

“After the churn of confusion, she says, the brain begins organizing the new input, ultimately creating new synaptic connections if the process is repeated enough.”

Well, I can’t say that ever intended to be part of the great rewiring or the twenty-first century brain, but I do hope this happens, if only in small ways.

The Original New York Times article can be found by clicking here.