August 24, 2021 5 min read
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Many people think it is possible to change their thought processes by setting a goal and then commanding themselves to be more focused, patient, present, or self-disciplined.
They’re wrong. And anyone who’s ever broken a New Year’s resolution knows it.
As I learned while researching my forthcoming book, Getting Out of Control: Emergent Leadership in a Complex World, people usually fail to change because they seek to control what they cannot. Most people realize that they cannot fully control the economy, culture, or what other people do. But not everyone realizes that we cannot even fully control ourselves.
Why can’t we control ourselves? It’s because each of us is a complex adaptive system that demonstrates emergent properties. That jargon is how complexity scientists explain that you are more than the sum of your parts.
Your body’s biological systems, your mind’s psychological feedback loops, and the social and economic systems in which you participate — all shape and influence you. Attempts to directly control these systems to achieve a specific goal often produces unpredictable and complicated results. And the bigger the attempted change, the more feedback from your existing systems as they resist change.
Fortunately, you can control what you pay attention to, even if what you do is driven by habit. This ability to focus your conscious mind on what you are doing, it turns out, is a powerful lever for changing yourself.
No one will make you pay attention. You might choose to drift, like a leaf on the river of influences around you. If the systems that surround you are supportive and positive, this might turn out “fine” in the sense that you might have a comfortable, prosperous, and outwardly successful life. Yet many people don’t have healthy systems around them.
And no matter how supportive and nurturing an environment, we are most fulfilled as humans when we consciously improve both ourselves and the systems we participate in.
Improvement starts with paying attention. Rather than drifting through life, we should start by observing and evaluating how our influences shape our actions.
Shape the environment that shapes you
One practical way to test and change your influences is to consciously shape your environment.
As a young teen, I delivered the local newspaper to approximately fifty of my neighbors on our suburban block in upstate New York. Every day I would cut through one neighbor’s yard by stepping on a bare space in the ground cover that bordered her sidewalk. One particularly philosophical day, I wondered if I stepped there every day because it was bare — or was it bare of ground cover because I stepped there every day?
And I suddenly realized that both are true. I shape the world and it shapes me back. Pretty heady stuff for an afternoon of slinging papers.
Likewise, we can change ourselves in sustainable, reinforcing ways if we make the conscious effort to create “bare spots” in our environment that will encourage us to return. If we can lay down steppingstones one at a time, heading in the direction we want to go, then we’ll naturally find ourselves taking that path.
Build processes and habits
The idea of shaping our environment to shape ourselves becomes more approachable if we think of habits as part of our environment — a special part of the environment that is more pliable and directly subject to our influence.
When we form habits, we move something from our conscious decision-making process into our environment. This unconscious formation, the emergent nature of habits, is what makes them so powerful — and dangerous. They’re powerful because our brains can assemble a massive amount of data into a useful routine that saves time and energy.
But habits are also dangerous because they remove conscious control over certain decisions and actions. This can lead us to feel like we are out of control of our own actions.
Because habits are the result of an emergent process, they take time to build — one step on the paper route, repeated each day, eventually forms the bare spot. But once established, habits are very resilient to changed conditions. We keep stepping in that spot.
When we recognize ourselves as complex systems with emergent properties, it becomes easier to see that self-improvement isn’t achieving a series of goals but the outcome of improving our own conscious and unconscious processes and systems — our habits.
Ultimately, improving ourselves starts with understanding what we can and cannot control. Sheer willpower isn’t enough for significant change. Instead, we must work persistently and incrementally to turn the behaviors we desire into habits, relieving our conscious mind and setting a path for our future selves to follow.
If we increase our awareness of what we do and think of improvement as a process rather than an outcome, we can build better habits, shape our environment, and change ourselves.