We don’t change, we adapt

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Since March 2020, the whole planet lives in lockdown. The. Whole. Planet.Remember how it started? It was our chance to focus on what’s important! We painted the patio, baked bread, started a vegetable garden… And then things shifted. We didn’t change anything; we adapted to rules and regulations. How come?

This whole pandemic mess keeps me amazed. When I see elderly or kids struggling with their masks, I have a hard time believing what is overcoming us. What have we done with the planet, our future? Because our ‘Portuguese adventure’ (our first chance to escape the neoliberal culture and do things differently) knew a rough road as well, I started questioning why change is so difficult. Do we (the elite) really prefer to colonize Mars rather than change our behaviour to save this planet?  Why is there such a massive gap between what we want and what we do? Why do we prefer to stick with depressing certainties rather than participate in renewing that makes us more liberated and satisfied?

Habits

Because it’s not easy to change our habits. We never learned it. The last few years, I wrote down, day by day, my habits and priorities and observed my (and other peoples) good intentions:

  • Why do we start to watch series again when we want to read more books?
  • Why is the fridge full of plastic packaging again when I consider myself sustainable/ low waste?
  • Why do people order so much take away when they decided to eat more healthy or less expensive?
  • Why do we scroll one hour and a half per day if we complain about not having enough free time?
  • Why do we choose (demand) (political) systematic changes but get restless when actual change also implies for us (eating less meat, using less energy, refusing plastic packaging, no cars in the city centre )

Highlight this: Congratulations; you are human. Leave the willpower to Sysiphus and other gods.

Is knowledge power?

Let me already scratch the surface for you by explaining why people don’t change at the end of the line: we overestimate ourselves as rational human beings.
That is why knowledge has nothing to do with it. We all know that smoking is bad for us and that fast food is toxic for our digestive system, that doing sports is good and that fossil fuel and concrete fucks up nature
For that same reason, discipline is too exhausting and confronting. So, unless your name is Sisyphus, trying to live up to that rational standard is the fasted way to a mental burn-out.
And what about motivation? It has not much to do with it either. Like I said before about our personal intention to live a self-sustainable life in Portugal:  we sacrificed a lot for it, but to truly convert our lives was very confronting.
And now you’re going to lose it completely: Changing has nothing to do with ourselves! At least not with our conscient self. The thing with habits is that they occur in the subconscious part of our brain, which means that rational ideas like knowledge, discipline, intention, motivation is not exactly going to do the trick: Habits reside in a way deeper part of our brain.

Ego depletion

43 % of our behaviour is happening routinely, without thinking, which means subconscious, our habits occur without thinking.
Research1 shows that 88% of our daily routines are routine, 55% of job tasks are a habit, and 44% of our sports activities happen without thinking. Relaxing reaches 48%.
I also thought I could change by rational thinking and using will power. Still, I pretty fast bumped into a burn-out/ nervous breakdown/ ordinary self-pity (what’s in a name;-)): ‘You still don’t speak Portuguese”, “you are an imposter not living self-sufficient, and how can you have a burn-out if you do not even have a ‘real’ job’.

Blablabla.

In psychology, this calls ego depletion. You are draining your willpower; your subconscious that prefers to go to the bar instead of the vegetable garden takes over.

That is why public campaigns  (and penalty system) mostly fail (diets fail 91% of the times): they should better focus on creating constructive habits instead of fines or rewards. I believe this should be a part of the education system.

No mind

My ‘crazy ego period’ took a turn after listening to The Minimalists episode in which a certain James Clear talked about habits. Not a very sexy subject, but very groundbreaking to realize how much unnecessary pressure and trouble we bring upon our one precious life and others because we consistently over or underestimate or misinterpret something.

There’s a reason why our habits run unconsciously: it saves energy — a pragmatic (and intelligent, let’s be honest) solution to a complicated hunter-gatherer lifestyle.

This is what nobody tells you when you move abroad: how much energy it costs to not be able to rely anymore on that 43%. All the time, we had to think about everything: the products we bought, the way to the supermarket, the new coffee machine or provider, restaurant etiquette…  We were constantly thinking: ‘Am I overdressed, aren’t we too early, should I bring wine or dessert, does seven ‘o clock means seven ‘o clock?’ It’s a feeling we all know too well when we arrive back home after a trip. No matter how good it was, it always feels good to be back and fall back into our old habits.

Safe Space

Is this a bad thing? Nope. Those automatic traits are our safe space for when shit hits the fan. That is what happened when my marriage was about to crash under the pressure of pandemic/ construction works and saw my world crumbling down. I rented a flat in Porto for one month and focused on creating new habits with old habits; I started my day with yoga and meditation and headed to a (new) co-working space in the afternoon to write in my notebook. In the evening, I cooked a healthy, nutritious meal. It wasn’t about how long I meditated, how much I wrote or how spectacular I cooked; it was about doing it every day. Honestly, a big part of the day was about breathing in and out consciously. Renting a flat in the city was not about fleeing from my troubles but rather restoring my energy levels. That’s a big difference. These habits became my safe space for those moments where fear and anxiety took over. I focused on them instead of the big, crushing self-sustainable construction goals, and it helped.

The interesting thing was, by doing so, I didn’t adapt to a bad expectationseemed to be a step closer to my big goals: a significant change that reassured me.

More about this next week: how to change our habits and unfold our potential.

1Wendy Wood, Jeffrey M. Quinn en Deborah A. Kashy, ‘Habits in Everyday Life: Thought, Emotion, and Action’Journal of Personality and Social Psychology 83, no. 6 (2002)

The minimalists: https://www.theminimalists.com/

James Clear: https://jamesclear.com/

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