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Oliver Burkeman’s Lockdown Lessons for Living Life Better… Part 2: Make change stick

In the second of an exclusive three-part series for The New European, author Oliver Burkeman explains how we can bring about major transformation in our lives not through willpower and grand gestures, but incremental measures

Exclusive to The New European

It’s been called “the YOLO economy”: the seemingly sudden decision, on the part of millions of people – especially but not only Americans – to quit their jobs, mid-pandemic, in search of freedom and adventure.

You might think a global crisis would cause people to behave more cautiously, rather than less. But for some with the financial cushion to take the risk, the logic runs the opposite way: once you’ve grasped how short and precious life is, how could possibly postpone your dreams any longer? “I realised I was sitting at my kitchen counter ten hours a day feeling miserable,” one lawyer told the New York Times. “I just thought: ‘What do I have to lose? We could all die tomorrow.’”

And of course, many of us who haven’t been tempted to switch careers have had other, perhaps smaller, Covid epiphanies: about the importance of spending time with ageing relatives, or in nature; about the value of socialising face to face – or, in my case, about how much I’d loved singing in a choir, a pastime that in the age of the coronavirus had become, bafflingly, more dangerous than skydiving. Others resolved to get married at last, or, having experienced what it was like to spend day after day at home with their spouses, to get divorced.

Life-shaking events have a way of triggering such insights, after which people swear never again to take life for granted. But it’s equally well-known that those insights rarely stick. Life gets in the way – and the recovering cancer patient who vowed never again to moan about petty things finds herself as annoyed by traffic jams and broken dishwashers as anyone else. “I watch people experience psychological and emotional breakthroughs fairly regularly,” writes the US life coach Martha Beck; but “it’s much rarer to see someone actually putting their new insights into practice.” After all, millions more must have recently thought about leaving a job they don’t love than will have actually done it, even if they were in a position to quit. We fantasise about big life changes, but then the old routines seem impossible to resist. There are, in fact, ways to resist them – to hold on to the possibilities we’ve glimpsed during the pandemic, and turn the fantasy of a richer life into reality. But doing so requires coming to grips with a couple of fundamental truths about the human mind.

The first is that we’re incredibly good at adapting to changes in our circumstances. Far from being a problem, this is frequently a blessing: it’s why we bounce back from shocks like break-ups or bereavements, and why, according to one famous (if contested) study, even people left paralysed by serious injury soon revert to something surprisingly close to their earlier happiness levels. But this also means that positive changes fade into the background, too: a thrilling new home or new car quickly become unremarkable parts of one’s life. (The same study showed that winning the lottery has lower effects on long-term happiness than you’d think.) And it means that we’re built to respond to a crisis like coronavirus, not by wanting everything to be different, so much as by scrambling to get back into familiar grooves as rapidly as we can.

The other deeply rooted truth is that we’re far more used to being influenced by our environments than most of us would care to admit. This surely helps explain the Great American Job-Quitting of 2020-2021: when you’re showing up each day to a busy workplace, surrounded by many others who apparently think it’s worth their while to be there, it can be difficult to imagine another kind of life. Whereas working from home, perhaps in the garden, with the office only a distant mental image, it’s much easier to picture alternatives. And so as Britain stumbles back toward something resembling normal, it’s likely to get much harder to hold on to the desire for things not to return to normal, but instead to seize the moment, and make a major change.

What this means, first and foremost, is that relying on willpower to force a big transformation, in your personality or your circumstances, almost certainly isn’t going to work. Either you’ll just run out of willpower and forget the whole thing, as the inner forces of adaptation reassert themselves; or else you’ll mentally turn it into an intimidatingly big project, for which you tell yourself you need to be fully prepared – with the result that you’ll keep on postponing it to the future, and it’ll never actually happen.

A much more effective tactic is to do something ridiculously tiny, but to do it now – today, perhaps even before you finish reading this article. As the career coach Barbara Sher points out, if you dream of (say) one day becoming a screenwriter, you essentially have two options. Either you can yearn fruitlessly for the day when you’ll somehow magically become a full-time screenwriter; or you can spend an hour this evening working on a screenplay – whereupon you will, by definition, have become a screenwriter, albeit one at a very early stage of their career. The same logic applies to the desire to spend time with your extended family, or focus on your health, or your meditation practice, or your political activism: the only actions that count are the ones you actually take, and we’re psychologically constructed so as to postpone anything that seems too large or difficult, or too out of tune with those who surround us.

(The next step is to take this small disruption to your everyday routine and, well, make it routine, for example by resolving to do a tiny additional amount each day or each week as appropriate. Done right, this becomes a sort of jiu-jitsu attack against psychological adaptation, turning its own power against it: you’re using the power of habit to inculcate a behaviour that, little by little, undermines your old habits and changes your life.)

And if the change in question involves giving up security – in the
form of a job or relationship, money, or just familiar surroundings – it might also help to ask yourself if your current situation is really as secure as it seems. In his book The Wisdom of Insecurity, re-released this month by Rider, the hippie-era spiritual teacher Alan Watts made the argument that most of our feelings of insecurity arise, ironically enough, from the quest to feel secure. (“The desire for security and the feeling of insecurity are the
same thing,” was how he expressed it.)

The more you come to rely on your sense of security in a specific job, relationship or other situation, the more vulnerable you become to what would happen if you lost it – so you end up feeling more insecure, not less. By contrast, once you take a leap and it doesn’t destroy you, you’re actually more secure than before, because you’ve reduced the degree to which the search for security dictates your decisions. Taking the leap may actually be the more sober and sensible choice. Finally, it’s worth noting, writes the philosopher Iddo Landau, that when it comes to living a meaningful life, we make things harder than they need to be, by setting the bar – the definition of a life of meaning – much too high. We’re alive for a tiny pinprick of time, and almost none of us have the talents to be a Mozart, a Michelangelo or a Shakespeare. (Indeed, they’re celebrated precisely because such genius is so vanishingly rare.) And yet we tell ourselves – and tell ourselves ever more frequently, in a culture that worships fame – that we must do something extraordinary with our lives in order for them to count. We long to follow Steve Jobs’s advice to “put a dent in the universe” – but that means defining all sorts of other more ordinary activities as not meaningful: raising children well, say, or being a good neighbour, or developing a flair for mixing cocktails, or baking cakes. Yet who’d want to live in a world without any of those?

MORE: Lockdown Lessons for Living Life Better… Part 1: Do less, live more

MORE: Lockdown Lessons for Living Life Better… Part 3: Anxiety management

Once you’re no longer burdened by such an unrealistic definition of “a life well spent”, you’re free to consider the possibility that many more things might constitute a meaningful way to spend your post-pandemic life than you’d previously supposed. Perhaps you’ll even come to feel that what you’re
already doing with it is meaningful enough; maybe the leap you should take isn’t away from a job or relationship but into a deeper commitment to an existing one. (Meanwhile, you can stop idolising Steve Jobs: the iPhone might outlive anything you or I ever accomplish, but it too will be forgotten soon enough, judged on the timescale of the cosmos.)

Of course, the forces of routine and adaptation almost certainly mean that you didn’t actually take some tiny action in the direction of change when I suggested it, a few paragraphs above. Instead, even if you thought it sounded like a good idea, you probably filed it away as something to turn to later. Now would be an excellent time to rectify that.

FIVE TRICKS FOR MAKING CHANGE STICK

Shoot for “dailyish”, rather than daily: When you resolve to do something (or to do something differently) “every day from now on”, you’re storing up trouble for yourself. It’s all but inevitable that something will get in the way someday soon, whereupon your perfect streak will be broken, leaving you demotivated – perhaps even less motivated than if you’d never made such a rule in the first place. Dan Harris, who hosts the Ten Percent Happier meditation podcast, suggests aiming for “dailyish” instead. It’s a stronger commitment than merely deciding to do something “more often”. But it’s sufficiently flexible and forgiving to adapt to the realities of daily life.

To change a habit, look for the trigger and the payoff: Bad habits arise because of some environmental or emotional cue (for example you’re feeling frustrated by work, so you plunge into social media, and end up wasting two hours) and they provide some kind of psychological payoff (the online chatter fulfils your appetite for human connection). Replacing the habit with a better one is a matter of identifying the trigger, then finding something else to provide an equivalent payoff, for example by calling a friend. Other techniques (such as using an app to block your access to social media, in this example) often prove ineffective, because they don’t address this deeper need.

Expect discomfort: Almost by definition, living differently will feel “counter-instinctual”, as the psychotherapist Bruce Tift puts it: unnatural and a little uncomfortable, like trying on ill-fitting clothes. Yet in the first flush of excitement about a new activity, we tend to assume it’ll feel terrific – so encountering the way it really feels is dispiriting, and likely to knock us off course. It can be a surprisingly powerful tactic simply to stop expecting a new behaviour to feel particularly wonderful. That way, the discomfort will be far easier to manage and is likely to dissipate more rapidly too.

Get physical: When your to-do list is full of excitingly ambitious plans that never seem to go anywhere, it’s often because you haven’t figured out what, specifically, needs to be done next. “Move house” or “switch careers” or even just “clear out the garage” are general projects, rather than concrete tasks, so they’re easy to postpone. Instead, make sure every item on your list has some physical action attached to it: something you can do, with your limbs. So “switch careers” might begin with emailing a specific friend for advice; “clear out the garage” might start with buying storage boxes, and so on.

Remember that stopping is as important as starting: When you’re on a roll with a new activity, it’s tempting to seize the momentum to go further: to run an extra half-mile beyond your goal for the day, or turn your 20-minute daily efforts to learn a new language into marathon hour-long sessions. But beware. That approach has a way of reinforcing your impatience to make progress more quickly than is actually possible, leading to demotivation when you find you can’t. Instead, make yourself stop at the end of a scheduled period. That way, you’ll find yourself more excited to return to the activity the next day, and the day after that.

Oliver Burkeman is the author of The Antidote: Happiness for People Who Can’t Stand Positive Thinking and Help! How to Become Slightly Happier and Get a Bit More Done. His latest book, Four Thousand Weeks, is out in August and is now available for pre-order