Bending the Brain

I am a teacher. I know how to help a child learn, how to move from “no idea” to “I got it”. Today I teach adults work skills, and breaking down the process of work is an important part of that. Process improvement is something I have developed skills in, and I can quickly look at something and figure out all the parts needed to make the process work. 

However, when it comes to my own life, I rarely use these teaching tools. Instead, I tend to want to just move ahead and make changes without analyzing the process. Probably because I am not looking at things as an outsider would. Probably because I don’t think of changes as a process. Whatever the reason, I just don’t. As I am looking to make a multifaceted change in our household, it came to me the other day that maybe I should. This eagle didn’t learn to fly on day one, or day three. Instead, there were small steps and help from mom.

A concept I learned when earning my teaching license is scaffolding. It is a technique to help a student learn something difficult. The process begins with learning a small amount of information. As that is mastered, additional pieces are added incrementally. With each step, the teacher is providing support, a system of scaffolding such as that used in building a house. With each successive step, new information is learned that builds on the last piece of information. Supports are there, and are removed as needed. By the end, the student knows the information and can use it independently.

Often I jump from zero to 100 with an idea. I dive right in and think I can easily change. Rarely is this method successful, especially in the long term, unless it involves only me and one fairly simple change. Finding time to do yoga in the morning was fairly easy. Get up 15 minutes earlier and do it. Done. Adding in that same amount of time after work or after dinner, not so successful. More is involved that just me and my time.

No matter what kind of change you would like to make, be it a career change, stopping a bad habit, improving your health through diet and exercise, keeping a clean house, getting out of debt or reducing stress, a more sustainable way to adopt a new idea is scaffolding. Start with small changes that have supports, and work towards an end goal after time. This is not only much less stressful, it is more sustainable, and hopefully easier to implement. It doesn’t have the same first big bang impact, but it has potential for long lasting success.

Small changes, small ideas. After a year, you can look back and see you have made significant gains. That is how I am going to approach changing some habits in our family. If I start on day one with the result I want to see on day 180, and expect that every day in between will be that way, I’d be upset at the lack of progress. Not to mention the fact that we would probably revert back to old habits by day 30 if not before.

Instead, I need to start small. I also need to map it out if not on paper, at least in my head. What are we already doing that fits this new habit? Can we just repeat those same steps a few more times each week? There, week one done and successful. Week two: find something we are doing that closely meets our goal and tweek it. Work on practicing these small changes over and over. Master them. Don’t move on until you have or you will lose those gains. From then on, add in one or two new steps. Practice, master, repeat.

All these changes and new steps will take extra time to learn and practice, until they too become part of the routine. You will need to practice them over and over, but then they might stick. This gives your brain time to absorb and learn. Another teaching method surrounds the brain. See the brain will take the path of least resistance like the water in a river or lake. It will gravitate towards what it already knows. It takes a lot of brainpower to do something new and different, and your brain would rather revert to what it knows. Once you have done something new a few times over and over, your brain hard wires the information and can more easily do it. Practice cements the new pathway in your mind.

Recently, traffic patterns changed and I decided to change my route home from work. The change was to make a left turn one stoplight before I usually did. It took me two months before I finally recognize the new corner I need to turn at. The first week, I drove right past it time after time. I’d go through the intersection and then realize I was supposed to turn there. I think I got it right once. The next week, I did a little better because I found a cue - an orange detour sign (from another detour, not the one I was avoiding). Each week, I would be mindlessly driving along and that orange sign would remind me. Yesterday, they took down the signs; but when I drove home tonight, I actually recognized the intersection itself as the place I needed to turn. Practice. 

Once you have cemented a few new routines in your mind, or at least done them a few times that you don’t have to think so hard or bend your brain so hard, you can add another new thing and work on that. Notice that I also set up a visual cue of the orange sign. Find any cues you can to help you learn this new routine. You have heard of people leaving things in front of the door so they literally trip over them - well that is one strategy. Setting an alarm to remind you is another. If you can attach it to a routine you already have, that is even better. Silly as it sounds, I like to work on my balance while brushing my teeth. It was the only way I could find a place for it to stick in my daily routine. 

Your brain also likes it when you activate prior knowledge - so relate the new step to an old one. Take something you already do and give it a twist. Modify it, add one little step - you get the idea. If the brain already has a pathway to something, it is much easier to create a branch from that, than to just start with something brand new. I use this technique with recipes. If I want to eat healthy meal, it is much easier for me to find a recipe I already use and modify it versus starting over from scratch. Having to learn a whole new recipe takes a lot of brainpower. When your brain can link to something already in it, you have a better chance of learning something new. 

One thing I haven’t addressed here is failure. You will fail. Sorry, that is part of the process. You need to practice and practice. Practice includes not getting it right and trying again. That is part of learning. Make a mistake, analyze it and see what went wrong. What could you do differently. Another teaching concept is to link emotions to a lesson. For me, failure is not a great emotion, and I remember the times when I make a mistake. I can remember how I felt each time I missed the intersection driving home. Since these are personal goals, I am not afraid of failure. I will get back up and try again. Each day is a new day. Like that eagle above, I can’t soar until I master the small steps. 


  1. Oh I love this! Ha ha it can take me ages to cement a new route! Or commit something to my brain that involves direction.

    Scaffolding is such a cool concept and it makes so much sense. I think it is why many of us get overwhelmed - looking at the end result.

    I have had to take a step back this week too and think about where I am in relation to some things and where I need to go next not necessarily where I want to end up.

    Failure - aah yes this one. The big blocker for adults.

    1. Hi Fran,

      Oh it is so easy to get overwhelmed and to want to jump to the end without doing the steps to get there first. In this day of instant info, we want instant results too.

      Would love to hear about your step back. I take lots of those when I realize things are not turning out how I wanted them to. Sometimes the step back has me realizing I don't want to keep moving in that direction. Sometimes, it helps me diagnose what is going wrong. Slowing down really helps as well.



Post a Comment