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Why we need to tell our brain to step up

May 11, 2020

Warm and cosy in our comfort zone

I’m currently studying for a qualification. There are seven assignments in total to write and I’m one down. Six to go. Good math eh? (Unsurprisingly, it is not a maths-related qualification…). 

Completing the first assignment took blood, sweat and tears. I haven’t written an assignment for ahem, almost quarter of a decade, so this was way out of my comfort zone. So, passing the first one meant cartwheels and yee-hahs – well, almost. Since then though, it feels like my subconscious brain has been like: “Well done Kirsty, you’ve proved to yourself you can write and pass an assignment. You’ve been there, done that and got the t-shirt. So, shall we move on now?” And I haven’t done any further work towards a single assignment. Nothing. Nada. This is not good. 

For most people – bar the adventurous few – their brain doesn’t like change, nor being challenged – it knows what it likes and likes what it knows. At least mine definitely likes the status quo (great self-talk eh?!). Learning and doing something new means our brain struggles as it takes on board the new information. It resists because it’s being taken to unfamiliar and vulnerable places. We might feel anxious or overwhelmed and the physical manifestation of this is feeling hot, sweating, fast beating heart, maybe shortness of breath. Perhaps we feel people are looking at us, watching how we’re getting on if we’re trying a new skill or starting a new job. 

At this point we are at stage two in the four stages of learning. At the first stage, maybe we’re at a job interview, beginning our first driving lesson or signing up for a new class or skill and we know this is all going to be new but we don’t quite yet know how much we don’t know – Unconscious Incompetence. It’s at Stage 2 that it all gets a bit trixy – Conscious Incompetence – we realise exactly how much we don’t know, how much we’re going to need to take on board in order to get this right. 

Excuses - we’re just fooling ourselves

Right now, I know precisely how much I don’t know and all that needs to be achieved, in order to complete and gain this qualification. So, I’m procrastinating, plateauing and quite frankly, stagnating.

To make matters worse, there are a number of us from the study group, who are on a WhatsApp group and everyone is discussing which assignment is best to do next and where they’re at with it. No one is bragging - they’re a very encouraging and supportive bunch but I just can’t bring myself to admit how very little I’ve done.

I can throw Lockdown excuses at them – I’m working from home almost full-time, trying to home-school too, three children of different ages at different stages, with various emotions to deal with, there’s the guilt that I’m perhaps not working as productively as I could, guilt I’m not doing a good enough job with the home-schooling, etc etc. But, if I really wanted to progress with the course, I would make the time. I clearly just don’t want to badly enough. 

There is an argument for cutting myself some slack. Getting used to this new normal is taking some doing. When anything new happens, our brain is frantically searching for a reference point for something similar which has taken place before, so it knows how we thought and felt then, therefore giving it some context. Except we’ve never experienced anything like this before so we’ve no go-to reference points to help us figure it out. We’re winging it a bit and each day figuring out how we want to think about it – some maybe not so consciously as others. 

So, I have cut myself a bit of slack on the guilt front but now’s the time to dust off those big girl pants and put ‘em on. 

Slowly slowly catchy monkey

When we’ve a challenge which lays ahead and we fear it, it’s about baby steps – breaking it down to manageable parts. For me, it starts with writing a timetable – researching which books I can get either as ebooks from the library – yes they are still open in virtual fashion with so much to offer, or ordering from Amazon as they have the cheaper second hand option which is preferable when I might be only using them for one particular assignment. Then there’s when I’m going to do some reading, note-taking and then pulling it all together to write the next assignment. Having this timetable in front of me is the first step to re-programming my brain that I can do this. Because surely, planning in two hours a week to get it all started is better than none at all. 

As I type this, my daughter has just come into the room as she has a piano lesson via WhatsApp video and has admitted she has only practised once since last week’s lesson. She has 30 minutes until her lesson today. I suggested she use that 30 minutes to hone the piece – because surely 30 minutes is better than nothing. 

Why making a start feels good

When you’ve been putting off starting something, then you wonder what’s the point in doing it now anyway, you’re perpetuating and prolonging the agony. Get up and take the first step to moving forward: 

  • Read one chapter each night
  • Start by walking for 20 minutes
  • Make contact with one friend each week
  • Clear out the first drawer
  • Set a plan for tomorrow’s work agenda
  • Weed one bed of flowers
  • Sort through and file January 2010’s digital photos
  • Write everyone’s Birthdays on the calendar – it’s one step closer to remembering to send a card!
  • Prep the first wall – ready to paint
  • Iron ten shirts – that’ll make a dent in the pile
  • Start with 10 sit-ups
  • Go through the first 100 emails and delete unwanted ones/unsubscribe

It all makes a difference and we feel a sense of achievement and then push ourselves that bit further – wanting to capitalise on that good feeling. 

Whatever it is you want to change or progress, start by chunking it down. It makes it more manageable for our brain to digest. Once you’ve taken action, you’ll build momentum. Before Lockdown, I couldn’t even do a half press-up – i.e. the one when you’re on your knees. When I tried a full press-up, my eldest actually had to hold my stomach to help me as I was convinced I’d fall flat on my face! Now, I’m up to 36 full press-ups! You should see my guns!

You can brave it and brace yourself to tackle your challenge, task or to-do list. What’s stopping you? Stare down the fear, anxiety and overwhelm and kick inertia to the kerb! I’m rooting for you!

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