Change behavior? Change the situation

 

I was at a social gathering yesterday where the topic of burnout came up, and a therapist talked about the importance of mindfulness and staying focused and so on.

I understand it’s tempting to look to individual changes for solutions. It’s part of our culture: we tend to see individuals as autonomous units rather than as seamless parts of a larger whole. We are trained to look to changes in the individual for solutions. And individual changes can sometimes seem more controllable than the situation.

Although in my experience, if I want to change a behavior or avoid something like burnout, it’s often more effective to change the situation. We exist within social and physical settings, and these significantly influence how we are, perhaps more than we often are aware of.

It’s not an either-or situation, but, if possible, changing the environment is a good start.

Some examples:

Struggling with procrastination? Get a work-buddy that you can work side-by-side with and who can hold you accountable. Or work at a cafe. Or hire a personal assistant if that’s something that works for the task. Try out different approaches and find the one(s) that work for you.

Over-eating unhealthy foods? Remove processed foods and sugars from the house. Shop from a shopping list and don’t add more to it when you are in the store. Make delicious low-on-the-food-chain meals ahead of time so they are readily available. Have plenty of tasty fruits, vegetables, and nuts on hand. Make sure you feel satisfied and nourished before you leave the house so you are less tempted to have fast food. And so on.

Want to prevent burnout? The solutions here depend on the work and personal situations. For instance, my doctor in Norway cut his patient list in half last year so he could have more time with each patient, enjoy his work more, and prevent burnout. My doctor in Oregon switched from working for a hospital to private practice, and similarly intentionally have a small patient list. At a personal level, it can help to limit activities, pay for assistance with practical things, and so on. And at a larger level, it has to do with business, political, and social norms, expectations, values, and policies. (Perhaps not so easy for us as individuals to change, but good to be aware of and perhaps be a small part of the solution for.)

And in some areas, we already know and make use of the importance of the environment. For instance, want to learn something? Join a training program or school for just that. Want awakening? Traditionally, we would become a nun or monk, and now we may join the regular practice program of a local spiritual community or do retreats or workshops. I don’t always agree with the way this is done, but these are areas where we traditionally use the change-the-situation-first approach.

With a client (or myself as a client), I tend to focus first on changing the situation, especially the low-hanging fruits, the things it’s relatively easy to change that has the most impact. And then on what in us prevents behavior change, for instance, what are the emotional issues? (And address those through inquiry, TRE, Vortex Healing, or something else.)

Note: I know that the therapist probably knows this too, and most likely includes this in his sessions with clients. I was just struck by how he immediately went to individual-focused solutions.

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