They Didn’t Teach Us This in High School: Experimenting with Change
Published 10:00 am Wednesday, December 6, 2023
By Jo Weaver
With the focus last month on learning and the upcoming New Year with possible resolutions, it seemed like a good time to talk about experimenting with change.
Growing up, change seemed like such a big deal, requiring lots of thought and commitment to follow through forever. In my mid-30s, I read an article in a magazine touting the usefulness of making changes all the way along to be better prepared to handle the changes that life throws at us. And when I was teaching Introductory Psychology in a prison where students were without access to the internet, I started including a “Behavior Change Project” in all my courses.
Change can be something with which we decide to experiment. Essentially, I use a rendition of “The Scientific Method.” I have modified it to support the notion of experimenting with something different to gather information. To be able to see if we want to continue, to make tweaks or abandon the project altogether eliminates some of the stress experienced when considering a change.
- Step 1: Identify the change with which one wants to experiment. Being clear in this step is very important for a successful outcome. It needs to be a bit of a stretch without being something we will have to “white knuckle” our way through. If we experience too much stress with the experiment it will be much more difficult to gain any useful information.
What is a doable amount of change with which to experiment without overwhelming ourselves? If I want to experiment with initiating conversation, doing it with everybody may be too much. It’s important to look for a way to narrow the practice to increase the chances of being successful. (One of the purposes of this experiment is to experience success.) If I try to initiate conversation with one particular person or in one particular situation, will I be more likely to be successful? I have often started my exercise programs in 5-minute increments. Being able to say “no,” engaging more in social activity, working in the yard, reading, doing household chores, and the possibilities go on and on.
- Step 2: Design the experiment that is to be followed. It needs to be very specific. What is going to be done, how often, when, with whom, etc. As we are looking at the example of initiating conversations, it is important to keep an eye on what’s a bit of a stretch and doable. It’s important to know one’s starting point, so if initiating conversation is the example of the target behavior, and the person currently initiates conversation with no one, one person or situation may need to be picked.
And the number of times one is going to initiate conversation needs to be identified. If the target behavior is to happen five times per week, a practice of two weeks is recommended. If it is to happen three times a week, practice is recommended for three weeks. For something that is to happen twice a week, recommended practice is a month, and for something that is to happen once a week, recommended practice is two months. Since I see my neighbor four or five times a week and nod, I am going to initiate a conversation with him/her three times a week for three weeks.
- Step 3 and 4: Run the designed experiment and collect data. It is very important that data be collected all the way along since looking back, memories will likely conform to our preconceived notions rather than what actually happened. Keeping an ongoing log of what happened, how one felt and what one thought will increase the chances of having good information when one goes to evaluate the experiment and make decisions. I also encourage people to note if “anything outside the scope of the experiment” happened that was noteworthy.
- Step 5: Review the data with an eye toward whether to continue the practice, make changes, or scrap the entire thing.
Being able to make a short-term commitment is way more doable for me than thinking of a lifetime. Good information can be had, since what we often think will happen in our heads is different from what actually happens in the real world. I like being able to break things down into smaller doses. It makes it more manageable for me and I’m more likely to follow through.
Jo Weaver of Zuni worked for 22 years in behavioral medicine and 18 years teaching psychology to college students. Her email address is email@example.com