I was listening to a Fresh Air interview with Dean Norris recently when he said something that really struck a chord. He was talking about how he prepared for a shoot-out scene in the (amazingly excellent ) television show Breaking Bad (he portrays a DEA agent).
Norris relates that most law enforcement officers do not fire their weapons in the line-of-duty (ever… ). But, they need to be ready to do so, and hopefully, do so intelligently and judiciously. The time to fire one’s weapon has to be one of the most highly-charged and intense moments and to rely on a spontaneous, in-the-moment, decision process would likely lead to, shall we say, non-positive results.
To avoid tragedy law enforcement officers train regularly. They spend time at a range, both target and scenario-based training courses (think pop-up/over targets with bad/good guys painted on them), practicing both their marksmanship and decision-making. They practice both the body-control required for accuracy and scenarios with simulated split-second life-or-death decision-making in the hopes of making good choices and accurate shots when it matters in the line-of-duty. And they do it again and again, week after week.
You may be asking what does this have to do with me and my life? “I’m just a ‘normal’ person?” Because, the things that we need to be good at (while they don’t involve a deadly weapon) are very, very important to our results. Just as the law enforcement officer needs to practice what they will do in critical situations, so too must we find some way to prepare ourselves for the moments that matter. (And, I would argue, most all of them matter.)
Many people ask how they can stop doing the things that get in the way of their success. For example, instead of eating more than we want/need at dinner, how can we eat the right amount? The answer is simple, but hard.
The ability to choose wisely at the dinner table – or in any situation – is a function of awareness and conditioned response. To choose a reasonable and healthy portion size comes either from our predispositions based on our habits, or, an aware and intentional choice.
If I were coaching you on this I would ask if you were willing to practice eating with awareness and intention for a week (to start… )? If yes, I would help you clarify/define exactly what healthy eating and portion size meant for you. I would ask you if you were willing to commit to eating according to those guidelines for (at least) a week? I would also ask you to add a reflective journalling practice around the behavior experiment (either after eating and/or before eating).
The power of intentional practice is directly linked to how our brains work. The orthodoxy used to be that our brains were pretty much fixed by our early 20s. We now know that our brains can be re-shaped and grown in different ways throughout our adult lives. The key is neuro-plasticity: the ability to create new neural connections and pathways. (Ever wonder why “old” people are doing all that Sudoku? They are keeping their brains fit and “plastic.”)
We do need to understand that, as with most things, our habits can be serve us or not. Well-worn neural pathways and deep, strong neuronal connections function in all sorts of ways. What we must ask ourselves is: which serve us and which don’t? Do we eat quickly with little regard for our bodily needs or do we eat slowly, savoring the tastes and textures, and allow our bodies to let us know when we’ve had enough?
Changing (long-held beliefs and) long-standing habits is difficult for a reason: because many tens of thousands of years ago, the in-ability to adapt quickly (and effectivley) to mortal threats meant death. Humans who learned quickly and remembered well were rewarded with not being eaten by a saber-tooth tiger. Life is much more complicated today, but much less dangerous (at least for those of us lucky to live in the First World). We still, however, have the underlying structures of our ancestors. Key examples are our quickness to react to danger (whether real or perceived) and our tendency to eat more than really need (because it used to be that we weren’t all that sure when food would next be available… ).
The power of intentional practice is significant. If you find yourself doing the same (un-resourceful) things again and again, ask yourself what you want and create a practice experiment around your desired results. The subtle deception here is that we tell ourselves – after we’ve done something we wish we hadn’t – that we’ll get it right next time. The reality is that we lack awareness to follow through on our true intentions when the situation pops up again. What we must do is pick small and manageable things to modify or improve and create a practice that we can and will execute. That’s how we can create new neuronal connections and strengthen the pathways that carry those messages.