Three years ago I took up running. I ran three half marathons with each race improving my time. My first was the Miami Beach half.  A stunning run along the famous South Beach Ocean Drive resulted in a finishing time of 1:44. I ranked 117 overall (out of 1,820) and 8th in my age group. Not bad for my first half.  My next race was the Halloween Half in Miami Beach.  With little prep, besides a painted face and half baked batman costume, I placed #25 overall and 5th in my age bracket by shaving 5 minutes off my time (1:39). My 3rd race was the Ft. Lauderdale A1A. Every February this race draws large crowds of runners to a destination run along the water. Being a larger race, and now 30, put me into a tougher age bracket, making my rank drop faster than ball on NYE. But I shaved 4 min off my time so I must be getting better.

I moved to NYC and picked my running up but my training pace was stuck in 7:30-7:40 and not improving. I exhausted effort — ran more often, further, and harder but the runs never got easier and my pace never got better. Each race, I found a way to justify my performance was improving.

Our brain tricks us into thinking we are making progress…

Our brain is not designed to effectively interpret personal progress, change and growth. Change is the total ways we have grown better and worse. Unfortunately this is not how we perceive change. When we reflect upon how we have changed over time our brain selectively recalls ways which we have improved. We remember the days we had a great run but forget the days we skipped a run, or had a bad run.

Our perception of “change” is not an objective total sum of forward progress minus backward progress. Rather we interpret change by bringing to mind only instances where we have improved and neglecting other trajectories (e.g., failures) that we have also experienced.

Our brains are not good at assessing our own progress and change. We selectively interpret events giving us the perception we learning, growing, changing, but in reality we may be spinning our wheels.

A good way to think of how our brain interprets change is how we look at reviews to buy a product. Instead of looking at all the reviews, we selectively look at the 5 star reviews to support our premise to purchase.

Overcoming our Change Bias…

Our mind is wired for progress, positivity and self-improvement. Optimism and self-enhancement motives are fundamental for normal psychological functioning, but also may lead us to (mis)interpret our past success and personal growth. Our brain can delude us into thinking we are making progress but are really not.  To overcome our change bias we should calibrate our progress against realistic benchmarks of success.

4 Ways to Make Change Effective

1. Use Objective Measures. 

Put things you want to change or improve into terms that are quantifiable. I want to lose weight, run faster or eat healthier are unobtainable. Instead, put into numbers and map to a time…Speak at 3 conferences this year, run a sub 3 hour marathon this November, publish 2 articles this quarter, eat 200 less calories. What gets measured gets managed.

2. Record Key Metrics.

Write everything down. Don’t rely on memory to keep tabs of progress and change. If we rely on memory, our brain will find some way to rationalize we were successful. Use tools, technology, or apps to aid in recording progress.

3. Diary failures.

Nobody’s life is a persistent fleet of positive experiences and outcomes. Success is a struggle. Any change worth achieving requires some slip ups or “mini-fails”. Experience failure, document it, learn from it. Be honest with yourself.

4. Have others interpret Change Success.

No individual is capable of understanding nor maximizing their full potential. By having someone set your upper limits of what you are capable of, adjust expectations and interpret progress from there – we can amplify change success.

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