Change isn’t always easy. Our brains like things just the way they are. Not because it’s necessarily in our best interest, but because it’s known. The known is a shortcut. And the brain loves nothing more than a good shortcut, because it requires less processing power. Growth, on the other hand, can require the forging of new pathways—literally, at the neuronal level.
When pursuing growth or stress relief, you will therefore sometimes have a hard go of it partly for this very practical reason.
We have many words we call people—and call ourselves—when we meet the resistance that often arises in such situations. It is especially cruel to assign these names to children, who can’t really use a reflective process to evaluate the veracity of the labels. Those children go on to be us—adults who call ourselves any number of names when we can’t seem to make the changes we wish to make or reach our desired goals.
Our job is to tackle just one little thing at a time and, in so doing, to trick our beloved brains. Of course I am simplifying matters. The brain does not exist in a vacuum. There are systems outside and within us that also play a part. But for now, let me offer just one good trick you can try: the experiment trick.
3 Stress Relief Experiments I Tried—and You Can Too
To make it easy on myself (and my brain), I often frame a new effort as an experiment. An experiment says “short-lived,” “wait-and-see,” “cool! what might happen?,” “no worries, you can always turn back.” It’s just the inspiration or reassurance I might need.
1. The Sleep Experiment
Getting insufficient sleep causes all manner of difficulties in our lives, from physical irritability, to cognitive impairment (“I can’t think straight!”), from a decreased ability to lose weight to an increase in anxiety and depression. This past year, I read that adults used to get an average of 10 hours of sleep a night. I also learned that any sleep we secure after 11 pm is not as valuable to our bodies as it would have been if we’d turned in earlier.
That, um, woke me up. So I decided to try a sleep experiment. Rather than going to bed at 12 or 1, I would dial it back to 9:30. You can try this too. And, yes, it might have a domino effect of necessary change, but it’s only an experiment. (One that, for me, I turned into a habit, because I liked the results so much—results that included an overall sense of feeling less stressed in my life.)
2. The Get Off Facebook Experiment
For three weeks straight, I got off Facebook. I’d been feeling scattered, distracted, less sharp, even strangely lonely after gradually, imperceptibly having increased my time on that social media site. Getting off Facebook was just an experiment I added into my life. And I wasn’t sure what I would do when I finished the three weeks. Needless to say, I ended up loving the increased sense of focus and well-being—or the stress relief—I felt after the initial blues of change. I did later return to the site, but on new, much-abated terms.
3. The Read a Book Every Weekend Experiment
One of the ways I landed on the Facebook experiment was because I had earlier added the experiment of reading a whole book every weekend. It was so relaxing, so focusing, so inspiring when I actually made it happen, that I found myself wanting more. Oh, to sit on the couch and simply turn the page!
The comparative feeling of reading deeply and long helped me see what I really wanted as the more central discovery experience of my life. Now, when I go on Facebook, I go to play in between doing light tasks like cleaning. Or I make a kind of “appointment” to go and have a particular conversation for a while.
Reading makes me happy, helps me explore, and is something I control (rather than it controlling me with little red Pavlovian flags and sounds—and this is important, because control is the main player in stress relief).
If you try the reading experiment, who knows what that weekend page-turning could do.