The new normal


We are all familiar with the magic wand of fairy tales – the one that can turn a frog into a handsome prince. When we contemplate changing something about ourselves we often wish we could have access to such instant magic. Although sudden changes of habits are possible, they usually come from a wake-up call or a deep insight which cannot easily be reproduced. A more accessible approach is to modify a habit so gradually that the whole process becomes nearly unnoticeable.

The boiling-frog syndrome, which is often associated with our inability to act before it is too late, is a striking image that encapsulates the potency of gradual change. A nineteenth-century scientific experiment showed that a frog placed in water that is very gradually heated up would adapt to the rising temperature and not attempt to escape until it was too late. This cruel experiment has since been disputed, and it turns out that frogs will jump out before it is too late! Nevertheless, the phenomenon can be recognised in our very own lives when we get used to a slowly degrading condition and do nothing about it. In the field of positive psychology, some people have suggested that by turning it on its head, this non-responsiveness could be used to our advantage.

Let me give you an example. For many years now, I have been using a bucket and a pail to wash instead of showering as it saves water. I still use hot water but much less than if I was standing under a shower. When I was in Bali last year, I set myself the challenge to use cold water to wash. I did it for a while, but I did not find it pleasant and reverted to using hot water. Grappling with the concept of incremental change, I decide to try again but this time using a gentle approach. Over the space of few weeks, I went from washing with a hot bucket to a cold bucket without experiencing any discomfort. The strategy was to reduce the amount of hot water I put in the bucket by such small increments that every day the temperature of the water seemed ‘normal’.

We would probably prefer to change instantly, but most of the time sudden change tend not to last. We have however an inbuilt ability to adapt to slow gradual change more readily. Although it takes commitment and patience, incremental adjustments may be one of the most effective ways to change habits. The more we practice, the better we get, until changing becomes the new normal.


Photo: Loic Lopez