When was the last time you decluttered your brain?
Published: May 23, 2021

I’ll start with a bit of context. A few years ago my wife Shelley and I went on a fantastic holiday to Norway. The only downside of the trip (apart from the eye-watering cost of everything) was that Shelley lost a pair of sunglasses. They were rather pricey, so we decided to make an insurance claim. This of course meant we had to start the search for the relevant piece of paperwork, which was somewhere in a file box full of papers. 

I wouldn’t be surprised if you’re wondering why I’m sharing this with you. There is a reason, honestly. As I watched Shelley conduct her search, I was reminded of something that’s fundamental to what I do (helping people reshape their behaviour).

So, what was I seeing that lead me to make that connection? As I watched, I was struck by how many of the pieces of paper Shelley pulled out of the file box ended up on the floor (and then in the recycling bin).

The thing to remember here is that those pieces of paper wouldn’t have been in that file box in the first place unless Shelley had looked at them at some point and thought; “that’s important, I’d better keep it somewhere where I can easily find it!”. This is very similar to what happens with our behaviour. With behaviour, of course, we’re not talking about pieces of paper (although, for some of us, writing down our experiences is part of the “saving” process). Instead, we’re talking about neural echoes of the thoughts, feelings and responses associated with an old experience (what happened to us, what we saw happen to someone else or what we just heard about). If that experience felt important enough at the time, our brains would also have stored those echoes somewhere where they could be easily found – in our behavioural repertoire. From then on, that saved experience would have been readily available to us, to help spot similar situations as they came up and to respond quickly to them.

What watching Shelley’s search reminded me of was that things that seem really important (or useful) at one point can, when we go back later and take a fresh look, suddenly seem less so (and not worth keeping). The same is also true of what sits in our behavioural repertoire. Yes, the meanings and options that make up that repertoire are there because they felt genuinely important at the time. But things change. What was absolutely vital to us when we were 5, 15, 25 or even 50, may, in the cold light of day, have outlived that usefulness – the world changes and so do we. Hanging on to those old meanings and options just for the sake of it makes as much sense as keeping a utility bill from a home you moved out of 2 years ago or a flyer advertising a festival that happened in 2017! In Shelley’s case, all that irrelevant old stuff just made it difficult to find the piece of paper we needed. In the case of our behavioural repertoire, old, irrelevant stuff makes it difficult for us to access anything new, because that old stuff is so easy to find. Consequently, if (as we usually are) we’re in a rush to deal with a situation, we don’t bother looking for anything else once that old stuff makes itself available.

What Shelley ended up doing was start a really useful clear out. My question to myself and to you, via this piece is:

“how often do we have a similar clear out of our behavioural repertoire?”.

This business of decluttering our brains is an integral part of the work we do with our clients. We begin by making sure that they’re clear about the outcomes they want/need to bring to life. We then help them identify the pivotal situations that they’ll need to handle skilfully if they’re going to deliver those outcomes. We then shift the focus onto those pivotal situations and the moments of truth within them. We recognise that, if our clients are going to handle what are often familiar situations differently, they’ll need to come to genuinely believe that their habitual way of doing so isn’t actually working for them. This is where the decluttering comes in. Seeing their old stuff in a different, less useful light robs it of the power to intrude in the future. This then makes space for something new and more useful to come to mind when they next encounter their pivotal situation.

The alternative?

To be doomed to repeat the same old stuff over and over again and get the same old outcomes over and over again because old stuff keeps getting in the way.

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