4 Ways to fill in Your Brain Ruts


The path of least resistance and least trouble is a mental rut already made. It requires troublesome work to undertake the alternation of old beliefs. ~John Dewey

Have you ever noticed a car with really wide tires? Done right, they look fantastic, giving a vehicle a really powerful look. But there is a downside to big tires which you may be unaware of, and it’s not the price.

Today I was out driving the backroads of my home province, Alberta. While cruising along, I felt the car shift a few inches towards the curb. At speed, this causes your eyes to become ENORMOUS. My grip was unchanged on the wheel. The car had not slid. It just MOVED. Most disconcerting. But, not surprising with those wide tires…

Tramlining is when vehicles follow the grooves in the road. The passage of millions of wheels over a surface causes impressions and ruts in the road. Cars have a tendency to follow the ruts, but those wide tires are particularly susceptible as I had just experienced. You have to be really mindful of the road surface and sensitive to what the car is doing to ensure it keeps going where you want.

Tramlining is a safety risk for a driver. It takes away control. Wide tires look great, but they can put your car in a place you weren’t intending for it to go.

Tramlining of the brain is also a risk for leaders.

My wife is a therapist. She sees the results of bad behaviors that have developed over time, resulting in highly self-destructive actions. The brain is composed of connections — pathways between pieces of data forming memories, ideas and instructions (how we do things). When these pathways are travelled repeatedly, the connections are strengthened.

These embedded pathways often have connections to something good in our minds – a sense of happiness, an ego boost, a time when we …

Thoughts drive action. Just like the car on a well-travelled road, our actions tend to follow the same directions we’ve used before. We are following the ruts in our brain.

What are your ‘go to’ behaviours that have passed their expiry date of usefulness?

  • Interrupting others because you’ve already drawn a conclusion.
  • Trusting peers who say ‘I’ve got this’ when we should be asking tough questions.
  • Criticizing direct reports in front of others.
  • Remaining silent in the presence of superiors even though you have something to say.

I’m in process of working on some of my own ‘well worn paths’ that are no longer serving well. In fact, they’ve been holding me back for a very long time. Here is what I’ve learned about repaving the road.

1. Write it down

I was discussing with a friend the actions I wanted to take to drive new business. There were no surprises. But as I wrote one down, I felt an emotional reaction. FEAR. So, I wrote that down too.

It’s amazing how powerful it can be to get a new perspective on challenges just by writing them on paper, making them concrete. Once captured on ink, I had an easier time dealing with it.

In addition, keeping clear goals in front of me reinforces my focus on them. Writing them down each day (even if they are the same as yesterday!) begins the process of building new pathways.

2. Get a sidekick

Have you ever tried shaving or putting on makeup without a mirror? There’s bound to be some mistakes! With behavioral change it’s important to find the right mirror.

My wife has many great insights that have helped me get a leg up on tough changes. I’m fortunate to have her. For leadership behaviours I also need people who see me in action, who I trust to provide constructive feedback without pulling their punches. Honesty.

If you cannot trust any of your team members or peers to provide good feedback, that’s a symptom of other problems.

3. Reflect and rehearse

Coupled with helpful feedback, reflection is incredibly powerful for change. It has two critical components:

  • Replay your actions. Like those amazing cameras at the Super Bowl, revisit scenarios where you’ve both failed and attempted new behaviours and play it back from different angles. Where could you have made a change that would have altered the direction?
  • Visualize the best case. We tend to fixate on the disasters. Don’t spend too long there. Learn from it and then visualize the way you want it to go. Focus on seeing the ‘how’ of what you want to do, not just the outcome.

Research shows that athletes who spend time visualizing perfect execution have a much higher rate of success. Visualizing ‘pings’ various elements in the brain and begins the formation of new connections. Seeing the right actions happening together, the ‘how’ of your new behaviour is just as powerful as performing the action.

And of course, it also helps to play out scenarios with a partner. Working through new ways of talking and relating builds ‘muscle memory’ which is much easier to apply, particularly when we are under stress.

4. Manage your environment and energy

Ever noticed that the bad guys always want to have meeting at locations of their own choosing? They take every advantage possible – the high ground, knowing the escape routes, preparing plan B – to ensure they get what they want.

You should do the same. Is there a better location to apply new behaviours? Neutral ground? Over a coffee? Is there a place that offers a safe exit? Have you planned for backup if the situation goes badly?

And if you don’t already know where the high ground of your energy level is during your day, you need to. If your energy account is near zero, you can’t expect the best results when attempting new behaviors. Move new behavior tryouts to preferred times, or ensure your energy level is high before you begin.

Easy to say, harder to do.

Tramlining is real for all of us. It’s easiest to follow the path impressed into the road. Most people will read this article, get distracted by something else, and change nothing. That’s my story as well! I couldn’t do it alone. If you want more – satisfaction, accomplishments, skills – then get on with it now.

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