Monday, June 6, 2016

How to boil a frog, when you are the frog

Let's start with a little science and some folklore of sorts.

The old story goes that if you throw a frog into boiling water, it will jump straight out. If you want to actually boil a frog, you need to put the frog in lukewarm water and raise the temperature slowly until it finally boils.

First things first - why in the world are you trying to boil a frog? Please don't. That's strange and somewhat sadistic and frogs are an important part of our ecosystem (and their disappearance is a bit disturbing as well).

So, assuming we're talking theory here, instead of reality, the truth is that you can't kill a frog by boiling it slowly. The frog will notice.
Here's some real scientists from the University of Washington explaining it better than I can.

So why have we heard this story a hundred times? Probably because it serves as a pretty good allegory describing change management as a gradual event. But I would believe that if the change leads to your death, no amount of gradual adjustment would cause you to ignore the change, so maybe it is time to update the story.

Maybe it's just having the frog swim in apple juice instead of water. Or maybe the story shifts to talking about changing your life instead of playing tricks on frogs.

Getting Your Exercise

I pretty much hate exercise. Rather, I hate having to do exercise as a regimented workout routine meant to improve overall physical fitness. I actually enjoy physical activity, but confining it to some monotonous hamster wheel of repetition really dulls it up.

Enter the Couch to 5K program. It's basically a gradual build-up through alternating running and walking to get to the point where you can run a 5K in half an hour.

If you don't exercise at all and try to go run a 5K, the chances are that you will not make it. At least not in a reasonable amount of time. And there will be much pain and walking involved.

Couch to 5K (C25K) assumes that your exercise regimen starts at sitting on the couch, and uses the theory of gradual increases in challenges to improve your stamina. And it works.

I've actually done C25K a few times, though the fastest I've actually done 5K is around 40 minutes. Still, that's much better than, say, the two hours it would take me without training.

The concept extends beyond running, though. If you want to get some exercise, there is no end of apps for your phone that will gradually build you up to doing a ton of pushups or several minutes of planks (my new nemesis).

The reason it works? As you repeat activity, your muscles add strength and build resistance to the activity, allowing you to push it to the next level. Were you to try to achieve the final outcome at the start, you would likely overstress your muscles and injure yourself.

Level Up

Exercise not your bag? No problem. Name the last video game that you sat down and played for the first time from beginning to end without ever failing and restarting.

Got one? If so, it must not be much of a game.

Video games designers make every level more difficult, either from a dexterity or mental agility perspective as you move through the game. The idea is that you build skills, once again, through repetition and slow addition of incremental challenges.

I played Guitar Hero recently (yes, it's not a new game, but it's a game). I actually play guitar (though I am out of practice on that one as well), but those skills don't necessarily translate directly to the video game. Couple that with the several years since I've played Guitar Hero, and I'm struggling on the Easy and Medium levels much more than the last time I played. I can tell because those higher level songs are already unlocked, but I'm still stuck on the easier ones getting booed off the stage.

And let's not talk about battling Tom Morello.

So without talking about how poorly I would fill in as a guitarist for Rage Against the Machine, let's recognize that the concept is the same: Difficulty increases as you progress, but those incremental challenges are appropriate to the skills you develop through repetition at an easier level.

But What Does It Mean?

Humans resist change. Don't believe me? Google it and read a few articles there. Our bodies seek stability and stasis through some sort of biological search for security or something. But the environment around us never stays the same.

Embracing change provides more security than resisting it.

Still, when helping others to adapt to change, you should recognize that their initial reaction will be to resist. And now, we're back to the analogy of the frog (however wrong it may be scientifically). Instead of upsetting someone's entire world, focus on a small change that they can not only absorb, but also agree with and champion. Start there.

If you are trying to change yourself, determine what the smallest incremental change towards your goal you can accept would be, then implement that change. Force it daily. As soon as you don't notice the burden of the change anymore, add another.

The same principle applies with the Productivity Challenge I posted last year. The idea was to start with a small set of things to get done, and slowly start ratcheting them up and reprioritizing them in a certain way that it becomes habit. 

Never underestimate the power of a good habit.

Once established, always look for the activity that you have to undertake to start to move towards the next level.


In the end, there's not a good way (or a good reason) to boil a frog. But if you are trying to affect change in yourself (or others), taking natural resistance into account will help and adapting gradually will overcome many of the challenges in implementing change.

Devise a slow and progressive plan to continually challenge the same muscles (or mental muscles) that are naturally resisting the change, and push them a little bit further with each increment. 

As always, though, doing trumps planning in importance. Plan, but follow through with your actions. No mattter how small, an action in the right direction can build a lifetime habit that you can build and expand upon to create and enhance skills, become expert-level, and craft hobbies and careers around.

Got another idea on how to absorb change? Let me know - I'd love to start a conversation.