Are Your Patterns Holding Your Research Back?
We all have habits. Things we do a certain way every time, mostly without even thinking about them. We call this “experience.”
The problem is experience and habits can stunt our curiosity.
If you would like the benefits of experience while still being unfettered and curious, we have a few ideas for you. Read on to find out how your patterns affect your behavior and how you can use this to your advantage.
How Patterns Influence Your Behavior
Have you ever found yourself pulling up at your job only to realize you can’t remember the trip that got you there? It’s like the car knows where to go. Actually, it’s your brain that knows where to go. There is a “go to work” groove carved into your gray matter, so you don’t even have to think anymore.
Sometimes this works against you. Have you ever been driving somewhere that involves similar yet different directions? You get to the light and…wait; I needed to turn left instead of right! What happened? The familiar place is to the right, and if you weren’t being present at that stoplight, to the right, you would go. It’s your pattern.
Your Brain on Patterns
When you picture your brain, you probably imagine a gray mass with lines and grooves squiggled all over it. But that is not how your brain starts out.
If you were to see a newborn baby’s brain, it would be the same color as yours, but it would be smooth. Does that mean your brain gets wrinkled because it is getting old? No, the reason is different.
Your brain actually changes physical form as you develop habits and patterns.  To say something is “etched into your brain” is an accurate facsimile of what physically occurs. The more times you do the same thing, the deeper and more visible the physical impact becomes.
This is why making alterations to patterns can be so difficult. You are fighting gravity. Fortunately, your brain is like putty. It can be remodeled with a little consistent effort.
New Researchers: Establish More Patterns
Patterns aren’t a bad thing.
The young and smooth-brained need patterns.
This is why a child cannot be expected to perform the responsibilities of an adult—they just don’t have that toolbox of patterns established yet.
For example, when my son was nineteen, he was a great kid. But it used to drive me nuts that I couldn’t count on him for anything. He wasn’t deliberately unreliable or lazy, but you couldn’t be sure he would do as asked.
Because he didn’t have the patterns down yet.
Then seemingly overnight, it all changed. At twenty-two, he was a far more predictable fellow! It’s like they reach a critical mass of useful established patterns that make them responsible.
Of course, kids create dysfunctional patterns too. Fortunately, their young brains are supple. Parenting is all about observing and molding their patterns to give them the tools they need in the adult world.
Don’t take this comparison too hard if you are new to the lab. But it is valuable to recognize if you are inexperienced with certain lab activities.
Sure, university offered you a lot of theoretical knowledge, but probably a shortage of hands-on experience.
And if you are one of the veterans, your interns, postgrads, and other fresh faces need your hard-won pointers. They can multiply your collective capabilities when you help them grow into their roles in your lab.
Experienced Researchers: Fight Your Patterns
We’ve discussed the need to create patterns, but patterns can also pose a problem at a certain point.
As adults, our patterns are among our most valuable possessions. Employers may look at resumes for schooling and work experience, but what they are really after are some well-honed patterns.
We all do the same. We look for great patterns in the friends we choose and the partners we pick.
At a certain point in life, you have patterns for pretty much everything you do. You have a pattern for how you walk the trashcan to the curb and how you perform your next gas chromatography analysis. You even have patterns for how you handle things you don’t have patterns for.
The young have a green field, a blue sky, an empty whiteboard. They are more capable of responding to situations with novel actions. But when you are more experienced, these patterns start to impede blue-sky thinking.
It can be very unsettling to establish a new pattern later in life. Beginning a new habit like going to the gym first thing in the morning may interrupt your sleep pattern or when you have breakfast. (Or even what you have for breakfast.)
We tend to avoid having our existing patterns ruffled.
And patterns also have a shelf life. A pattern that used to work great can break, or it can become no longer applicable. But it’s hard to let go of something from which we have so many fond memories of success. But occasionally, we must let patterns go.
Everyone: Assess Your Patterns
So now we know patterns can be problematic. How do we address this? How do we know what patterns are problematic? And once we’ve identified problem patterns, how do we get rid of them and install superior patterns?
Do a Pattern Inventory
This doesn’t have to be an ever-present behavior. You can take two approaches: regular and emergency.
Regular might be a monthly or quarterly survey of your continuous behaviors. Note both useful and problematic trends. The key here is trends. What shows up repeatedly or consistently? What do other people comment on about your behavior or habits? What patterns are getting consistently desirable results, and what patterns are unreliable or even harmful?
Emergency is when something is clearly going wrong or causing problems. In that case, you have to take a fearless and dispassionate look at yourself. Question your automatic self-assumptions. One way to do this is to start with a self-belief and ask yourself, “What if I wasn’t so confident/doubtful/certain/inexperienced? Would I still follow the same path?”
Unsure how to determine what patterns should go on the chopping block?
Consider this way. Be mindful of which patterns serve you and which no longer do (or never did). Are you settling for “good enough” when a superior pattern may be worth the effort to embody? Are you accepting “I/we/the smart people have always done it this way” when maybe it shouldn’t be done anymore or at all?
Remove Unhelpful Patterns
You have accomplished the hard work of looking at your own behavior. Well done! As a result, you’ve identified patterns that no longer serve you or noticed the need for a new pattern. So now, how do you get rid of a beloved, entrenched pattern that has outlived its usefulness?
Unplugging the television (or the internet or the cellphone) may give you room to establish a new pattern of reading regularly. Clearing junk food out of the house might make the option of a piece of fruit more appealing.
Some patterns, while not harmful, might just not be worth keeping. Sweep the driveway without hosing it down afterward. You’ll develop a new habit of saving water. Make some room for the next pattern you haven’t even thought of yet.
How to Create a New Pattern
Developing a new pattern comes down to intention. Do you intend to establish a new habit, or are you just going through the motions? Are you on a “diet”, secretly longing to return to “normal?”
If you don’t get your intent right, you may succumb to fooling others or even fooling yourself. Save yourself time and disappointment by getting your head and heart into the game first.
Aligned intent sets you up for effective action. Now the rubber meets the road. Do something!
Start with defining some productive actions that would reveal your intent; to either yourself or the world.
And sorry boffins—thinking does not count as action. You have to do something.
It might be to write it down; it might be to initiate a conversation, make a purchase, or make a request. Bring thoughts out of the ether and into the real world.
Also, this is a good time to install a meta-pattern: self-discipline. It doesn’t matter how motivated (or unmotivated) you are. It is the habit of taking action that gets you over the finish line.
Get used to doing hard or unpleasant things. The short-term cost pays rich long-term dividends. Soon, you will even learn to enjoy these short-term actions that you used to avoid or find distasteful.
How Changing Patterns Can Help Your Career Summarized
The rhythm of life happens in familiar cycles. We enjoy the safety and reliability of things we can trust. All humans need certainty in their lives. But we also need variety. So break some molds and set some new ones.
Build up a useful set of patterns but always be willing to set one down and pick another one up. You are destined to have wrinkles on the brain, so make sure they are wrinkles of your choosing.
Keep learning! After all, that is likely why you visit Bitesize Bio for insight into methods and techniques.
Have you created a new, beneficial, or empowering pattern? Tell us about it by commenting below!
Do you have habits, and you have no idea how you got them? Do you wish you could install some new good habits? Do you have some bad habits you want to get rid of? Listen to this episode of The Happy Scientist podcast to find out where habits come from, how to make the good ones stick around, and how to get rid of the bad ones.
- Passingham R. (2016) ‘Chapter 3. Attending’, in Passingham R. Cognitive Neuroscience: A Very Short Introduction, Very Short Introductions (Oxford, 2016; online edn, Oxford Academic, 22 Sept. 2016), accessed 30 Nov. 2022.
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