young3You will have seen this picture before. If you look at it one way it’s a caricatured old lady – look, there’s her chin at the bottom centre of the picture. If you look at it another way, it’s a 1/4 profile of a young girl – the tip of the old lady’s nose becomes the tip of her chin, and so on.

What’s this got to do with turning your life around? Notice how you see one picture or the other, depending on where you put your attention. Focusing on certain features will trigger your brain’s pattern-match for an old lady facing left, focusing on others triggers the pattern-match for a young girl looking away. Shift your focus and the picture flips from one image to the other, literally in the blink of an eye.

Notice how you can’t see both at the same time. With a bit of practice you can defocus your eyes and just see a pattern of lines on the page, but that’s about as close as we can get.

Similarly, we see patterns in our lives. Our brains try to form coherent narratives that make sense of our actions and the things that happen to us. We like to have a consistent sense of ourselves, otherwise things will seem incoherent and confusing. This is the basis of Dr Robert Cialdini’s Consistency Principle.

These stories are self-fulfilling prophesies. If your ‘story’ as you see it is that of an unlucky person, who everything goes wrong for, every setback will reinforce the overall narrative. If, on the other hand, you see yourself as someone with goals, who has overcome many challenges, you would view the exact same event to deal with, and even something that makes you stronger. You will focus on different things and see your life (including what you expect to happen in the future, which influences the choices you make and the actions you take) as a completely different picture.

So how can you use these principles of pattern recognition and the desire for a consistent sense of self to start making your life better? It’s easy.

Do something which is consistent with how you want to see yourself. If you want to become more of a caring person, do something which makes a difference to someone else. If you want to get fitter or healthier, do just a little bit of exercise or eat an apple instead of a chocolate bar.

The key is to start small. If the action is something you want to put off, it’s too big. Make the action small enough that it’s a no-brainer to do it now. It’s not about how big the action is, it’s about the kind of action and the narrative of yourself that it’s consistent with.

Each thing you do that contributes to your story of who you want to be makes it more likely that you will take more positive actions in the future, because of the consistency principle. Yes, at first you may still be doing ten things from your old ways to each ‘desired life’ action – but if you focus on the positive actions, you will start doing more and more of them.

For all I know this method has already been given a name by someone else, but I think of it as ‘The Flip’.

Start small – and keep going.

(Optical illusion from Wolfram Mathworld)


The Flip: how to start turning your life around right now

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