“We are not going in circles, we are going upwards. The path is a spiral, we have already climbed many steps.”-Hermann Hesse
When I was getting my PhD in nutrition and epidemiology, we used statistics to model human behavior. We would take data from thousands of people and use a mathematical equation to explain what was happening. These types of studies are the ones that tell you the risk of smoking or eating salt. They’re all based on a mathematical equations that summarized what happened to thousands of people who consumed different levels of cigarettes or salt.
Finding the correct mathematical equation is where the real work of epidemiology happens. For some relationships, it’s an easy, linear process: “smoke one more cigarette and you’ll get X more risk of lung cancer, no matter what”.
Other relationships are not so simple.
For salt, eating too little salt is associated with heart problems and higher risk of death. At that point, consuming more salt reduces your risk of death. But if you are eating a lot of salt already, more salt increases your risk of death! That is not a linear relationship: we can’t tell you what the risk is unless we know where you already are.
Our obsession with linear relationships
Scientists love linear relationships, because it’s an easy solution and easy message to send. The journalists love linear relationships because they can use a sensational headline like “salt will kill you!” And as consumers, we love linear relationships because it makes it easier to choose what our behavior should be. “More is better” or “less is good” are messages that allow us to make black and white decisions, without having to consider where we currently are.
Why the statistics lesson? Because in my doula training yesterday, my teacher said “grief is not a linear process.” I had a major aha moment. Grief is not linear. And as I thought more about this concept, I realized that basically nothing is linear. Grief, love, progress in business, progress towards living a healthy lifestyle, trust/faith, and self-growth are all non-linear processes.
Human behavior isn’t linear
Let’s take grief as an example: it’s assumed in our culture that “time heals all wounds”. We’ll feel better and better as we inch further and further away from the cause of our grief, whether it’s a breakup, a miscarriage, a lost job, or a death. We think that if we do more of the thing that made us feel better yesterday or last week, we’ll feel even better if we do it today. Unfortunately, that’s not always the case.
Even if we’ve had a string of “good days”, we can be thrown back into the grief as if it happened yesterday. And things we did to cope when the grief was still new, like withdrawing from friends or staying home from work, might actually be detrimental to our growth and healing process now.
Similarly, there are many stages to growth. On this path of being happier, healthier humans, it’s easy take the “more is better” approach (“if 1 hour of yoga made me feel good, I should do 2!” or “if not eating bagels made me feel good, I should cut out all carbs!”), but I’ve seen in my own life and in clients that constantly pushing forward doesn’t always bring the success that you want.
In fact, we need these plateaus in our progress. When we allow for the relationships to be non-linear, we get the opportunity to reflect on what we’re actually doing. We get our bearings, correct our vision, and affirm our progress.
Part of this evolution is realizing that the simple answer isn’t always the correct one, and just like a scientist wants it to be strictly linear, neither can we assume that simply doing more will help
How to make space for non-linear processes in your life
Whether you’re in the grieving or in the growth stage (or both, since they’re just two sections on the same continuum), build in resting places. Schedule a Sunday night check in, or a morning journaling session where you can see how you’re feeling at where you’re at. You can do this on a grander scale as well, with annual or quarterly recaps.
Pareto’s Law (also known as an 80/20 analysis) is particularly useful for examining these non-linear relationships. Pareto’s Law states that 20% of our actions create 80% of our results. When we focus in on that 20% and spend more time in that space, we’ll increase our productivity and effectiveness. Similarly, 20% of your time is creating 80% of your happiness, or 20% of your customers are generating 80% of the complaints/difficulties.
You can use the Pareto Principle in this case to say “today, as I am, what 20% of actions are leading to 80% of my positivity and strength?” You sit back, look at your calendar, reflection, and most importantly, are agnostic to the outcome. The 20% might be different than what it was 8 months ago, and that doesn’t mean that your choice back then was wrong. It simply means that you’re at a different point in the non-linear curve, and it’s time to make a shift in your actions to reflect that.
The most important thing is that you’re taking time to check in with where you are now. It’s this self-reflection and slowing down that will allow you to find where you are in the curve and help yourself in the best way possible.
These non-linear relationships always keep us guessing, and as long as we keep checking in, we’ll be able to adapt to the information they’re giving us.