Change blindness, and the all-of-a-sudden syndrome

As human beings, we tend to fall victim to the “all of a sudden” syndrome.

All of a sudden I’m out of shape.
All of a sudden my finances are a wreck.
All of a sudden my product is late.
All of a sudden a relationship is broken.
All of a sudden I’m addicted.
All of a sudden the year is gone.
All of a sudden my business has failed.
All of a sudden my kids are grown.

But things rarely happen “all of a sudden”. They happen incrementally, by degrees, slowly, over time.

The problem is, we usually don’t see them happening, until “all of a sudden” it’s too late.

The changes are so small, so gradual, that they don’t register on our warning screen. They’re usually too minute to be caught by whatever measurement mechanisms we have in place (see “Do you measure yourself?”), until all of a sudden the change is so great, we can’t NOT notice.

This is called “change blindness”, when we’re so focused on the scene as a whole that we fail to see small (and sometimes not-so-small), but important things that change within the scene.

This happens all of the time in every aspect of our lives. It’s also known as entropy (here).

But this “all of a sudden” effect works both ways. The guy that climbs everest? That didn’t happen all of a sudden. Successful products don’t just appear out of nowhere. Companies don’t just all of a sudden become successful.

When I run a marathon, I don’t just all of a sudden wake up and run 26 miles. If I’m going to hit my goal of bench pressing 400 pounds, I won’t just all of a sudden go in and load up the bar and try it. I’d kill myself.

If you have a large goal (and you should – see “Are you failing on a regular basis”), then you won’t get there all of a sudden. You’ll get there in stages, through a sustained series of gradual, incremental achievements.

“Through small and simple means are great things brought to pass”.

So don’t hold yourself to unrealistic expectations, or all you’ll get are disappointments. Rather commit yourself to moving forward, just a little, every day.

Henry Wadsworth Longellow wisely penned the following, in his motivational poem, “A Psalm of Life”:

Not enjoyment, and not sorry,
is our destined end, or way.
But to act, that each tomorrow,
find us farther, than today.

They key to avoiding the negative “all of a sudden” experiences, and increasing the positive ones, is to reduce the scale of your measurement.

You’ve got to be aware of not just milestones, but DIRECTION. It’s the direction that is the key. It is the direction of your momentum that determines your destination. Because things are always evolving, either for the better, or for the worse.

What you have to do, as an individual, organization, parent, or whatever, is to ask yourself regularly what direction your evolution is taking you.

And be honest in your answers.


3 replies
  1. Lumpy
    Lumpy says:

    400 lbs! Wow! I bet you will need to eat a lot of whey protein for that! That is a great goal! My goal is to run a mile in less than 4 minutes. After I do that, I will work on the 500 lb bench and the 1,000 lb squat!!! Then I will work on being translated after finding the cure to cancer and selfishness.

  2. Rusty Lindquist
    Rusty Lindquist says:

    LOL, those sound like worthy goals indeed.

    And yes, that’s a lot of protein. Essentially, you’ve got to eat approximately 1.5 – 2 grams of protein for every pound you weigh, in order to build muscle (1 gram/lb to maintain). I weigh 215 lbs right now at approximately 15% body fat, which means I have to eat around 400 grams a day. You just can’t consume that on a regular diet.

    I plan on doing a post about the endeavor soon. Deconstructing the goal, outlining my plan, and measuring my progress. Last year I had gotten up to 385, but then had 6 surgery’s over the course of the year, and I lost nearly all of my prior gains.

    That was a negative “all-of-a-sudden” experience. When I got back to the gym, all of a sudden I couldn’t bench nearly that. I’d declined regularly due to muscle atrophy and improper diet (several of my surgeries were throat surgeries, where I lost 30 lbs in a month on a diet of jello and pudding only).

    Oh well, you can’t always control what happens to you, but you can control how you will react to it. I’m determined to not let that defeat me.

  3. Rusty Lindquist
    Rusty Lindquist says:

    By the way, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, in the last couple years there were over 53,000 mass layoff events. These are events where more than 50 people were laid off all at once from the same company.

    What a mass layoff event tells me, is that companies stopped paying attention. This is “all of a sudden” syndrom at a corporate level. Caterpillar didn’t just all of a sudden have 5,000 too many employees. Home Depot didn’t all of a sudden get 7,000 more employees than it needed. Sprint Nextel didn’t just all of a sudden have 8,000 unnecessary positions. Pfizer didn’t just all of a sudden not need 8,000 of their former employees.

    In 1953 there was a movie called “The Moon is Blue”. The movie was the subject of extensive controversy because of it’s use of the words “virgin,” “seduce,” and “pregnant.”

    Now look at what’s on prime-time television today. That too, didn’t just happen all-of-a-sudden, but through a gradual desensitization of society towards moral issues.

    It happens all around us.


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