Not so fast!

How do you make a significant change in your day-to-day life?

We are all familiar with the “New Year’s resolution” syndrome. We get inspired to commit to some positive lifestyle change, like working out regularly. On January 2nd we enthusiastically join a gym, buy our workout gear, and we start doing our fitness routine religiously three times a week.
But life happens and something comes up; we miss here or there in February.
And then as March goes by we notice the gym outfit is languishing in the back of our closet.
In April we feel guilty every time we open the closet.
By May we reluctantly cancel the membership in realization that we’re not using it.

What happened?

To me, there is a constant tension between short-term impulses and long-term goals, and how we balance them is a life art. For example, I have my evening scheduled out with a concert I’ve looked forward to for weeks, and suddenly a friend calls in need. Do I miss my planned event to support my buddy?
Or  I have my new food plan in place but there’s a surprise office birthday party and my boss Heidi offers me some of her homemade cake; perhaps it would be rude to refuse?
Or  I’m on a budget regimen, but the latest iPhone goes on sale 30% off; should I set aside my budget and take advantage of the one-time offer?

Part of the equation here is delayed gratification: learning how to set my immediate desires aside in favor of my long-term goals. To be effective, I need those long-term goals constantly present in some tangible way, so I can balance them against the temptations of the moment.
(And there are many “systems” out there to help with this; one that I have appreciated, for example, is Stephen Covey’s Seven Habits.)

However, one of the things I have not seen addressed is the fact that our current “bad habits” are usually serving important psychological needs. The way that I satisfy those inner needs may well be counter-productive to my long-term goals, but I’m convinced that even “bad habits” develop for good psychological reasons. I ignore them at my peril.

If I try eliminate the a habit (aka “coping mechanism”) without taking those deeper needs into account, I am pushing my emotional life out of equilibrium. And, with an important need going unmet, it won’t be long until I find myself slipping back into the old habits.

For example, I may eat a lot of chocolate to push away feelings of depression and low self-esteem. (Er, I mean a friend might do that, right?!) If I suddenly stop eating chocolate for New Year’s, I may succeed for a few days or weeks, but unless I have developed other ways of coping, surely I will soon be overwhelmed with emotion. When that happens I’ll use the coping mechanism that I know works–and here comes the chocolate.
But now in addition to my existing underlying issues, I also feel like a failure for breaking my resolution!

What’s difficult is that my underlying motivation for the “bad habit” may be hidden from my conscious mind, or missing from the life story I tell about myself. Surely it’s hard to find other, more healthy ways of dealing with the inner needs when those needs are not even consciously acknowledged!

So how can we change successfully?

I think the answer is different for everyone, but there are probably common elements that work well for many people. For me, change is most effective when that change is:

  • small                                                                           (10 min a day, or an hour a week)
  • has a set time                                                           (although it “counts” if I do it later)
  • of limited duration                                                 (to avoid “rest of my life” issues)
  • accompanied by visual feedback                        (think “gold star” chart)
  • has incentives                                                          (little encouragements along the way)
  • includes time to see what obstacles arise       (“check-in” time)
  • has the support of those closest to me            (this one can be tricky, but very helpful)

So I’ve started doing what I call 40-day challenges. I pick some small change that takes about 10 minutes a day. For example, even if my eventual goal is to work out an hour a day, I would start with a ten-minute daily workout (or 20 minutes every other day).
Then I check in with my wife. She gives me feedback about whether this is a good idea (too much or too little, or perhaps she remembers a different change I’ve mentioned that might make more sense to try first). The fact that she knows means not only will she encourage me over the course of the 40 days, but there will be a sense of accountability in the back of my mind. Someone else will know if I just give up on it.
Then I make a chart (Google spreadsheet) to track my progress. I set it up to look like a calendar, with a start and end date. (For me, I always take off for the Sabbath, so my “40 days” generally spans 46 days or so.) I have percentage calculations by the week and overall, and when I complete my daily change, I color in the cell green and add a “1” for the day. (I find these visuals quite compelling!)
As for incentives, I would have them in place before I start. (Turns out that lately I haven’t felt the need for them; but I know that in the past they have been helpful.)

And then I start. I make my chart my home page for my browser, so it’s constantly in front of me. Each day I do the new behavior and record the results in my chart, which turns greener over time.
I watch myself carefully to see what comes up, and I check in with my wife to see if she notices anything. I may find some clues to underlying needs that require some other adjustments in my lifestyle, so I can meet those needs in a healthier way. But since the change I have introduced is relatively small, I’m usually able to accommodate it without a lot of internal upheaval.
And at the end of forty days… I decide if I want to try and continue with this small change that has become a habit, or whether I’ve learned something that causes me to change direction.

I have devised little systems like this in the past, but this one seems to have more promise than others so far. I’m on my second 40-day challenge as we speak — adding 15 minutes of meditation to my daily routine. So far, so good!

So there you have it. My answer to the “how do I change best” question.  For me (at least for now): baby steps, a little at a time.

My blessing for you, dear reader: may you find a change methodology that works for you, and may you find the courage and determination to use it to transform and refine your life in the ways that are deeply important to you. A little bit at a time.

And, if you are so inclined, I would love to hear of your experiences!


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