It’s New Year’s Eve – no doubt many of you will be thinking about making New Year’s resolutions and, like every year, they won’t make a lick of difference. This week, I thought I’d change tack and go with a practical ‘how to’ for making lasting change.
The concept of the New Year’s resolution appears to have been around (in one form or another) for a long time (possibly as far back as the Babylonians) and it’s not a bad one. Using an arbitrary date as a catalyst for change is a reasonable idea. And yet, the majority of people making these resolutions fail to effect any change for a variety of reasons (possibly summarised as: values, action, balls):
1) Change requires substantial motivation;
2) Change requires an understanding of the reasons why change is required, the amount of effort required, and the barriers that will limit success;
3) Change requires ongoing effort;
4) Change requires focused attention.
In other words – change is a lot harder than most people think. Bizarrely, everyone knows this already. Very few people have been successful in making large changes in their lives but, every New Year’s, most people expect that this time things will be different.
Of course, this makes sense. Humans are nothing if not self-delusional, and because of our extremely poor and highly malleable memories it’s unlikely that we’ll remember the reasons why we failed to make change last time. Most likely we’ll rationalise any lack of effort or commitment on our part by making up a delusional story that casts us in a good light. In this story it’s usually someone else’s fault, or a conspiracy of the world around us, or just that we deliberately changed our minds. We justify our lack of action so well, in fact, that we often believe that the desired change wasn’t even what we wanted. And, let’s face it, we’re creatures of habit. We don’t like change because change leads to a greater number of extraneous (uncontrollable and unpredictable) variables in our environment. Remember, we evolved to survive, and large parts of our brains are hardwired to help us avoid situations that might compromise our ability to pass on our genes. To these parts of our brains, change is dangerous and should, for the most part, be avoided.
We also don’t like change because we’re very good at forming habits. The human brain deals with an enormous amount of incoming data at any given time. To compensate, we simply ignore a huge amount of it, and form predictable behavioural routines to limit the requirement for decision making. This is very efficient, and can be highly resistant to change because it requires deliberate, focused, conscious effort to do something differently. A great illustration of this idea is to think of the last time you went on holiday (to a new place) for a couple of weeks. Chances are, especially if the holiday destination was exotic, that the first week felt like it went by very slowly (and you formed a lot of memories). Assuming you stayed in the same place, however, the second week probably went by in a blur. For the first week, your brain was in a novel environment and was forced to pay attention to its surroundings. By the second week it had already habituated, and you didn’t need to pay attention any more. You’d even developed little routines and habits. We are built to be change resistant…
So let’s break down successful change behaviour.
Let’s start with the New Year’s date. There’s nothing inherently special about New Year’s day (as most people experience after getting the let-down feeling that often accompanies a New Year’s celebration). Although the year is a meaningful measure, there’s no particular reasoning behind where one should begin and another end (i.e., there’s no line in space where this happens), and any given second could be considered the start of a new year. The main problem with using a given date to start any desired change is that it reduces the perception of personal control (“it’s out of my hands”, “I need to wait until a specific time before I can change”) and imbues the beginning of the year with powers that just aren’t there (if they were, resolutions would probably be successful).
The other problem with New Year’s day as a date for change is that many people feel obliged to set resolutions that they have no intention of keeping, or fully intend to break. This teaches them to set unreliable goals and to expect to fail. In other words, for many people, New Year’s resolutions are great training in learning how to suck at change.
But let’s say you’re serious this time. Let’s say you actually want to make change this New Year. Well, first, it helps to understand what you’re doing. I’ve already written a fair bit about values (here), but it makes a lot of sense that any changes you’re planning sit within your values. If it’s not important to you, it’s simply not going to happen.
Second, you’ve really got to want it (nobody changes unless they want to). Obviously, motivation is important because it will give that kick to make and sustain change, especially when the required effort is difficult, time-consuming, or painful. Unfortunately, most people misunderstand lasting motives. There are two main types of motivation: extrinsic (or external motives) and intrinsic (internal motives). Extrinsic motives are far more common for New Year’s resolutions, and don’t tend to last. They include outcome-focused goals (e.g., “I want to lose 10 kgs”, or “I want to fit into a size ‘x’ dress”, or even “I want to quit smoking”) and are usually motivated by desire or fear (i.e., approach or avoidance behaviour). Sometimes extrinsic motives include a reward (e.g., if you do this, you can have this…). The problem is that extrinsic motives don’t last. We habituate far too quickly, and the original threat or lustre wears off quickly (usually within a month). We start to rationalise our lack of compliance and, eventually, come up with some great reasons not to continue. On the other hand, intrinsic motives are about aligning our values with our behaviours. For instance, weight loss might be motivated by a desire for health, for feelings of wellbeing, for increased energy for playing with your children – whatever is actually important to you. Consequently, continued change behaviour becomes values-congruent and is much easier to sustain over time. Again, take time to understand what’s actually important to you and then make change decisions based on those values, rather than something that you desire or are frightened of. Values-based decisions are made using your prefrontal lobes. Fear/desire decisions are made by your limbic system (effectively your inner monkey). Your limbic system makes pretty crap long-term decisions and is notoriously bad at sticking with them.
Third, it’s extremely important to understand what you’re getting yourself into. Most people don’t succeed in change simply because they underestimate the amount of effort, resources, or commitment required to make change. Exercise is a great example of this (especially as it makes up a large proportion of New Year’s resolutions). As a beginner, exercise is difficult and painful. You’ll have low task mastery and a high level of frustration. Worse, you won’t see any results at all for at least a month, and it takes three months for any real change to occur. Overall, it’ll take at least a year of regular, concentrated effort (of at least several hours a week) to get where you want. Amazingly, many people just assume that if they decide to go on an exercise kick, they’ll get where they want to be without effort, planning or commitment.
To get over this third hump, do some research. Get some advice. Understand what you’re getting yourself into and figure out what you will need to invest (time, money, effort) in order to make it happen (and remember that you’ll probably underestimate these so overbudget by at least 50%). List the things that will get in your way and preempt the rationalisations you’ll make up along the way to convince yourself that noncompliance is OK. This is called going in with your eyes open. Expect to feel demotivated, annoyed, frustrated and fatigued. Expect to slip up from time to time. If you don’t plan for these things, they will come as a surprise and it will be a lot easier to give up.
Finally, none of this is going to happen without your ongoing, focused attention. As a creature of habit, your default behaviours will kick in when you’re not paying attention (and when you’re tired or stressed, both of which will distract your attention). To make change you’ll need to learn to be mindful of the thoughts, feelings, urges and behaviours associated with the area you want to change. Mostly, you’ll want to keep an eye out for a return to default behaviour. This will be easier than the new behaviour because it requires a lot less effort, and it’s very tempting when you’re tired, stressed or overwhelmed to take the default route.
Change isn’t easy. It requires values-alignment, appropriate motivation, time and effort, and focused attention. The good news is that eventually (the time frame is entirely dependent on the type and size of change undertaken) the new behaviour will become default. Sure, you’ll still need to expend effort, but the amount will diminish over time and, most importantly, the amount of struggle will reduce.
Happy New Year!
P.S. On a personal note – thanks to all my readers in 2012. I’ve got lots of ideas for ongoing posts through 2013 but, if you’d like me to write about something, please leave a comment or send an email!