No, not the big BAD C. We're talking Change.
Here we are again, the beginning of yet another new year, a fresh start, a new slate, ‘tis the season for self-reflection and contemplation … New Year’s resolutions time. I know, heave big sigh, woe is you, change is hard. I get it. Or, perhaps more favorably, look at this as your opportunity to take steps towards being even more perfect, even more stellar, and even more awesome. You already are all of those things, so no matter what, you win.
We hear it time and time again: people don't/can’t change. Change is hard and to illicit REAL change takes the sort of commitment many are not willing to give. At the same time, here we are again stepping out into the incoming new year and we’re asked by every friend, relative and email ad what our resolutions for the New Year are going to be. So it begs one to ask: which is it? Is change really impossible or can one change a habit or behavior to become more (or less) of (insert flaw/characteristic here)? And if change is impossible, are we just setting ourselves up for failure with New Years resolutions? Hold that thought.
Two sides to this discussion:
Change is possible.
Through hard work, dedication and focus, you CAN indeed achieve change. You can tweak old habits and create new ones. Especially when one has the support of friends and loved ones, it is definitely possible to adopt a new ‘norm’ and to be even more perfect.
How? Change comes about through deliberate replacement behaviors over a period of time. Experts disagree on just how long one should focus on the new behavior/mind-set/habit; 21 - 45 days is generally recommended. During this period, one should focus their energy on doing the new thing/behavior as much as they do on not doing the old thing/behavior. So, in actuality this would be a substitution of one for the other. In order to set yourself up for success, it is recommended to get appropriate accessories (e.g. Good shoes and easy access to classes and/or instructors if one wants to start an exercise regimen); get rid of notable and apparent barriers (e.g. erase the lack of apparent time excuse by putting the exercise times on the calendar); and by surrounding oneself by those who support gaining the change (insert your cheerleading section here). Internal motivators, clearly, are the key to success but it never hurts to have a cheering section and the support of those who are willing to keep you on the path to success (e.g. those brave souls who would be willing to questioning your need for the entire bag of Fritos. I know, how dare they? But, also, they are 100% right.).
Change is accomplished through hard work, perseverance, intervention and support from your friends and loved ones, and time. Yay!
Change is impossible.
I am forever saying that the human body is an amazing creation. It can achieve unbelievable feats, and one truly should marvel at all that is possible merely because we are human. Besides having that enviable opposable thumb, the human body is also highly resistant to change, because by its very nature, change will impact homeostasis (also known as ‘stability’ and ‘normal’). Change is new, and the body does not always do well with 'new'. In fact, the human body can go to great lengths to maintain 'normal' rather than accept change. You only have to look at any restrictive diet, and the lack of successful results to see how great that resistance can be. The human body likes to keep things just as they are and will go to astonishing efforts to maintain when you throw a curve ball at it; this is, after all, how we’ve manage to stave off extinction for thousands of years, right? Give it a new restrictive diet because you’d like to shed a pound or two, and it will deliberately slow metabolism, and slow normal body functions rather than shed pounds. It will trick your mind with urges and cravings rather than let you eat your newly adopted diet regimen. It will be so pitifully slow to accept new physical skills that any increase in ability will seem glacial or even invisible to the human eye, creating doubt and disappointment to chisel away at your determination. One seeking change won't see any improvements in the mirror; these minute shifts are invisible to the eye that sees the same visage each time they look in the mirror, and wreaking havoc on perseverance and effort. Why bother if no change can be wrought?
So, in other words, in seeking change one is actually fighting a basic human process, called positive and negative reinforcement. In less scientific terms, we see food, we eat food, we repeat. Positive: we see food, we eat food, we like food and feel good, we repeat. Negative: we see food, we don’t like food (or we get sick), we don’t repeat. A learned response and behavior. Our natural instinct dictates that we equate calories with survival, and when those calories taste good (yum, pizza!), then our bodies send feel-good signals to the brain to note what you just ate and where to find it as well as the response you gave; you’ve just learned a response that your body wants to repeat and repeat. Because the body is rewarded (Yum, pizza! Tastes good. I feel good. I will eat more pizza!), the behavior is reinforced each time you repeat, making the behavior more and more difficult to eliminate. So. Change becomes harder and harder to initiate and maintain. Not only does your body not want to give up the pizza, it also remembers how good it was and how happy it was to have some, so … it doesn’t want to give it up. Change becomes an elusive goal.
Boo! Change is not accomplished because homeostasis (human instinct) wins another round.
So which is it? Are you one to see the glass empty or half full?
Let me tell you a secret: there are specific things you can do to help ensure a greater chance of success when trying to effect change.
1. Make it a conscious action. Think about it: why do you have this habit/behavior? When is it triggered? Taking mindful look at why you have this habit and what brings it on (e.g. you are nervous about something at work, so you snack on chips; you drink too much when you are with particular friends; you spend too much time on the computer at night so you can’t get up in the morning for regular exercise sessions.) can help you come up with a plan how NOT to do it, a game plan, if you will. Mindfully focusing on why you are resisting change, why the habit exists, and what you feel when you do the habit (or don’t do the habit) will help you to see what you can do to extinguish the habit finally and firmly. Mindfulness is the key, though, rather than mulishness. Stubbornly (read: blindly) focusing on ‘I just have to change’ without considering the underlying reasons for your behavior will not result in success, my friend.
2. Set a goal. Now you have identified WHY you get the urge, and what triggers it; you can be aware of what’s happening in that moment, and really consider WHY you have the compulsion to do the habit. This is your chance to break that endless habit loop, and step out of it. Word of caution/encouragement: the more reasonable the goal, the more likely you will be to succeed in attaining it. The more outlandish? Sure, we all want to lose 40 pounds in a month, but the chances of being successful in that endeavor are slim to none. Keep it real, keep it simple, and you’ll likely succeed. Baby (attainable) steps to the bigger goal, if necessary (e.g. 4 pounds lost each month for one year). Again, keep it real, keep it simple, and you’ll likely succeed.
3. Find a replacement. I know, I know, easier said than done. But not impossible. You have identified when you have the urge, what triggers it, and how you feel when you do the habit. Now you can take a very educated guess what you could do that would help you to replace it. You smoke. How many times each day? Can you reduce it by one? Can you replace one smoke break with a 10-minute brisk walk? You snack. Can you cut up carrots and crunch on those instead? Or have 1 chip and savor it instead of 15? Breaking up the goal into smaller, easily attainable steps will help you by giving you small successes, which in turn give you encouragement to keep trying for the whole enchilada.
4. Tackle them one by one. Repeating from above: keep it real, keep it simple, and you’ll likely succeed. Making several grand sweeping changes at one time will likely not lead to success, because A) that is too many things to keep track of, and B) you push too many things at once, then likely one aspect will fail, and that may lead to an avalanche of sorts. Think about starting to juggle: you can easily keep one, maybe two balls in the air; if you try for juggling three or more right off the bat, will you be able to consistently keep all three in the air? Yes, sure, with practice, but not at first. Focus on one habit at a time, keep that proverbial ball successfully in the air, and it is easier to keep track of your (successful) progress.
5. Trigger, behavior, reward Throw out everything that triggers your vice. Seriously, get it out of your easy reach. From that conveneint ash tray to your secret stash of chocolate to your computer games (yes, all of them. Every.single.one.) You.Will.Win.This.Battle.
6. Keep track so you know the truth. Know your successes. Give yourself the pleasure of knowing what you have accomplished. Be proud of your successes. Tell your friends, tell your family. Put it on a sticky note on your bathroom mirror so you can regularly remind yourself.
7. Surround yourself with positivity. Pull in your reinforcements. Try to do the change with a friend. Tell your partner what your goal is, ask them to support you and how they can do that (be very specific about what you need from them). Post it social media so you get positive feedback that way. Join a running club. Or a gym. Or a walking group. Share the load, because it is easier to win in numbers than it is to go about it alone.
You can do this. It may be ‘just’ a New Year’s resolution, but it can be a lifelong positive change if you go about it the right way.