How’s it going with the New Year’s resolutions? Or maybe, knowing the less than 39% success rate, you decided not to make any.
Still, who’s not familiar with the unsatisfying cycle of behavioral change? Step 1: Decide to start a new habit. Step 2: Do it once, a few times, a whole week. Step 3: Get sidetracked with stressful work situation and totally forget about it. Step 4: Be reminded of it by a friend, spouse, CNN and/or Oprah. Step 5: Feel disappointed in yourself as a human being and vow to have more willpower.
Good news: You’re doing exactly what humans do. And you don’t need more willpower.
As you probably know, the brain is all about efficiency. It loves being on autopilot, doing the same things the same way we always have so we don’t have to exert energy making decisions. In fact, our subconscious programs are running the show 95% (or more!) of the time. So when we want to do things differently – to manage stress better, to wake up earlier, to be more present in conversations — it doesn’t like that we’re trying to interrupt the usual programming, and puts up resistance.
That’s why when you think about making a change, you hear that little voice saying, “You need more sleep.” “Let’s just take a quick look at Facebook/Twitter/Instagram first.” “You can start tomorrow.” “There’s not enough time.” (This is a good one because it sounds virtuous; don’t fall for it. Interrupting your autopilot will, by definition, be inefficient — so plan for it.)
In the same way you’d think, “That’s so not me” if someone gave you a sequin-laced jacket and you’re an eco-friendly, Vibram-wearing minimalist, your brain wants to reinforce the message that “it’s not like you to be doing this [new habit].” The beliefs you have about yourself, your self-identity, drive everything you do and your behavior will only change if it’s aligned with your self-image.
So how do we change our self-image? Grab a post-it or index card and write down this statement: “I am someone who _____.” Fill in the blank with the new behavior you want to adopt: I am someone who exercises in the morning, for example, or: gives people the benefit of the doubt, runs efficient meetings, stays poised under pressure, sets firm boundaries, wears bright-colored fitness tights (my sisters will get that reference).
Start with one thing. Keep the card somewhere where you can see and read it several times a day, like the bathroom or your wallet.
Give it 10 days. Either you’ll read it regularly — or you won’t. If you do, you’ll start to notice subtle changes in your behavior. You’ll find that you’re not that interested in a second glass of wine, for example, or you’re willing to try a yoga class with a Crossfit buddy.
And if you don’t read it, you’ll know you started in a place that was too far from what is “like you.” Tweak the behavior so it feels more believable and try again, no self-flagellation required.
Rinse and repeat.