Saturday, May 7, 2016

How to Make Lasting Changes: Tips for Self Improvement

“Treat every moment as your last. It is not preparation for something else.” - Shunryu Suzuki
"There is nothing either good or bad but thinking makes it so." - William Shakespeare
We are all capable of making small changes, bringing us closer to our idealized version of ourselves, and there’s never a better time to begin than right now.

Start with a Plan
It may sound obvious but figuring out what you need to do and when you have time to do it significantly impacts things getting done. Your plan will be your road map. You may have multiple goals such as: preparing more meals at home, getting to work on time, losing weight, exercising more, reading classic novels, visiting with relatives, etc.  Start by listing all the changes that you are hoping for, and then pick one thing to start with. Small changes are easier to sustain. Eventually you may be able to work on multiple goals at once.

We can make big changes by taking little steps
If you’ve ever watched young children learning to walk, you will see how their pace and coordination improve over a period of months. At first they stumble and lose their balance. Mastery takes time. Changing habits and learning new skills requires patience. We will make progress as long as we can tolerate the ups and downs during the change process. We only fail when we stop trying.

Behavioral scientist BJ Fogg offers several suggestions for creating new habits. His approach is simple and concise. Attach the new desired behavior to an already existing habit. For example, if you want to start exercising, then do 1 push-up immediately after setting up your coffee maker, or some other morning routine. That’s all you need to begin. Whatever the new habit you want to start is, piggyback it to an existing established behavior.  He also recommends starting slowly; have the new behavior take almost no time at all. It will be difficult to argue with yourself that you don’t have the time or energy for 1 pushup. Getting started is always the most difficult part. Piggybacking the behavior with something that is part of your usual routine makes it easier to begin, and when you start with something that takes hardly any effort your internal resistance drops. The reasoning goes that once you realize how little time one pushup takes, you will add more because you are already in position and have gotten yourself started.  For many of us it is the mulling it over that gets in our way.

Changing our behavior is hard
We should expect that any time we make a change, maintaining this new optimal behavior will require some level of effort and may include some struggle. Watch out for thoughts like “this is too hard,” “this is unfair,” or “it shouldn’t be this way.” These ideas only fuel the part of us that wants to give up. It is normal to want to give up when something is difficult. We are pleasure seekers by nature. Remember that we sometimes do things that we don't like to do because in the long run it gets us to a place that we want to be.

What helps us accomplish our goals
Reminding ourselves that it is always our choice to make the changes we seek and remembering why we want to make those changes helps us cope with our competing desire for immediate comfort and pleasure.

Dr. Michael Pantalon, psychologist, researcher, author, and cofounder of Center for Progressive Recovery, proposes that before you make a change you should have a clear understanding of why the change you want is important to you. Ask yourself why you should follow through with your resolution, what makes this change important to you, and what happens if you do not make the change. The more personal and specific your answer, the more meaningful the reason will be. What would it mean about you if you were able to accomplish this task?  How will you feel once you’ve done it?  Expect that some moments will be difficult, especially until your new behavior becomes a habit.  That is when the behavior goes from becoming a conscious decision to something automatic.

Dr. Kelly McGonigal, psychologist, researcher, and author of several books including “The Willpower Instinct,” endorses the practice of self-compassion when facing one’s inner critic, especially when hitting bumps along the road towards self-improvement. Rather than beating yourself up when you don’t follow through with the new behavior, be kind to yourself and focus on what you have accomplished.

Many people believe that if they had more willpower they would be able to follow through on achieving their goals. It is true that with use, willpower can be strengthened like a muscle. Willpower also gets overworked and will shut down when depleted. and John Tierney describe the research on willpower and how it really is a form of mental energy. In their book “Willpower: Rediscovering the Greatest Human Strength” they explain how our willpower becomes weaker when overused, and fatigued when glucose levels are low. We can use these findings to help us change our thoughts and behaviors for lasting change. For example, if we are trying to lose weight then knowing that just by seeing food in front of us we are draining our willpower we can keep food out of sight. Eating and sleeping also have dramatic effects on our ability to regulate our self control, as does time of day, and the amount of decisions we have made throughout our day.

Since Ray Baumeister's research indicates that willpower comes from one place, think of it like a well that runs dry after repeated use. Every time we resist taking a piece of candy from our coworker's cubicle, remain silent when a loved one chews us out for making a mistake, and push ourselves through our tasks when we really want to get to bed, we are dipping into the same reserve of willpower. That is why in the evening many of feel depleted and give in to our temptations. Recognize that this is a natural process and prepare yourself for it.

Final Thoughts

  • When it comes to changing habits, not having temptation available goes a long way.
  • Schedule difficult tasks closer to the time you wake up, when they will be easier to complete.  
  • Save important discussions/decisions for times when your mind is fresh.
  • Remind yourself regularly why this goal is important to you. Remember that your future self will appreciate any investment that you make now towards improving yourself and your situation.
  • Talk to yourself the way you would talk to someone you appreciate. This habit of thinking of yourself as someone worthy of respect and dignity pays high dividends into your own self improvement.
  • Track the days you engage in the new behavior. Our memories are terribly unreliable when it comes to repetitive tasks.
  • Start with small steps, and if you drift away from your goal, speak to yourself kindly and begin again.

Previously posted on Westchester Woman.