Sunday, January 2, 2011

Just the Same, Only Different

OK, it's a new year already, a time for newfound resolve, a time of change, a time to dust off the list from last year, cross off a couple of items (not necessarily because they've been accomplished) and add others.

You know the process. You start listing all the things that you're finally going to get around to this year. The things that have been plaguing, haunting or at least pestering you for years. It goes something like:

Let's see, this year I'm going to... hmmm... Well I'm definitely going to drop a few pounds and get into shape. And, hmmm... OK this is the year I finally take a course on drawing... definitely.

Oh yeah, my job. I definitely want to find a better job. One where I'm appreciated for what I can do. In fact, I think that this is the year I'm going to leave the great white north and move someplace warm, like... California or Florida or... err... Hawaii?

Oh, and there's that old dead tree in the yard, the one that looks like it could fall over at any moment. I'm definitely getting that thing cut down this year. Maybe I'll do it myself?

Speaking of the house, this is the year that I'm going to finish painting it. Oh and travel, I want to travel. I want to either go to Paris or Rome. And I'm going to get into the city a lot more. I love being in the city. I'm going to see more shows and...

Oh, and my book, I'm going to finish my book, and... and... find a publisher. If not, I'm going to publish it myself. Or not, but I'm definitely going to finish it.

The problem of course is that most new year's resolutions are either still-born or short-lived, They're quickly buried and forgotten, only to be resurrected the following year... and the year after that... and...

If you're not clear on what your resolutions are, well, that's Iris' department. However, if you're tired of making resolutions that lack resolve, I've put together a quick guide to making changes that last.

Teflon's Guide to Changes that Stick
Over the years I've become annoyingly good at following through on what I resolve to do: leaving a great, secure job and to start a company and raise fifty-three million dollars in venture capital; training to run ten miles or bike thirty miles in less than an hour; dropping my weight from 180 punds down to 137; completely eliminating sugar and fat from my diet; learning to thrive on five hours of sleep. Becoming a piano player after registering for classes at Berklee. (I told you this would be annoying.)

Some people attribute my capacity to effect personal change to will-power and strength-of-resolve, others to naivety and pig-headedness. Some attribute it to self-awareness and others to plain old selfishness. However, I think the primary reason I've been able to consistently effect significant personal change is that I've simply been paying attention to what works and what doesn't.

There are certainly many people who've effected more significant change in their lives than I have, but they're not writing for this blog this morning. So here goes...

Embrace the Uncomfortable and Unfamiliar
I can't tell you how many times someone will come to me asking how to do this or that, and then after I provide them some guidance, shun it saying something on the order of, "Well, I'm not the kind of person who can just... I'm someone who has to..."

These statements often leave me a bit dumbfounded (really). Effectively, you've got someone who's tried repeatedly and unsuccessfully to accomplish something advocating his approach when in fact, were he the "kind of person who", then he would have already succeeded.

In the trade, we call this technique denial.

If you want to effect change, abandon all notions of how you have to go about it. Be open to new approaches, ones that are completely foreign, ones that may feel wrong. There is never a single way for anyone to do something. There is no such thing as the kind of person who. There is only what you have done and what you haven't done, what feels familiar and what feels unfamiliar.

All or Nothing
There are some things that are best accomplished in moderation and by easing into them. There are others that are best accomplished cold-turkey: through quick and complete immersion. If you've repeatedly failed trying one approach, then I would suggest that it's time to try the other.

However, I've found for myself that going cold-turkey can always work, if you're smart about it. The key is to go cold-turkey one item at a time.

When I cut out sugar and fat, I did them one at a time and I didn't simultaneously try to diet or control my calorie intake. For starters, I just didn't eat anything with sugar in it (processed or otherwise). Other than that, I ate anything I wanted.

Once I'd got comfortable without sugar, I moved on to fats and oils (again not limiting myself otherwise.)

By not trying to do too many changes at once (i.e., more than one), it becomes much easier to completely make the change you're trying to make.

Similarly, I've found that working out every day is much easier than working out say, three days a week. There's something about activities that we do daily that causes them to more quickly become part of who we are. When you do something every day, you eliminate the inevitable debate of "should I do it today or wait until tomorrow when I have more time?"

You also establish a pattern that those around you can more easily support. No one has to remember whether you write on Thursdays or Fridays, they can simply ask, "Hey, did you write today?"

Whether it's practicing an instrument, exercising, writing, or learning math, you're much more likely to stay with something if you do it every day. The only caveat is this: when you find yourself climbing into bed at 11:30 and suddenly remember that you didn't read today's chapter in How to Repair ATVs in the Wild, don't beat yourself up. Either get up and read it (even for just a few minutes) or go to sleep.

The Company You Keep
If you want to become really good at anything, if you want to stick with something and see it through, if you want to make changes that stick, then surround yourself with likeminded people. Join a gym, take a course or sign up for a club. Subscribe to magazines.

Search for YouTube Videos. Put posters up on your wall. Fill your mind and your environment with who you want to become.

There's nothing that undermines a new diet or exercise program more quickly than your mom insisting that you need to eat because she's been cooking all day or your roommates riding you to grab a beer and join them watching the football game.

Establish an environment that supports your efforts to change.

I love to hear stories about great basketball players who, growing up on a farm and lacking the funds for a hoop and backboard, transformed a discarded peach basket and a barn wall into a basketball court. However, there are times when it's really nice to simply invest in what you need to accomplish what you want to accomplish.

It may be a new laptop or a pair of good running shoes or textbooks or an easel and paints. It may be a juicer or a food processor. It may be an extra-warm jacket that breathes. You don't need to get the best, but sometimes getting the right gear can make all the difference.

The caveat here is not to make having the appropriate gear a necessary condition. It's great to have the perfect pair of running shoes, but if you forget them at home, then run with what you have, or walk, or find some other way to get a workout in. The perfect gear is great until it becomes necessary.

Intuition and Sensibilities
My personal greatest challenge when trying to effect change, is the nearly overwhelming power of my senses when I project them over time. Immediate discomfort (stress, pain, cravings, grief, withdrawal) can become unbearable when you project it into the future.

For example, losing a partner (either through death or divorce) can lead to a profound sense of loss. Fortunately, the trauma is fleeting and most of us move past it over time. However, when your focus shifts from your loved one to the sense of loss you feel regarding your loved one, the experience is compounded. Whereas your loved one is gone and you have no choice but to move on, your sense of loss is something that you can maintain forever. What if this feeling never goes away? What if it gets worse? By focusing on the emotion and projecting it into the future, you grow it exponentially (OK, I don't actually have a quantitative metric for emotion, but it gets really big.)

For some of us, the sense of loss generated by projecting cravings for sugar or alcohol over time can exceed that of losing a partner. It's quite amazing. Everything inside us screams, "My god! I can't imagine feeling like this every day from the rest of my life!"

And we cave.

The thing is that the sense of loss passes, guaranteed. The most important things to do in the moment are:
  1. Absolutely DO NOT focus on how it feels, i.e., focus on something (anything) else.
  2. Remind yourself that what you're feeling at that moment is not permanent, that it will pass.

Other Stuff
A couple of other quickies include expectations and priorities.

Don't be afraid to set high expectations for yourself. When you set expectations beyond your reach, you're guaranteed to get further than you would were you to limit yourself something you know you can do. However, the art in this lies in celebrating your accomplishments no matter how meager they may seem in the light of your expectations. Never be disappointed.

In all likelihood, doing something new is going to require you to do less of something else. It may require less sleeping; it may be less time spent with friends and family; it may require reduced spending on cars and parties. You can navigate the process or priority manage deliberately or by happenstance. Nonetheless if you effect significant change, navigate it you will.

OK, that's it for today.

Whatever you've resolved to do in 2011, you absolutely can do it if you're smart about it!

Happy Sunday!

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