Wednesday, October 31, 2012

Same as It Ever Was

The more things change, the more they stay the same, or so they say.

I frequently wonder about this, at least in regard to people. Do people ever really change?

I would like to think so. I spend most of my time operating under the assumption that people do change. However, there are times when I wonder, "Does anyone ever really change?"

Sitting with Ben and Brian last night, listening to each talk about the same personal issues he'd wrestled with for years, hearing each confidently express how he'd finally got to the point of overcoming them, I wondered. I was glad to hear them so confident. I was enthusiastically supportive of their efforts. Yet, something about what each of them said (or perhaps how they said it) rang untrue. It led me to do more than wonder about whether or not they'd change; it led me to believe they wouldn't.

At first blush my thoughts may sound negative or pessimistic. However, I don't believe they are. After the guys left, I continued to think about what each of them had said or done to set off my NO-CHANGE alarms. I thought about their facial expressions, their gazes, their cadences and uses of inflection. I'd love for each of them to change in the ways he'd expressed desire to do so. I wanted to try and nail down the missing ingredients or the hidden gotchas.

I've spent much of my life around people who have what is sometimes called "addictive personalities." A common theme among them is the repeated expression of desire to change. The expression is usually accompanied by compelling reasoning that explains why, this time, the change will really happen and why it will last. I've seen change occur and even flourish for periods, but rarely if ever have I seen it endure. Over time, I've come to recognize patterns of behavior and action that are consistent with short-lived change and ones that are consistent with change that seems to endure.

I don't know how directly or indirectly these patterns influence the sustainability of change, but I thought I'd share some of them in case they could prove useful.

Act, Don't Talk
The first thing that sets off my internal NO-CHANGE alarm system is the proportion of talking to acting, or for that matter, thinking-about versus acting-on. People who really change spend little time talking about it relative to the time they spend acting upon it.

Every Day
They say that if you do something consistently, every day for twenty-one days, it'll become a habit. I don't know if the number is twenty-one, twenty-eight or forty, but I do know that doing something (acting) every day, significantly increases the likelihood of it taking hold.

Further, doing something every day is much easier and more efficient than doing it some days. You avoid all those internal conversations about whether or not to delay until tomorrow. You don't even open the door to thoughts of delay. You simply never let the day end until you've done it.

Psychologists tell us that people with a strong sense of purpose are much happier, more energetic and more optimistic than those without it. The purpose needn't take on global proportions; it can be something simple and mundane. However, it must be clear and strong.

Creating a strong sense of purpose is like attaching a weight to the end of a fishing line. With the wait secured to the end of the line, you can cast your hook wherever you want it to go. Without it, you lose control. No matter how hard you focus, your casts are carried astray by the wind.

Purpose anchors change.

As Soon As
You know that someone's not going to change when he consistently uses phrases like "As soon as..." or "Once I..."  My favorite is, "As soon as I get into better shape, I'm going to start working out." The likelihood of change occurring decreases significantly when beginning it becomes contingent upon other factors, specially when those other factors are out of the control of the would-be changer (e.g., as soon as I find a girlfriend or as soon as this economy straightens out.)

If you want to change, then act immediately and consistently. You don't have to take big actions, just small steps. However, you gotta start right away.

Attachment Disorder
People often confuse purpose with attachment-to-outcome. It's one thing to have goals or to be goal oriented (purposeful). It's another to make your happiness dependent upon your having achieved those goals (attachment-to-outcome). A common theme among changers who've lost it after having made great progress is that, as they make progress, they begin to attach their happiness to making more progress. Before you know it they become unhappy because they haven't made as much progress as they intended. Rather than celebrating what they did do or simply enjoying the act of doing it, they become unhappy. Unhappiness is the primary reason we give up.

Defend Yourself
I can tell that someone's about to quit her program of change when she begins getting defensive of how well she's doing, specially when she gets defensive in the absence of any offense. People who make lasting change have nothing to defend. They're not doing it to prove they can. They're doing it because they want to.

Take Delight
This last one is really important, at least if you really want change to last. You need to learn how to take delight in whatever it is you're doing. Whether it's taking delight in not-drinking or taking delight in working out or taking delight in listening to others, the key to doing it forever is taking delight in it.

Up To You
Anyway, that's what was on my mind after talking with Brian and Ben last night. I love it when people decide to reinvent themselves in ways that they find truly appealing and desirable. I want to do whatever I can to help them succeed. Perhaps the real challenge is that lasting change is much simpler than it looks. It's one of those situations where you say, "That can't be the answer; it's too easy."

Happy Wednesday,

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