While I’m an advocate for positive change at any time of the year, I do have a kind of ‘new year, clean slate’ feeling come January, which brings its own special momentum. Maybe you feel similar?
Over time, I’ve worked out that I’m more of a tortoise than a hare when it comes to making real, long lasting change in my life. Taking small, gradual steps works best for me, rather than racing ahead with massive action.
That’s not to say the hares amongst us have got it wrong! Not at all. For hares, racing ahead and massive action can be galvanising; it can fuel enthusiasm and motivation.
Even so, most of us can benefit from a bit of help to make sure we don't turn into damp fireworks if we race ahead and do massive action… that we don't start with fizz and gusto, but soon peter out.
So, here are five of the strategies that help me make real change in my life – and sustain my fizz. I know that these can be especially relevant to my fellow tortoises. Hares can benefit too, though. We can all be winners in this race.
Five Strategies for Real Change:
Building a Habit
Aristotle, one of the greatest intellectual figures of Western history, said, ‘We are what we repeatedly do. Excellence then, is not an act, but a habit’.
I’ve learnt that it’s unrealistic to rely on my motivation or willpower alone to achieve what I want to change. What helps most is building a repeatable structure around how I want to change. Then, like I automatically brush my teeth, I no longer have to consciously think about it or willpower it; it becomes a habit.
For instance, when I wanted to introduce meditation into my life, initially I just had a goal, to meditate each day. Two things tended to happen, though. I’d forget completely to meditate, or get to the end of the day, remember, and find myself meditating last thing at night. Except I wasn’t – I was falling asleep instead…
It amazed me, but clearly, however galling it was for me to accept, even though meditating was something I really wanted to do, I could simply ‘forget’. I needed a repeatable structure.
I also needed a trigger. Something I already did each day to which I could ‘hook’ this new meditation behaviour I wanted to start. For me, this hook became my first morning cuppa. I’d make my morning cuppa, and then meditate. Gradually, it became part of my morning routine, and then automatic - a habit. Structure, repetition, and trigger created the habit, and my goal of meditating each day became a reality.
Cultivating the Right Environment
Before the coronivirus epidemic, I went to exercise classes at my local YMCA and built a regular and effective exercise schedule. Then came the lockdowns, and mindful of my vulnerable bubble partner, I stopped my classes for over a year.
Various attempts to restart regular exercise 'remotely' during that time came a cropper. Although I tried, I just couldn't get into exercise on Zoom, You Tube or DVD.
I really missed the YMCA - the supportive teachers, the camaraderie of my classmates, the deadline of having to be at the class on time.
A friend mentioned a 30 day challenge she was doing which involved running or walking a marathon in a month. That sounded interesting. So, I dragged my years-old treadmill out of the garage, dusted it down, and set it up in a space I’d made in my office.
Having a 30 day challenge gave me the incentive to get started again with exercise, and the combination of a short-term goal (1 month), being able to choose the way I tackled it (15 minutes, briskly walking to upbeat music, each day – while keeping dry and warm, inside), and having co-participants in the challenge for support and accountability, helped me continue.
It was great to get back to the YMCA again, though. That was the best environment for me for sustainable long-term change.
Focussing On Gentle, Incremental Changes
Back to my dusty treadmill. The great thing about a treadmill is that you can start slowly and gradually increase your speed, and at the same time watch your progress. So, I started slow, and gently built up my speed. I watched the speed counter move upwards, and the corresponding upward movement to my mileage.
These gentle, incremental changes help me stay within my capability while at the same time nudge me to always do my best.
As Amy Cuddy, Harvard Business School professor and social psychologist, wrote in ‘Presence’:
‘Tiny tweaks lead to big changes… we don’t get there by deciding to change right now. We do it gently, incrementally…‘
It certainly worked for me.
Setting Realistic, Achievable Goals
Focussing on gentle, incremental changes also meant I could set intelligent goals.
I can learn as I go along what works well and not so well for me, how long things take me and how to gauge when it’s the right time to move on. I can better judge what’s realistic and achievable for me, make any course corrects or fine-tune my actions so that I make steady (if not precisely linear) headway towards my goal.
For instance, at the beginning of my marathon challenge I didn’t initially factor in that it would take me a little time simply to be able to co-ordinate my feet on the narrow treadmill belt. I also didn’t appreciate that once I was consistently walking above a certain speed, I could, in fact, start at that speed rather than slowly build up to it.
Regular feedback, and being able to respond in real time, gave me a feeling of being in control which helped maintain my interest and spur me on.
And if ever I didn't feel too great one day? I could walk a little slower, or not at all that day, because I’d built some flex in my month to still achieve that marathon.
Holding A Bigger Vision
Talk of habits, incremental changes and realistic goals can sometimes sound a bit dull. A little unimaginative, perhaps. Even though it works.
Which is why a fifth strategy helps me achieve real change in my life.
Holding a bigger vision.
It’s about how I want to see the future – and my ‘why’.
It's a vision of the changes I’ve created in the health and resilience of my body; and the reason it’s important to me to do that [have a look at Find Your Body Confidence if you'd like to know more].
This bigger vision helps sustain my progress in the long term, while I concentrate on what I can do right now. It’s a powerful combination.
So, there you have it.
Although I’ve offered a very personal view this month, and focussed on health and wellbeing, I can say without any hesitation that these five strategies have also worked for my clients and all their wide-ranging aspirations.
They can work for you too.
Talking of which, what about you? What aspirations do you have - and how could these five strategies help you achieve them?
Want more? Drop me a line, or give me a call - let’s talk.