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.
Whereas I’m a bit like a damp firework when I race ahead and do massive action… I start with great fizz and gusto, but soon peter out.
So, I thought it might be helpful to share 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. But I also know that hares benefit too! 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. After a bit of trial and error I found an app worked best for me, and off I went. 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 as my app conscientiously continued…
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 now it’s automatic - a habit. Structure, repetition, and trigger created the habit, and that’s how my goal of meditating each day became a reality.
Signing Up For a 30 Day Challenge
Before the epidemic, I went to exercise classes at my local YMCA, and thanks to the terrific and supportive teachers, great classes, fun and camaraderie of my co-participants, and the feeling of accountability the classes cultivated, I built a regular and effective exercise schedule. Then came the epidemic, and mindful of my vulnerable bubble partner, it all stopped at the end of February last year.
Various attempts to restart regular exercise over the next few months had come a cropper. Alternatives like Zoom, You Tube or DVD just didn’t do it for me.
Then a friend mentioned a 30 day challenge she was doing which involved running - or walking - a marathon in a month. A month. And I can walk it? 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. It had a new job now – no longer a dust magnet or surrogate clothes horse (its former role before relegation to the garage), it was going to help me achieve my marathon in a month.
Having a 30 day challenge gave me the incentive to get started, and it now sustains my efforts. The combination of a short-term goal (1 month), being able to choose the way I tackle it (15 minutes, briskly walking to upbeat music, each day – while keeping dry and warm, inside), and having co- participants (support and accountability), has been key.
In the longer term (because, let me be honest, I’m not desperate to get on that treadmill each day) I want to make it a habit. And to do that, I’m now incorporating it into my morning routine. And the trigger? When I finish my meditation.
Focussing On Gentle, Incremental Changes
Back to my dusty treadmill. When I started out, I had high hopes that I’d very soon be moving on from walking to running that marathon challenge. Memories of (albeit brief) expeditions to the gym in the past told me I was capable. But I hadn’t taken into account my current level of fitness / unfitness…
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 works for me.
Setting Realistic, Achievable Goals
Focussing on gentle, incremental changes also means I can 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.
Such regular feedback, and being able to respond in real time, fosters in me a feeling of being in control. This both helps me maintain my interest and serves to spur me on.
And if ever I don’t feel too great one day? I can walk a little slower, or not at all that day, because I’ve built some flex in my month to still achieve that marathon.
My body may be on a treadmill, but I don’t have to put my mind on one too…
Holding A Bigger Vision
Talk of habits, incremental changes and realistic goals can sometimes sound a bit dull, can’t it? A little unimaginative, perhaps. Even though it works…
Which is why I also want to talk about a fifth strategy that 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’.
Hint: it has nothing to do with being able to sit cross-legged in a lotus position, or somehow sculpt my body to compete with the ones we all see in magazines or on social media (more about that next month).
The future I see is the changes and improvements I’ve created in the health and resilience of my body and mind; my why is the reason it’s important to me to do that.
Holding a bigger vision is the opposite of dull and unimaginative.
I let my imagination dream big, and it forms a solid core inside me that drives 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.
I think they’ll work for you, too.
Talking of which, what about you? What aspirations do you have for this year, and your future ahead?
Would you like support in starting and sustaining the action to achieve those aspirations? I’d love to help, if so. Drop me a line, or give me a call - let’s talk.