by MJ Ryan
I’ve come to understand that change fundamentally only requires three things: desire—I really want to do this; intention: I am going to do this; and the most important one, persistence: I’m going to keep doing this no matter how many times I screw up. Persistence is the hardest one—it’s so easy to give up when we goof up. But if our desire and intention is strong, we forgive ourselves and begin again, no matter if it’s for the one thousandth time. These six suggestions can help:
Monitor Your Behavior
Research shows that when you monitor your behavior in writing, you’re more likely to do better. That’s because monitoring is a key to self-regulation, the capacity to do what it is you say you want. Monitoring can take the form of a food diary, counting the number of times you keep your temper in a day, logging the successes you’ve had with not worrying, etc.
Focus on the Horizon
Take a tip from high performance athletes. Look at how far you’ve come, not how much you have left to do. Scientists call this the horizon effect. It creates encouragement—“I’ve done twice as much as a week ago!” and builds determination—“I’ve made it this far; I might as well keep going.” Focus on the ten pounds you did lose; the closet you managed to clean; the $1,000 debt you’ve wiped out; the evening you carved out for yourself. Don’t forget to ask yourself how you’ve accomplished the task so far, so you can mine your success for ideas on how to keep going.
Take It One Choice At a Time
When we think about changing something in ourselves, it can feel overwhelming. But in truth, our entire lives are constructed of the minute-by-minute choices we’re making, many of which we’re not even aware of. As Gary Zukav reminds us, “An unconscious choice is a reaction…A conscious choice is a response.” Bring your choices to consciousness. If you’re having trouble sticking to your change, for a day, try this practice: when you’re doing the bad old thing, stop and say, “I’m choosing to: eat this dessert, not work out, stay at the office to finish this project, blow up, look at my email rather than clean my desk, etc. Do you like yourself when you make this choice? You can choose differently, moment to moment. The next day, make the positive choice visible to yourself: I’m choosing to throw this catalog away rather than go on a spending spree; I’m choosing to take a few calming breaths before speaking. The more you focus on the positive choice you can make this very day, without worrying about forever, the more you will live yourself into the new habit.
Find Someone Who’s Doing What You Want and Imitate Them
I have a friend who wants to lose weight. When we’re together she says, “I’m going to watch what you eat and follow suit.” When I set out to become more kind, grateful, and generous, I made a study of people I knew who had those qualities and tried to do as they did. It can be useful to read books or listen to tapes. But when it comes to changing human behavior, there’s nothing that beats good old-fashioned role models. Babies learn by imitation; why shouldn’t adults? The more you intentionally watch those who are living the habit you desire, the more you have to draw on when you are by yourself. Watch and learn—and don’t be afraid to ask questions: How do you get all of your work done and still have time for your family? What makes you able to take risks? Most people love to teach if given the opportunity.
Teach It to Someone Else
A great way to really cement a new habit is to become a mentor. I was reminded of this the other day when a client of mine, who’d come to me to learn patience, said, “You’d be so proud of me, M.J. I was helping an employee of mine be more successful and I found your words coming out of my mouth. I realized how much I’ve learned about patience, and my teaching reinforced the merits for me.” One crucial tip to make this as effective as possible—whatever you suggest to someone else, practice yourself. In other words, be sure to take your own advice on the topic. It’s a way to really walk the walk.
Treat Yourself Kindly
“Anything you know you forget. It’s all about getting confused and getting unconfused.” That’s a piece of wisdom from Buddhist teacher Sylvia Boorstein to remind us that we’re doing the best we can. We will mess up or forget. When we do, our task is to hold ourselves in love. You and I are human beings dealing with the challenges of growth. When we treat ourselves with kindness, we don’t collapse into shame or guilt, but can try again with greater wisdom for having faltered.