Why Your Life Changes Don't Stick. And the Fix.

by Joseph Kwon in


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Willpower, no matter how great, is a losing proposition for sustaining change.

You may or may not be religious, but if you are human I can guarantee you've had a "hallelujah moment." Whether in a house of worship, at work or on vacation, everyone has, at some point, experienced a tsunami of emotion compelling them to make a life change.

"I WILL get in shape!"
"I will save more MONEY!"
"I will QUIT smoking!"
Or my personal favorite, some variation of the all too common, "I'll NEVER eat/drink that much or see that person AGAIN."

I think we all know what happens next...

You're riding this powerful wave and for the first several days, you dutifully skip carbs, trim your latte budget, or chew nicotine gum, etc. But like the abandoned resolutions that litter the path beyond New Year's, your good intentions have an expiration date - we're talking dairy, not canned food. Before long, you are back to your old tricks and despite a few valiant, last-ditch efforts, you have wiped out.

Cue regret, doubt, and self-pummeling.

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You proceed to question yourself. Was I deluded? Too weak? Did I not want it enough? Do I not have what it takes? What's wrong with me?

This sort of thinking should be avoided for two reasons. First, when you are down, kicking dirt in your own face is not an effective method for helping anything. Second, this kind of thinking is based on a fundamental misunderstanding of how changes are made and sustained

"Thanks, Joe for that scenic trip down Failure Lane. How about sharing some helpful information so we can climb out of the Pit of Despair?"

I hear you. For a better result, let's unwrap the role human emotion plays in making changes.

THE LEVER OF CHANGE

The smell of incense. The pitter patter of tiny feet. The herding of cats. It's a Saturday at the dojo helping with the Kid's Aikido class. Sensei is teaching "Udekime nage," which means arm extension throw. The basic idea is you extend your arm under the attacker's upper arm, then raise your own arm like a forklift before throwing them. This lever action "encourages" the attacker to lift themselves up or risk hyperextending their elbow. For a few of the kids, the technique is stalling. By that I mean, sometimes the attacker is too stable so they barely budge.

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I suggest a slight adjustment. Keep moving the forklift up UNTIL you see the person start to stand on their toes. This makes them unstable and they feel lighter. THEN, you throw. The key is to make sure the attacker is up on their toes BEFORE you attempt the throw. 

"Can you cut to the chase, Joe? Not sure what kids chucking each other around has to do with me."

Please stay with me a few more moments. I appreciate your patience. We will arrive at the destination shortly.

Try this. Stand with both feet flat on the ground about shoulder-width apart and ask a friend to GENTLY PUSH your shoulder. You will barely budge. Now stand on your tippy toes and ask again. Please clear the immediate area of any furniture or other tripping hazards. Oops, should I have said that first? You'll notice how much more easily you are moved when you are on your tippy toes.

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When our emotions are stirred, a similar principle is in action. The more powerful the emotion, the more on our toes we are and the more easily we can overcome an entrenched behavior.

Emotion is the lever that makes change possible. 

"So emotion helps create the change, but how come it doesn't stick? And where is the "Fix" you promised in the title?"

Fair enough. Now that we know how emotion enables change, but doesn't necessarily sustain it, let's consider a better approach. 

THE SECRET OF SUSTAINED CHANGE

Imagine there are two people in your mind, engaged in an epic tug-of-war. One, let's call him Clyde, is the existing behavior. He's been around for years and is like an old pair of super comfy jeans. The other, let's call her Bonnie, is the new, desired behavior. Bonnie has a problem. Clyde is a big, strong dude and not easily moved. What the emotion of the "hallelujah moment" provides Bonnie is a lever to lift Clyde up onto his tippy toes, make him light and easily chuck him. 

Unfortunately for Bonnie, her work is not done. Like Rocky or Rudy, Clyde will not stay down and always comes back for more. At some point, when the emotion has passed (as all emotions eventually do), Bonnie's lever is gone. Clyde, with both arms outstretched to the heavens, is triumphant. 

Bonnie's "hallelujah moment" and the power that came with it gave her a great opportunity. She ultimately failed because she applied every ounce of that tremendous, but finite power to fighting Clyde, which was not an effective long-term strategy. Remember, the power of the forklift eventually fades when the strong emotion fades. And it always fades

The secret of sustained change is to use the energy generated by your emotion to create a SYSTEM that supports a new HABIT.

In other words, figure out what preparations you must make for you to be more Bonnie than Clyde, even in the absence of emotion or willpower. Especially in the absence of emotion or willpower! There are various things  you can do. Purposeful scheduling, accountability mechanisms, mental reminders -  the precise method is not important. At the end of the day you want to have pre-established safety mechanisms that "catch" you and prompt the new behavior regardless of whether you feel like it or not.

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NEXT STEPS

If you are tired of riding the Failed Change Merry-go-round, instead of going through the usual motions, try these EZPZ steps instead.

Step 1. When you have emotion on your side, resist the urge to make a big, dramatic, unsustainable change.

Step 2. Instead, use the emotion to set up a system that will support turning the new behavior into a habit.

So instead of working out like a fiend every day of the week for the 1st week, followed by increasingly sporadic attendance as time goes on, you might try this instead.

  • Commit to a single time and day to work out every week.
  • The night before place your workout clothes by the door.
  • Find a workout buddy.
  • Come up with a contingency plan for when life inevitably gets in the way.

Lather, rinse, repeat. As needed, make adjustments along the way. Maintain this system to help create a habit that can weather temporary setbacks and interruptions. For some tips on overcoming internal resistance when creating a habit, you can review a related post of mine here

Habit is the lever that creates sustained change.

Finally, when the new habit, supported by your system becomes the default behavior, you've moved beyond change to TRANSFORMATION. Bonnie is the new Clyde.

I would love to hear from you about your experiences struggling with change - what worked, what didn't work and your thoughts on this approach. 

P.S.

This is the technique sensei was teaching the kids - Udekime nage (arm extension throw)

Next post next Saturday, 6:30 a.m.