Let’s face it. Few people are really ignorant of what they are supposed to be doing. We all know full well that we need to:
- Eat better/more healthfully
- Exercise more
- Balance work and family
- Read more books, learn more
Ok, so all of that’s a given. Why, if we know what we’re supposed to do, does it always seem so hard to achieve in the day to day operations?
Basically, people tend to work and do very well within systems, institutions and rule-bound worlds. Recovery works based on it’s twelve steps. Weight Watchers works with its point systems and in-world accountability. Colleges and Universities operate with their grading and ranking systems, setting up schedules for their students, regulating their lives short of military organization, but in a similar fashion. I would even bet that for most of you with traditional jobs, there is even a sense of rhythm, pace, rules about when to be at work and when to leave-rules and perceived constraints on what you do and when you do it. This sense of knowing what to do when, with the promise of predictability and minimum results is comfortable to us on a base-line, deep in the neurons level.
If we want to change our behavior to get better results, to do the things we know we should, or simply have to, we need to be able to create a new system, new constraints that makes that new way of living as natural and predictable as the old way. We have to recognize that we’ll be most successful at whatever change we want to make only when we create the new parameters and rules of our world to support the change.
One way to try to create a new system that has a chance of working is to look at your current, comfortable way of doing things, and figure out a way to alter your environment to make the new habit just as comfortable and convenient. For example, everyone was dumping coats and bags on the floor when they entered the house- it was the natural way we did things. But it drove me crazy, because it created a messy speed bump when anyone came through the door. By placing hooks and shelves where the dumping occurred, it was easier to get people to hang stuff up when they came into the house, and the constant mess and aggravation was solved. We made a small tweek that worked with the way we operated at baseline, and as a result, the problem seemed to solve itself much more so than the yelling and complaining ever did to change behavior alone.
If you’re finding it difficult to achieve your goals, the first step is to do a bit of self-observation. What are your patterns of behavior? What are your reasons/excuses for not doing what you know you should be doing? What can you do to tweek your environment or schedule to increase the chances that you’ll do the right thing? My friend Julien Smith and I have created one of those do-or-die pacts where we check in with each other about goals. Julien is helping me keep on a paleo diet plan for health and weight loss reasons, and having someone to be accountable to keeps me motivated and on the right track. I know he’s going to ask me for information and updates, and I have to send him verification that I’m doing the right thing. Likewise, I’m in charge of keeping Julien on track with some of his projects, and being his designated nudge on those fronts.
I know that the prodding I get makes me do at least one more affirmative thing each day to stay on track- whether it’s making sure I have my own “safe” cupboard with paleo foods available, or making sure I pick up something that will make the process easier when out at the store, or whatever it takes- doing at least one thing a day that adds to my chances of success will get me to the goal faster and more efficiently than wishing ever will. Accepting the status quo, or expecting all the change at once, are both recipes to stay stagnant. Making small steps forward will get me to the goal and keep me focused.
The external system or structure takes the idea and makes it operational within my current behavior patterns. I don’t have to radically change my schedule or my life to make this happen. I just need to make one small step, every day, and gradually, this new way of being will become the new comfortable pattern before I even know it’s there. Think of it as success by a thousand tiny cuts, rather than failure by the same.
While we’re all intrigued by the systems everyone else has set up, in the “5 easy ways to change your life” books and blog posts that abound, the honest truth is this:
You need to build a “box” of tools, skills, steps, resources and the like that you can apply to your own life. If you’re a student, that means trying and experimenting with study skills and strategies until you find the one that works for you. If you want to be healthier, it means finding a way to eat better, one veggie at a time, and exercise more, one small walk around the block at a time, until these things become part of who you are. If you hate your job, look at why you hate it. What can you do to make your current situation better? What part of the job is the worst? Can you outsource the parts you hate? Can you go to your boss and say “I’m really just not very good at this particular aspect of my job, but I love this other part, or would like to try X, is there any way I can do more of the good stuff and less of the bad? I’ll be happier and work much harder if I don’t feel my soul being sucked out day by day by having to do things I’m not particularly good at nor do I like- that way, we both win.” This is not about doing less work, but doing more of what you find more rewarding- what plays to your strengths.
Ultimately, if you know what your skills and tools are, you’ll be able to recombine them and use them like a chef uses spices in the kitchen. A plain chicken breast can taste italian, indian, mediterranean, mexican, chinese- it can be prepared hundreds and hundreds of ways- all that changes really are the spices, and you can go on a virtual world tour of cuisine within your own kitchen. The spice alters the plain and makes it magnificent and customized to your needs and desires. Likewise, you can use your own talents and skills to be successful at many things- providing you know what tool to use when.
When you combine your skills and talents to your system- your personally created world of rules and constraints- that already work for you, you can move yourself in almost any direction you want. While there will be some limitations- as a 5 foot 3 inch woman, the likelihood of my ever playing professional basketball is simply not in the cards, so that comes off the table as an option-but largely most of what you probably want to achieve is within your grasp. You just have to find the system and the stepping stones that will lead you towards your goal, and have checks and balances to help keep you on the path.
It really can be this simple.