Aspiration isn’t enough. Creating sustainable and important changes that transform you into the person you are called to be is challenging but possible. The steps are relatively simple but overcoming obstacles and the ever-increasing distractions is the challenge.
I know this all too well. Like many people, I eagerly jump into the “A New Year, a new you” cycle every January (I sometimes start in December). January is a month of reflection, aspiration, and dreaming. You dream of the person you want to be–physically, emotionally, professionally, relationship-wise, and financially. You plan and visualize. You imagine what your life would be like if you were this “new and improved” you. Fabulous of course.
January planning gives way to a plethora of advice on how to stay on track or get back on “your plan”. So why do so many of us lose our mojo by mid-February (and some even by the end of January)? Do we just lack willpower or motivation? Were they bad goals?
No. The solution to making lasting change is much simpler but also a bit counterintuitive.
Table of Contents
- Less But Better
- Focus on Habits
- Banish Numbing & Avoidance Behaviors
- Find Support
- Affirmations and visualization
- Celebrate Success
- Cultivate Resilience
the journey towards change
I gave up New Years resolutions years ago. I moved on to abstractions like “happiness” (this was a reoccurring theme), “living in the moment”, “connection”, etc. In retrospect, this was a logical precursor to my current system “My 3 words” (thanks to Chris Brogan who’s blog post is where I learned this). Each year I choose three words that, as Brogan suggests, will guide my choices and daily actions. Will this choice or action align with my three words.
My three words this year are BETTER, CONSISTENTLY, and PLAY. Bonus points if you noticed that I have a word (slightly modified) from last year–CONSISTENCY became CONSISTENTLY. It was a good word that I still need this year but with a tweak.
BETTER–is really short for Less but better. This came from the book Essentialism: The Disciplined Pursuit of Less by Greg McKeown. This phrase is the unofficial tagline of the book. The idea is to do, to have, and to focus on less but better. I tend to have so many ideas that I pursue simultaneously. I joke that if I just had minions, I could take over the world. Life and its many opportunities excite me. The reality is that I CAN bring great ideas to life but not all of them and certainly not at the same time. I need to cull them down to the ones that most align with my goals and values and scrap or table the rest. I throw myself into all of this at full throttle and then hit burnout, not surprisingly, because of these marathon sessions.
In the past, I haven’t scheduled rewards for success and breaks consistently (if I have I often underestimate how much recharging time I really need). This is why I struggle with work-life balance. There is always more I can and should do. This leads to the second word.
CONSISTENTLY–It is hard to be consistent with anything if you have sprint and crash cycles. You just can’t sprint a whole marathon. And let’s face it, life is a marathon (or we hope it is long). I have been trying to maintain sprinting speeds non-stop throughout my life and clearly, it just doesn’t work. Less but better will help me focus on fewer things consistently.
PLAY–Play is more than just engaging in fun activities. For me, it also means bring an element of playfulness to all I do. As I said, I suck at work-life balance (my internal mantra is now “I am great a work-life balance and I make time daily for R&R”). I have trouble even watching a movie at home with my family without multi-tasking–I fold laundry, iron, check email, write, etc. I listen to audio books while I work in the studio (or watch online video classes and movies too), workout, cook, and clean.
This obsession with multi-tasking means that I am not always fully present with my family. This revelation cut me to the bone. When I am alone, this isn’t as bad of a habit but I just can’t do it when people are around. So committing to relaxing, being present, not working non-stop, to adding more fun into my daily life and not saving it up for vacations, is critical. Can you say, “Mindfulness.” It is another logical extension to less but better.
It is a process–change and my 3 words. Now in year three, I am working on internalizing the process better by making sure that my words are both broad enough and clear enough. But, I too, get tripped up by the same obstacles and distractions that plague you–unexpected crises and illness (started off January with a cold that lasted more than 2 weeks), fear, fatigue, falling into old patterns and habits, numbing & avoidance behaviors, the constant assault of digital distractions (part of numbing behaviors), perfectionism, lack of support, and on and on…
Here is what I have learned over two decades of trying to make long-term changes in my life.
the secret to lasting change
There are so many videos, articles, blog posts, pins, etc. with advice on how to make changes. For example:
- It takes 21 days to make a change stick. New research shows that it really takes 66 days to make a habit automatic.
- Make one change at a time.
- Get support.
- Create accountability. Have a consequence for not achieving your goal.
Much of this advice is good and useful. Some will work better for you than others. For example, there are people who commit to paying $500 or $1000 dollars to someone else if they don’t meet their goal (a variation is that the money is donated to an organization that would make your skin crawl). This doesn’t work for me. I am not wired this way but it may work for you. Part of the challenge is finding what works FOR YOU.
So what is the secret to sustainable, lasting transformation aka becoming that “new and improved” you?
You already read some of the secrets in my 3 words for the year. But here are the 7 secrets I have found that help make the changes you desire lasting.
#1–Less but better
Let go of the myth that you can have it all. You can but not at the same time. You can’t achieve all your goals at once, narrow them down to 1-3 that you want to do in the year. The less the better.
This also applies to work-life balance. Yes, there are lots of us who work and have a family but you can’t be driving hard and succeeding at both work and home simultaneously. It’s just a fact. And the people who say they do, often have nannies, housekeepers, personal chefs…a team of people, read staff, who make it possible. If you can afford it and want to, go for it. But if having help or a team isn’t in your future, you need to decide where your focus will be for right now. And do it because it is what YOU want not because of what OTHERS will think about what you SHOULD do or want.
We are drowning in so much stuff. We have way more than we need and it often weighs us down more than brings joy to our lives. You don’t need to live up to someone else’s idea of success or what it means to be rich (aka how you should spend your money or live).
Also, fewer but more meaningful relationships are more satisfying and easier to maintain.
- Write down 20 things that you want to do before you die. Circle the top 5. Delete the rest or table them until you have achieved the top 5. Focus your energy on those top 5 things exclusively and say no to anything that doesn’t move you forward on them. (This comes from Waren Buffet and his achievements are a strong endorsement for the success of this technique.) Ask yourself if on your deathbed you’d regret not accomplishing them or which one would you regret the most (that should be your topic goal). Use that as your motivation.
- Get clear on what matters to you–time with friends or family, travel, volunteering, enjoying meals out, hiking, creating, etc. Then let go of activities that you don’t absolutely love. Remember no is a complete sentence. Yes, you can quit that bunco group, book club, gaming group if you just don’t love the people or activity anymore. Drop any activity you are ambivalent about. I know you say, but I need to socialize with the moms of my kids’ friends. I need schedule play dates and all. Do you really? I fell prey to that when my kids were young. And I tell you I did a massive happy dance the day I jettisoned those moms because I didn’t need to manage my kids’ social life anymore. Say that you are working on [fill in the blank–book, taking a class, you, spending more time with family, etc.] and if people judge your priorities and take offense, well see that is why you should’ve ditched them long ago. You will have more time and space to welcome what you love into your life. Trust me, I know!
- Get rid of things that you don’t absolutely love–clothes, belongings, books, artwork, anything. It doesn’t matter if it was a wedding gift or your grandmother’s (give it to another family member who’d love it). Give away what you can to people you know who would enjoy it or to charities that would give it to people in need. Everything you own should bring you joy and add to your life. If it doesn’t, let it go. If you need it but don’t love it, hang on to it until you replace it with something better.
- Let go of people in your life that bring you down. You know, the negative and/ or toxic people. Those ones are generally easy (if you’re related to them, limit interactions with them). The harder step is to eliminate the ambivalent relationships. Those ones where you feel obligated to spend time with them or you just aren’t really sure if they even like you and if you like them. Let those slowly fade. Remember that people come into our lives for a reason, a season or a lifetime. It is ok to let people go. It makes room for new fabulous people, gems that will bring you joy and uplift you.
- Begin a new policy of one thing in one thing out (great for kids and toys–everytime they get a new toy and old one is donated). You buy a new shirt, then one is retired from your wardrobe (donate it or throw it out if it is stained or ripped).
- Take control of the paper in your life. Go digital whenever possible. Shred tax & financial records after 7 yrs. Better yet, scan those you need going forward and keep them digitally. This year we are saving our receipts digitally. The IRS accepts scanned copies and digital receipts. Opt out of catalogs and of junk mail. It’s also good for the environment. Say no more often. No is a complete sentence.
- Do a tech detox.
- Turn off your phone during dinner and before you go to bed. See if you can get up and not turn it on until you leave for work.
- Take a break from social media for a week.
- Limit your overall screen time for a week–try no TV, limit your computer time when at home, avoid the news. See how you feel. Not all of us have the luxury to completely unplug but try to as much as possible for at least a week. And then be judicious about what you let back in.
This philosophy, less but better, is so counter to American society and capitalism (our overconsumption, need for the latest tech toy, disposable culture) but is so pivotal to living your best life that a whole series of industries have sprung up around this basic principle.
- Tiny House Movement–Better Living Through Simplicity
- Decluttering your life, as demonstrated with the latest Netflix smash series Tidying Up.
Contrast that with the statistic that there were 58,000 self-storage facilities with 2,300,000,000 sq ft or storage space in the US in 2016. We have shows like Storage Wars, where peoples possessions in abandoned storage lockers are auctioned off to people hoping to find treasures. If you haven’t seen it or used in a year (seasonal decorations aside, but do purge some of those too), do you really need it? Would you really miss it?
We are drowning in stuff. [turn this into an image block]
Shows like Hoarders make us acutely aware that for some of us, letting go of possessions is extremely distressing and that these things represent more than what their utility offers us.
This Christmas break I got a first-hand experience examining the life of a hoarder, my mom, as we cleared (well gutted) her 3 bedroom house (attic and basement too!) in 5 days and moved her into a senior living community. My husband and I recognized years ago (well over a decade ago in fact) that my mother is a hoarder. My siblings have been slow to adopt that label. There is a lot of guilt and shame around hoarding or having a hoarder in the family. There is fear that you will become one too. And you also feel that someone everyone else blames you for not “fixing” this situation for them. “How can you let your mother live like this?!?” As if we had a choice. We’d clean it up and it would just revert back in a matter of weeks.
It was a brutal process because we didn’t have the luxury to do it the more compassionate way they do on Hoarders. No hoarding specialist (which she would have refused anyway) to help her emotionally process the experience and to guide her through letting go of things. We had a deadline and my mom had resisted doing it herself so we had to exclude her from 98% of the process. We were all greatly affected by 5 intense days of purging her house and hoard.
The experience made me want not to just lean into less but better but to get rid off all my possessions and move into a tiny house. After that moment passed and I realized that, yes, there are things I do want to keep, I settled on examining critically every aspect of my life and culling as much as I can. And trust me, the personal purge has begun even though I was sick. I started with my office, the office closet, my desk, and my inbox. I’ll have more on “aha moments” from my purging my mom’s hoard in another post.
#2–FOCUS ON HABITS
Once you choose your goals, focus on the habits you need to achieve those goals. There are lots of tasks to do to get there but for lasting change, cultivate new habits. Ideally, work on adding one habit at a time. It is easier that way. As you master each habit, then add another one. It was believed that it takes 21 days to change a habit but new research shows that it takes 66 days to make it automatic.
Start with 21 days with a new habit before adding a second one. You are more likely to have lasting change and results if you lean into change slowly, one habit at a time building upon your progress.
It is easy to think of next actions with a goal but a bit more elusive is identifying the habits that will get you there. So how do you figure out what habits you need to develop? Let’s look at an example that seems straight forward. You want to lose 10 lbs. You know that eating less and healthier plus exercising will get you there. But what are the actual habits? Possible options:
- Go to the gym every day at 6 am (pick a time you can commit to consistently and the daily interval–every day, 3-5 times a week) and do 30 mins of cardio (this could be to walk for 45 min. daily at the same time). It could be to take a walk during lunch.
- Write out your meal plan for the week so sticking with your eating goals are easier. Shop for the items and make sure that you have it all ready for yourself.
It is a bit harder to find the right habits for some goals especially when you are starting small and building on them. Say you want to write a book or begin an art project. If you want to complete it by the end of the year besides breaking down the book or project into chapters & parts, you need to know what action, taken repeatedly will get you there.
With creative work, showing up daily and doing the work even if the outcome seems like crap is what gets you to completion and to the unearthing of the masterpiece within you. Trust me, I know about making a lot of first waffles. I am making lots of them in my new work in encaustic and sculpture. But the more I make, the more little gems emerge. Possible habits:
- Write daily for 30 mins. (Start small and add time). Others might suggest a word count vs. time limit. Go with what works for you. Make it a daily practice that you do at the same time each day. Many writers work early in the morning before others get up or after the family has gone to bed.
- Then you could add the habit of taking 3 minutes to add notes on what to do next time you are writing before you finish for the day.
- Next, you could add a review day to the schedule. On that day you review all the previous writing and edit it.
Decide what one thing that if you did it consistently would help you achieve your goal fastest. How often should you do it? What time are you most likely to do it consistently? Is there another habit that you already have that it would be easy to bundle with? For example, if you want to make sure you take vitamins daily, grab them before you get your morning cup of coffee and combine something you already do and like with the new habit.
Create a way to track your progress. You can mark a paper calendar and put it on the wall or you can use a habit tracker app. I like Habit List. This app allows for non-consecutive day scheduling, can send you reminders, shows you charts and graphs of your progress, can do multiple times a day for same habit (like drinking water) and is free.
Make it easy on yourself. Have your workout clothes laid out if you want to go to the gym right away in the morning. Have your journal ready on your desk for your daily writing session. Any hurdle, finding clothes, looking for a pen and journal, not having healthy food in the house (or having junk food in the house) are often just enough of a speedbump to keep you from doing what you said you wanted to and were going to do.
#3–BANISH NUMBING & AVOIDANCE BEHAVIORS
Hiding aka avoidance and numbing behaviors are a reaction to the fear and resistance you feel whenever you are pursuing your goals or trying to make a change. You know the behaviorsâbinge-watching movies, eating, sleeping, sex, gaming, texting, endlessly scrolling social media, and news or information binging (my personal go to, well that and sleeping…I guess I also snack too much too when I am avoiding doing work). Their goal is to numb the pain and anxiety that your inner critic (fear) stirs up. It is a distraction and keeps you from reaching your goals and becoming the person you want to be.
SUCCESS TIP: Habits are the antidote to hiding behaviors. An automatic routine, aka a habit, conditions the brain to do your bidding. You are more likely to resist the siren’s call of binge-watching series, for example, if you have a regular routine. You will also find that you can reach a flow state faster if you have creative habits and routines.
We are also overwhelmed by distractions.
We are drowning in information and constant visual stimulation. It is automatic to zone out and passively succumb to the siren’s call of all this visual stimulation.
Take breaks from technology. Live in the moment more and be present with the people around you. Enjoy a cup of coffee by yourself AND don’t look at your phone. Stop numbing yourself with technology and distractions. Embrace being quiet with yourself. Your brain will enjoy the calm and your creativity will increase in the new silent space.
When you find yourself doing an avoidance behavior, acknowledge it and ask yourself what could you be doing right now that would get you closer to achieving your goal? What habit did you commit to that you aren’t doing because you are doing a numbing activity? Once you identify what you want to be doing, go and do it.
This doesn’t mean that you can’t ever watch a movie or a show or game. It means that when you do those activities, you are doing them because you are consciously choosing them knowing that you have already done the actions that you want to do to achieve your goals.
Like with habits, you can lean into these 7 steps by incorporating these 3 first. Read about the remaining 4 in Part 2.