This is the second part of selling a lifestyle change series. The first part described what lifestyle change is about. Next, I will explain how you can begin to change your life to the direction you want.
4. The difficult part
"If it's not hard at first, it's not real change." -Robin Sharma
What is so challenging about a long-lasting change then?
We, humans, tend to resist change because our life as it right now feels secure and comfortable - as you know it to be. There is no need to leave our comfort zone. To do something differently or go somewhere you have never been before. That's a scary adventure! I bet, there is something uncomfortable in your life, you want to remediate - for good. What I mean is that if it were a choice between life and death, you wouldn't need to consider making a correction, maneuver, or read some article about change - you would have already made the change, whatever it took, period.
To make a lasting change, one needs to integrate the routine behavior into their life - to build a habit. Damn it! Now I said the boring thing out loud: A habit. Try not to fall asleep in the next two minutes. We will try to avoid using that word, because habits are so boring that we don't even want to think about them. But that's the whole point. A habit is nothing but a regular behavioral pattern we do so often with little to no conscious effort. Most of us relate habits to something negative, but actually most of our daily behavior is just neutrally boring or even a little positive - that is our daily life! We actually should embrace these sticky little daily patterns of ours, because it makes our life so much easier. Can you imagine waking up every morning and thinking real hard what you should do next? How to get yourself ready to go to work (because you forgot how to choose clothes, make breakfast, put makeup on, brush your teeth, what to take with you)? That would take some motivation and continuous effort to get up from bed!
We try to avoid speaking about habits, because they don’t produce the same enthusiasm as “reaching dreams”, "positive change" or “achieving the goal”. I'm not being exact here, because a habit is an action you perform (a task) to achieve your goal at the end. So when you have created yourself a repeating task (a habit), just keep doing it. The execution will eventually realize itself as a behavioral change in your life. You will even forget the routine at some point because it has become an automatic behavior and you don't need to make any conscious effort performing it. In the best case, it's just another brainless activity in your daily routine of positive activities.
The unfortunate reality is that introducing a new behavioral pattern takes planning, effort, will, discipline and time. It needs repetition. The lifestyle change - AKA long term behavioral change - is challenging. But if it wouldn't, we would be dummy robots, not creative human beings. Are you afraid of failing? You should be because you will fail, many times. The good news is, according to new research, that it's actually good to fail sometimes to learn optimally.
Let's get to the best part!
5. Blame yourself and lifelong learning
This is the scary and challenging part, but it’s also the best part! I am not a big fan of AA (Alcoholics Anonymous), but as a reference point here, we can use the program's step 10. It's about taking personal responsibility and learning about yourself. How do you behave and why do you behave this way?
Let's take a half-imaginary unpleasant example. We could call the person in the story Lena or Mike, but I call her "You", which is a nice Chinese name. ;)
Your plan is to lose fat tissue in the long term. Your doctor suggested it a few months ago because you have prediabetes (high glucose levels). The diagnosis came as a surprise because you were visiting the doctor for tiredness and a minor rash. She is a smart woman, so she didn't directly just put you on medication, rather she advised you to optimize your bodily functions - be active, eat healthily, take it easy, deep sleep and other no-brainers. You complied with enthusiasm because you don't like to see yourself naked anymore and have been wanting to live a more healthy lifestyle for years. Perfect!
A few weeks go by. You had a stressful, but highly productive week at work. You realize the importance of rest, recovery, alone time, and enjoyment. You plan a weekend to treat yourself including a little exercise to pump up your energy levels as you prepare for the next week - especially for the important meeting on Monday! On Friday evening you plan to watch a couple of films or read a book. Sleep restfully and as long as possible. On Saturday some light exercise, cooking a healthy meal and start the screenwriting project you've been planning for years. Visiting your parents on Sunday and continue the project. Maybe some fresh air, but mostly just taking easy. Perfect!
While beginning the first film on Friday evening, you decide to treat yourself with a pizza, because there is nothing truly delicious in the fridge - you deserve it! You call a delivery service. Somehow when choosing between medium and large, you order a family-sized pizza. Maybe because there was soda included? Of course, you can just save the rest for Saturday! You actually feel pretty good, because you stayed strong and didn't order any dessert. Suddenly after eating the 1855kcal insulin bomb, you remember there is still half a package of chocolate ice cream left from when Tina visited you a couple of weeks ago. You know that you will feel mentally and physically ill if you eat it too, but hey, you already screwed up the healthy eating plan. While eating ice and scrolling down Facebook, you get a message from Tina, they are about to go out for a couple of drinks. Woah! What a gigantic conflict of interest arises! Should I stay at home alone or go see my friends? You kind of feel tired and not very good about yourself (even a bit fat, like the pizza is stored directly in your face), because of spoiling your body with all these cancer foods, but why not? You still have two days to rot at home. You take your phone and call Tina. You agree to meet them at 22:00 for "just a couple of drinks".
On Saturday you wake up at noon, take a couple of painkillers and go back to bed. Tina writes to you “what a great evening it was!” You reply with nodding and smiley face emojis. At 3 p.m a thought about exercise crosses your mind, but it would be life-threatening to even try. You think: "The rest of the pizza would be nice, even if cold. Today I take it easy. It was the whole idea for the weekend!"
On Sunday you are about to start the screenwriting project, but somehow you can't really concentrate and begin to procrastinate. Maybe the alcohol momentarily destroyed your brain? Or you wonder if the project is going to get finished ever anyway? You feel lazy anyway and you decide to watch another film. Afterward, you visit your parents, where your mother has been preparing dinner for three hours just to make her child happy. While eating you can only think of the 6+ cocktails (a 400 kcal), while your father offers you some wine. Because of traffic, you are back home at 8 p.m, so it's almost time for bed. You are not tired, because your circadian rhythm is out of sync. You could take a walk and fill the exercise part of your plan, but you have zero energy. It takes you until midnight to fall asleep because you wonder how many pimples you will have on your face in the meeting. On Monday morning, after six hours of unrestful sleep, on the subway, you feel ashamed and depressed. Then your brain pops up these questions:
- Who was responsible for ordering the family pizza with soda?
- Did you know beforehand that you are not going to leave even one little crumb left?
- Did you really forget that you have the ice cream in the freezer?
- Why didn't you just say "no" to Tina?
- Was social pressure or current mood affecting my choices?
- Are you a lazy, undisciplined and fat creature?
I can answer quickly to the last question for you: "Congratulations, you are a human being, who enjoys life!" Been there, done that. Raise your hand and say: "That was me! It was not exactly what I planned, but it was fun!" We could try to understand all these questions, like what made you make those decisions? Why you feel depressed after having a great weekend? Understanding all of this would take millions of hours of psychological research, knowledge about evolution, society, the individual, neuroscience, etc, and we wouldn't even be close. What we do know is that somehow the person in the story acted against her/his values, standards, priorities and expectations.
Now you can forget the whole story and try to digest the lesson: You are responsible for your actions*!
I also try to be more professional and positive again. :)
The most important question is: How would you continue? We try to understand the lifestyle change process here, after a 2.5-day minor relapse. So what would be the worst option and the best option to go from here?
Acting in an optimal way would not only forget the little letdown and keep going, but you will learn from it. If you let yourself down, break a promise (to yourself or someone else), enjoy living a bit too much, or go crazy one weekend, who cares?! There is not one single person who has lived on this earth, who hasn't done some of these things. Of course, it's never that easy and sometimes it's even harder than we expect it to be. We all can improve on how we deal with setbacks in life. Notice, that this is the optimal way, not the way we usually deal with negative experiences. That's what growing up and improving is about! Do something and keep doing it, if it was positive. If it was negative, learn from the experience and try not to do it again (too often).
At this point, positive psychology can help us. We can take a look at our values in life, which obviously seem to be conflicting with the behavior in the story. Positive psychology guides us to see a brighter future and kindly forgive our recent actions. We can even put our actions in a larger perspective: One weekend compared to the rest of your life is not a big deal. It doesn't matter what you do between Christmas and New Years, but between New Year's Eve and Christmas does. Only how you continue matters.
When you accept the responsibility and improve in forgiving yourself, mastering your own spontaneous actions becomes easier. You might even catch yourself laughing and saying: "How was I able to eat that?" or "Why did I need to watch that boring sequel again?" I mean, how hard can it be to keep the smartphone down or the refrigerator door closed?
These annoying behavioral patterns (habits) are "just" human behavior we are conditioned to perform. If you accept it, you can learn from your mistakes and gradually change them however you want. You will miss it like you miss cigarettes or your high-school ex-boyfriends' hemorrhoids.
Lifelong learning means that we are never done. We should try to celebrate the small daily victories. Another art of mastery: How to reward yourself without ruining the previous success. Because change is not only a long endeavor, but a lifelong process, so why don't you give yourself some slack and enjoy the results! The balance of being graceful to yourself, but at the same time disciplined, serious, committed and determined to achieve your goals remains a continuous challenge.
* Even the scientists discuss if we have free will or not. We need to believe here that we do. Blaming the government, genes, your past, boss, you have too much money, or the guy who branded the ice cream box to be irresistible doesn't help.
6. Deciding what you want
"Small changes in behavior will have a dramatic impact on your health."
It doesn't matter if you are Martin Seligman, Leonardo da Vinci or DiCaprio, lifestyle change takes effort. Often people see one's life as black and white, good or bad - like if someone is always too thin or brilliant. They even automatically stay that way forever - until they change. The only difference between us all is what changes, which direction and how rapidly. Nobody has the same situation or settings. If you are one of the topmost paid, energized, and intelligent people in the world, you might struggle going to the gym twice a day, or eating too many carbohydrates. Because you are probably more like the rest of us, you might struggle to brush your teeth twice a day, and eating too many carbohydrates. Your starting point doesn't matter, the identical issue is to improve your personal situation, health, and happiness.
You can go big or small. Go all in or increase the stakes gradually. You can turn your life upside-down in a second or battle for years, but ultimately succeed, because you will. Millions of people have done this, who are not any brighter than you. The only difference is that now they are "The successful ones". They started, they learned, they slipped up, they learned some more and then they succeeded. They made the choice for the hard, but rewarding path - and didn't gave up.
Everything begins with a clear and well-defined goal. The Habinator App will guide you through setting your goal in the right way, I won't repeat it here. The important thing is to know what you want and why? This can't be emphasized too much: What do you really want and why do you want it?
Sometimes people suffer for years and finally, when the pain gets too big, they decide to make a change. Maybe they slowly build excess fat tissue or they tolerated their boss too long, but somehow the pain of not changing the situation exceeded the pain of going through the change process. They reached the limit of pain. So if it helps, you can reframe the question to: "What do I NEED to change right NOW?"
Here, a little self-exploration can be taken, so if you are not 100% sure yet, I suggest you invest a little bit of time into this. Setting a goal according to your internal interests, motivations, and life's core values will make achieving your goals easier*. Here are a few questions to ponder, when designing your future. It's recommended to use paper and pen to write these down. Be as specific and concrete as possible.
- Think about your interests, enthusiasms and what you respect.
- What things do you like to do? What are you good at? What are your strengths? Can you think of one thing, where you could bind these all?
- Describe your dream life. Who would you be and what would you be doing on a daily basis? (social situations, creativity, physical activity, leisure, mental work, etc.)
* This is called the self-concordance theory, which is well studied and understood, and also makes a lot of sense.
7. Algorithm of goal achievement
If you know exactly where you want to end up in the near future, that’s a great start. Usually, it's something you want to become or achieve. Whatever it is, you actually need to do stuff, which takes closer to the goal. If we write down the change algorithm it is:
- Set a goal.
- Define task(s) to perform.
- Take action.
- Optimize (adjust) if needed.
- Jump to step 3.
One could also describe this in two sentences: "Make a plan and then execute it. If you need to, adjust the plan." The formula is so simple that it hurts. I hope I didn't insult your intelligence, because both of us know, it's not that simple. We all have our strengths, difficulties, likes, life situation, good and bad times. And that it wouldn't be so easy, there are other people involved around you.
Because achieving a goal is a complex, but learnable skill, there are plenty of ways to increase the possibility to be successful. It's easy to keep going when everything is going well, but there will be times when you feel like quitting. Therefore it's important to prepare to the moment beforehand when you face a tough situation. This includes negative mood, physical or mental withdrawal, boredom, lack of energy and so on, but usually, a combination of these appear! Just like a professional athlete, who trains months for just one event, you can prepare for a challenging situation. Many times, like in therapy, the work is done beforehand. You know what is coming and you have a plan ready to get past it. The Habinator app has a section for exercises and every goal includes a so-called "My plan", where you can add obstacles, which you will(!) face on your journey. After the setback, there is nothing wrong to go and optimize your plan, when necessary.
The rest of the chapters will explain more about how to cross the finish line when we talk about motivation and rewards.