How to Change and Stick to It
What would you like to change? My guess is that you could rattle off several ideas fairly quickly. Most people keep a running list of personal improvement targets – be less stressed, lose weight, eat better, parent differently, strengthen a skill, expand one’s network, get a new job, and so on. There’s no shortage of ideas for how to change – actually making the change, that’s a different story. Our most ardent resolutions can go out the window within days, or even hours.
People do change, and in ways that are lasting. We’re endlessly inspired by people who are able to pull this off. However, to be good drivers of change in ourselves we can start by learning how to create practices that support different thought patterns. In order to change any behavior, we must learn how to think in new ways.
Here are some helpful steps that I’ve found.
Set aside time for reflection.
There are many names for reflection: strategic thinking, planning time, processing time, goal setting. Whatever your preferred nomenclature, it’s critical to set aside some quiet, reflective time each day if you’re trying to make a serious behavioral change. This time allows us to get our thoughts clear and to visualize possibilities. We can’t accomplish what we can’t imagine.
Reflection means taking a step back from the chaos of the workday. It’s important to note that reflective time isn’t necessarily about impressing the full force of your intellect on something. Instead, it’s about creating the mental space to allow new, fresh thoughts to come to us organically.
In his book Drive, Dan Pink talks about the phenomenon of functional fixedness, the idea that when we are overly focused on the most obvious answer, we have a hard time seeing alternatives. When we quiet the noise in our brain, we are better able to build the neural pathways that create new insights. In simple terms, make room for quiet, so you can see the change you want to create.
Get solution-oriented, not problem-oriented.
Our culture often encourages us to fixate on the negative. When something goes wrong in the workplace, we spend hours in meetings hashing out what happened and why. But when we are trying to implement lasting change, we have a greater chance of succeeding if we focus on solutions, not problems. Of course, we need to initially understand the root of the problem but obsessing over that isn’t helpful. Think about it this way: if we keep our attention on what’s wrong or on our failures, those thoughts will dominate our headspace. On the flip side, if we choose to focus on what’s working, those thoughts become more prevalent.
In coaching, we use a technique called appreciative inquiry to foster and strengthen new, more positive mental maps. Through a series of questions, we can move toward what’s positive and possible and away from the weight of what’s difficult.
Consider this example: you may say to yourself, “I’m terrible at networking because I’m an introvert.” If you keep telling yourself that, then it will become a self-fulfilling prophecy. But if you want to be a better networker, you will need to bypass these negative thoughts and focus on the positive to move forward. You may want to consider that your introversion can also make you a keen observer of others, a critical skill in executive presence. You can consider that while you have felt anxious in the past speaking to strangers, with sufficient practice, you’ll get better just as you have with other skills in your career.
The solutions will come from your potential, not from the pitfalls of the past.
Take advantage of moments of inspiration.
More time for reflection and thinking means more opportunities for new insights. There are few better feelings than when we get that burst of adrenaline from forming new mental connections. This flash of insight releases positive brain chemicals and gives us a rush of energy – but it’s fleeting. If you are trying to make a change, you’ll be much more successful if you can act on that jolt of creativity.
When you feel that burst of inspiration, grab a pen (or open your laptop). Sketch out your thoughts in as much detail as you can, so you can recall them when the rush is over and you enter back into your normal routine.
Once you have some great ideas jotted down, let them marinate. Go back and commit yourself to executing what feels most right to you.
Take the first step, even if it’s a small one.
Change can be hard because it’s a big hill to climb with uncertainty on the other side. How do we begin? Instead of focusing on large, transformational change, try instead to conquer smaller, incremental changes. Instead of a leap, try a step.
Making a first move (and seeing success from it) has a major impact on the brain. A 2009 study by neuroscientist Earl Miller at MIT’s Picower Institute for Learning and Memory revealed that we absorb more lessons from success than from failure. Miller also found that each ensuing success is processed more efficiently. Because our brains don’t know what to learn from failures to safeguard against future failures, our brain doesn’t exhibit the same type of neuroplasticity as it does with successes.
In short, our brains learn fast what makes us succeed so we can repeat it. If we want to create lasting behavioral change, we should lose the all or nothing mentality. We can put ourselves out there, even if it’s one small change at a time.
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