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Combining prosperous work lives and balanced personal lives
January 2002

My goal is to bring you news, insights, and information about leading a balanced and prosperous life.

How to Keep Your News Years Resolution - All Year Long

Here it is the end of January and you are already feeling guilty about those broken News Year’s resolutions. Why does this happen every year? You start out so enthusiastically to make the changes that are important to you and look what happens. Is it a character flaw like laziness? Is it stupidity? No, you are probably not lazy or stupid. You are probably making some common assumptions that don’t fit the reality of how people really make change.

Good intentions are good enough
Motivation alone is not enough to carry you through changing habitual behaviors like eating or exercise habits. According the research of C.S. Snyder you need to be “wayful” as well as “willful,” that is you need to have a specific, detailed plan on how you will make the changes.

  • To tap your motivation for the change, list the reasons for and against making the change. Yes, list the reasons against as well as for the change. It is not common sense but it is good science. This exercise will uncover the motivational reasons why you might sabotage your New Year’s resolution.
  • Research ways other people have made the change successfully. Self-help books written by change experts can be helpful in filling in the details of your plan before you begin. When I decided to start running in 1977, I read the only book available on women and running. I spent a lot of time researching shoes, training schedules, and injury prevention. Shoes were the hardest part. At that time, there were no running shoes for women.
  • Write your plan so you can remind yourself in February what you had in mind when you started.
Once you decide, jump in with both feet before you lose your courage
While the above may be good advice for jumping into a cool mountain lake, the better scientific advice is to “look before you leap.” Change expert James Proshaska and his colleagues studying successful self-changers all over the world found that the most successful recognize that there are stages of change. Before people actually take action they become aware that change is needed, think about what they want to change, and prepare for the change. Before I started running, I was dissatisfied with my general health and wanted some way to increase my stress tolerance. Then I learned that exercise could help build immunity to colds and flues. Then I did the research described above. I thought about running for a long time before I tied on that first pair of men’s running shoes and ran a half block.

  • Take your time to prepare for the change. It will pay off later in a more successful project.
  • Interview or read about other people who have been successful making the same change. What tips do they have that could make your change process more effective?
If you can visualize it, you can do it
This common advice from "motivational" speakers at the annual sales meeting fails to take into account of the research on the change process. Visualizing is helpful but only if you visualize the steps as well as the eventual outcome.

  • After you have researched and written your plan, visualize all the steps along the way to your eventual outcome. For example, in a weight loss program it won’t be good enough to picture your newly svelte body in a great outfit. That image is too far for your brain to stretch. Picture eating healthily tomorrow. Picture making good choices at your favorite restaurant. Picture taking only a tiny portion of a high calorie favorite treat at a party. Picture shopping for some transitional clothes before you are at your ideal weight.
Once you get going, change will happen quickly
Only in the movies do people turn their whole life around in one scene. In real life, change is slow because of the way our brains work. Establishing a new behavior pattern actually has to take place on a cellular level in your nervous system – in the neuron or nerve cells.

Here is what had to happen in your nervous system:

  • Neurons carry messages from external stimulation to the brain control centers by firing an electro-chemical charge like a small jolt of electricity.
  • Each neuron secretes chemicals called neurotransmitters into the space between the cells, the synapses.
  • The neurotransmitters cause the next cell in the series to fire and the process continues all the way to the control centers in the brain.
  • The control centers use the same process to send a message to act.
  • Although this process takes less than a second, it is only with repeated firings that the cells fire rapidly enough for new learning to establish a new response.
  • When the firing takes place many times, the cells permanently change when the genetic material in the cell (the DNA) changes. Until the DNA changes the cell does not “remember” the new learning.
  • Many repetitions later, the new learning becomes automatic. You have a new habit.

Depending on the complexity of the new habit this process may take 21-30 days of repetition or longer to establish. For example, parking on the other side of your garage may take a month to become automatic but developing better eating habits takes more like three months.

  • When working on acquiring new habits like starting an exercise program, start gradually and give yourself time to build the new habit.
  • Be encouraged by how long it takes your nervous system to work on your new behavior. When you have a lapse in the new program, start back the next day and remind yourself that you can’t fight nature. You can only use science to help you get where you want to go.
Once you have a new habit, you won’t have any problem with the old behavior
No one has invented Soft Scrub for the brain. You may have heard the old saying that old habits die hard. Now you will know the physiological reason. Old habits remain stored along side of the new habits. Just because you have learned the new material does not mean you have done anything to the old path. For a while the old neural pathways can be activated as easily or more easily than the new one. Gradually the new pathway gets stronger and stronger, but while the old one may weaken it never disappears.

If you don’t know this fact, you will be surprised by the reappearance of the behavior you thought you were getting rid of. Years after quitting smoking, people who were not even heavy smokers in their smoking days will be surprised by a sudden desire for a cigarette. Most likely the desire will appear when confronted by a stimulus that used to be associated with smoking, like walking into a smoke-filled bar.

  • Be persistent is practicing and mastering the new behavior. Mastery develops long after competence.
  • When faced with an old behavior that you no longer want in your life, continue practicing the non-habitual until it becomes easier and more automatic.
  • Recognize that you may still find yourself doing things you have eliminated. A lapse is not the same as a relapse.

As a busy BossWoman you have a lot of control over what you do and don't do this Holiday season -if you use your decision making power.

Best wishes for a happy and productive year.

Susan Robison

BossWoman coaching topics include work-life balance, career transitions, building your business or practice, time management, and increasing productivity.

Telelearning is attracting busy professions like yourself. Imagine just-in-time learning without having to transport yourself anywhere other than your home of office. I am currently a student in an advanced coaching skills class taught by Dr. Ben Dean of MentorCoach. It is a fabulous learning opportunity with fellow students all over the country. As part of a course assignment, a fellow student and I did a workshop for women balancing multiple roles. We intend to offer this workshop again and plan to offer another workshop late in the winter on how to survive completing a doctoral dissertation. More on this later.

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Copyright 2002 Susan Robison. All rights reserved. The above material is copyrighted but you may retransmit or distribute it to whomever you wish as long as not a single word is changed, added or deleted, including the contact information. However, you may not copy it to a web site without my permission.

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