It is the time of passage to a new year. The calendar has moved to January, named for Janus, the Roman god of passage, time and prophecy. Janus is depicted as a god with two faces looking in opposite directions — one facing into the past, one looking into the future. For over two thousand years in many cultures, this has been a traditional time to look back and ahead, to reflect upon the state of our lives and make New Year’s Resolutions. A time to look at what we have done and what we are committed to making different.

Set Goal, Design Strategy, Create Habits

Making effective resolutions is goal–setting, it’s strategic planning and changing habits all wrapped together. They are all requirements for improved performance and innovation in any aspect of our work and life. In this case, the practice is applied up close and personal to ourselves. Sometimes that feels like the most difficult place to begin but then again that’s where it usually has to. Wouldn’t it be nice if we could just get everyone else to change… if only life were that simple!

“Progress is impossible without change, and those who cannot change their minds cannot change anything.”
— George Bernard Shaw

Based on a couple of web searches, the ten most common New Year’s Resolutions are:

New Year’s Resolutions: Top 10 List

  1. Spend more time with family and friends
  2. Find time for fitness
  3. Tame the bulge (lose weight)
  4. Quit smoking
  5. Enjoy life more — lower stress
  6. Quit drinking
  7. Get out of debt
  8. Learn something new
  9. Help others
  10. Get organized

Any sound familiar?

We make resolutions to change our behavior, change our attitudes, develop new skills or knowledge, and do new things. Yet very few of us actually follow-through and succeed with these promises to ourselves. [Footnote: the same turns out to be true for organizational changes!] This failure to fulfill self-commitments usually makes us feel worse, less capable and more powerless over our lives. Many of us have given up on even making New Year’s Resolutions or specific life goals in general, often because of past failed experiences with taking charge of change. This is likely the reason that there are so many jokes about New Year’s Resolutions with a “gallows humor” quality about them.

Reactions to Change

The bottom line is that real change is not easy. We are programmed to stay the same, no matter how much we complain or dream differently. We are fundamentally conditioned to resist change whether it’s positive or negative. From a biological and cultural perspective, this is actually mostly helpful. If, for example, our body temperature went up or down 10 percent we’d be in real trouble. The same is true for significant change for all of our bodily functions. This continues into our behaviors as individuals and into our family, social and work life dynamics. Think about the subtle reactions that frequently occur when someone gets a new hairstyle or wears clothing that is different from what they normally wear. When we attempt to make a change, there are all kinds of feedback messages from others — as well as ourselves — hinting or shouting to go back to being the way we were. We like predictable, comfortable and safe whether it’s good for us or not. As the saying goes, “better the devil you know than the devil you do not.” A big reason for this is because at a social level we are afraid to be tossed out of our tribe, which is again a fear reaction driven by the reactive primitive gator brain (brain stem) and facilitated by the cortex (thinking brain).

 Yet, change does occur — for better and for worse. Our goal is to make it intentional, positive and successful.

How to Succeed with Change

Here are some pointers from recent behavior change research (which align with a lot of ancient wisdom) about actions we can take to help us succeed with our promises to ourselves:

Real Desire. Is the change one you really want to make? Not one you are doing because your spouse, parent, child, partner, boss, friend, colleague, neighbor thinks you should make. Rather one you are doing because it is right for you (Note: If you need help, purchase the “as seen on TV” New & Improved BS Detector if you’re not sure :)). The more personally meaningful and satisfying, the more consistent with your values and purposes, the more likely you will invest your time and energy in the change. Make a short list of the benefits (gains) and costs (losses) you associate with this change. Hint: every change has both benefits and costs. Do the benefits sufficiently outweigh the losses? Benefits and losses take many shapes — economic, social, physical, emotional, relational, spiritual. They all count. Who will you be if you truly make this change? Is this who you want to become?

Real Capacity. Do you have the capacity and ability to make this change? You may have the desire to make a million dollars selling your pottery but can you make enough pots or find enough buyers willing to pay what you want?

Few. Don’t try to change too much or too fast. Pick just a few things to change in your life. Maybe just one. Completing one real change usually leads to other related changes. Taking on too much at once is a way to guarantee failure. The more we try to change, the bigger the resistance.

Specific and measurable. Look at the 10 top resolutions. None are specific with the exception of the two that just say “no.” How will you know if you have succeeded? Be as specific as possible. Instead of “Spend more time with family and friends” specify something like “I am spending on average two weekends per month with family and/or friends this year.” Establish intermediate milestones particularly if it is a long term goal. If you desire to lose 25 lbs by next year you might establish monthly goals of losing 3 pounds this month and 2 pound every other month. How will you hold yourself accountable? The old saw “what gets measured, gets done” really applies to establishing new habits.

Track it. Create a way to keep track of your successes — a journal, a calendar section, a tracking sheet, a scoreboard. This measuring tool should be someplace you will encounter in your normal routine path. Ideally something you routinely use for other purposes. The fewer extra steps, the better the likelihood of success. Put a reminder for a “self audit’ on your calendar every month.

Reinforcements. The highest success rates for any kind of change are associated with folks that have some kind of external support. It goes back to that “tribal belonging” orientation we have as human beings. Enlist a supportive member of your family, a friend, or work colleague. Let them know about the change you have decided to make. Ask them to help you hold yourself accountable. It’s even better if you are supporting them with their own habit change. In every community there are support groups for habit change. They often have brand names like Weight Watchers, AA, Toastmasters, the Chamber of Commerce, fitness clubs, religious groups. Join one or create your own. Some are available in the virtual world as well. For many of us, hiring and working with a personal coach or therapist has proven to be the kind of support we have needed for significant habit change to really stick. Invest in yourself.

Now here’s a tool that was popularized by a lot of people that didn’t fully understand how to use it. So now this great tool has fallen into disrepute. Affirmations, the way we see them applied most frequently, typically arouse our own internal BS-O-Meter. If we’re trying to get more fit, and we create an affirmation that Says “My stomach feels strong and my pants fit perfectly” there will be this little “Yeah, right!” voice that shows up at the preconscious level and neutralizing the affirmation. The affirmation must be “reasonably believable” and you’re hurting yourself if you don’t spend the time finding an affirmation that has a little pull to the direction you’re wanting to go, but no so far out that you can’t believe it.

Be positive and affirmative. People don’t quit behaviors or attitudes; they establish new ones that replace the old ones. This is the complete opposite of the “just say no” school of behavior change. What new behavior, feeling or identity are you seeking to establish? To what are you saying “yes?” State the desired change in the form of an affirmation, a statement of the change having been accomplished in the present tense. “I’m improving my physical fitness every day” Say it out loud even if it sounds funny at first. Using present tense language, and visualizing yourself practicing or being the change you seek are powerful reinforcers. Gandhi said it as “You must be the change you wish to see in the world.”

Re-align your Pain and Pleasure Stories. People often fail at making conscious change because at either consciously or subconsciously, we have a story that says there is more pleasure associated with staying the same, and more pain associated with changing. So re-write the story. Get out a pen and paper and write a story that describes the negative consequence-filled future in which you did not implement the change you are currently contemplating. Keep it reasonably believable, but really elaborate on the negatives. Next, do the opposite. Write a future story where you did make the change. Again, being reasonably believable, really elaborate on the future where the positives associated with your change are a daily fact of life for you. Re-read and embellish these stories at your monthly audit time.

Start early in the day. The research shows the earlier in the day we practice new habits the higher levels of success. This doesn’t work very well if your goal is to get more sleep by going to bed earlier but if the change you want to make can be done in the morning, do it then. Speaking of sleep, your chances of success for all kinds of personal change go up if you get enough. Sleep that is.

Align with existing strengths and routines. Changes are easiest to make if they are tied to something you already do, particularly if it’s something you enjoy and do well. It’s easier to floss your teeth every morning if you brush your teeth every morning. If you sit and read the paper at breakfast you might journal with your breakfast instead. Look for creative ways to incorporate your desired change into your regular routine.

Be patient with yourself. Think long term. Change happens over time. Real change takes longer than we like. Think in term of 6 to 9 months for personal change to stick. If you mess up, let it go. Welcome to the human race. We all make mistakes. Mistakes happen to assist our learning. Just start again. Along the path someone or something will tempt you to break your new habit. What are you going to say when Aunt Martha brings over those homemade donuts she knows you love so much? Prepare your strategies and stories before the donuts arrive. And/or, feel free to send them to us!

Go Create Some Change!

These are some of the foundations that we use in our coaching practice with executives and others trying to make significant changes in their lives. We hope you can use these to successfully plan to accomplish your New Year’s Resolution, or some other significant change that’s important to you. Good luck, and may your dreams come true in the new year.

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