With the literal flick of the calendar between one year and the next, a moment of clarity and personal insight appears to occur on a mass scale.
We may live in denial for most of the year, but as soon as January rolls around, a large percentage of us take a long hard look in the mirror and see things that we would like to change.
This insight is important: As adults wandering this earth, roughly one third of us has alignment between what we think (all the stuff that’s inside our head) and what we actually do (how we behave day to day), i.e. “I believe I am healthy” (the thought,) “I never exercise” (the action).
At Walking the Talk, we believe that achieving awareness and insight into this discrepancy is important. In fact, it’s essential for any internal change process to begin - and that includes habit formation.
We’re just days into our New Year’s Resolutions. Last year, in my household, my son broke first and ate a sweet after 10 days. I felt smugly superior, waiting a whole two weeks before quaffing my first glass of wine. Talking to our local publican, I assured him: “Trade will pick up in the next week.”
How could I be so sure that we would revert to type en-mass? And why did I ‘give up’ my commitment so soon? What exactly is at play in our minds here? And how can we beat it?
The phenomenon we’re dealing with here plagues every individual who joins a gym, and then ends up charitably contributing membership payments whilst never attending; it vexes the smoker who can’t seem to quit, or the smartphone owner who tries not to check their device every 5 minutes.
It’s a phenomenon that has kept psychologists, medical professionals and social scientists employed for the better part of half a century.
What we know is this:
You and I tend to be creatures of habit. What is habit? Think of our personal habits doing to our brains what a river does to the landscape. Every time we engage in a particular behaviour, it runs stronger and deeper down one path. So that over time, much like a river creates a gorge, we have created deep habitual pathways in our brains. Therefore, shifting our habits requires us to create new pathways. I’m no engineer, but I know it takes a lot of effort to shift the flow of a river once it has created a gorge! Recognising that you desire a new habit and then committing to it just isn’t enough to get that river to move.
Robert Keagan, Harvard University Professor and author of ‘Immunity to Change' shares this example: Only 1 in 7 people who are diagnosed with heart disease and told by their physician to change their lifestyle will actually do it. Even when there is the greatest motivation— to preserve our lives—we still struggle to change.
1. Think small.
Part of the challenge is that we usually make the change too big. i.e. “I want to eat healthier, so I will only eat salad.” This is too great a shift and difficult to sustain. Research shows that the greatest success in changing habits comes from pairing the new activity (eating healthily) with what you already do (“I will add salad to what I already eat; I will eat 1 handful more of vegetables”). Once you succeed in this small thing, you can then add something else in (i.e. “I will now eat less pasta”). Our eating, something that we do every day, then starts to shift gradually and sustainably, helping us to ultimately be healthier.
2. Beliefs before behaviours.
The other part of the challenge is that when we focus on our behaviour, we don’t necessarily examine the beliefs that underpin our behaviour. Psychologists have researched for over 40 years the phenomena of internal consistency. The idea is that we are unconsciously driven to align our beliefs, feelings and actions. If we change our behaviour without examining our beliefs, we have only worked on one part of the equation. This means that we’ll be driven to revert to our old patterns. For example, whilst I want to eat in a way that’s healthier, I actually believe that being healthy is boring. So if I never address that underlying belief, I will invariably revert back to my more ‘fun’ and unhealthy behaviour.
What’s the moral of the story? Keep your changes realistic and do-able if you want to set yourself up for success. And the masterclass? Work on your beliefs AND behaviour together, for resolutions that’ll last the whole year.
Amanda is Walking the Talk’s Regional Director Europe. Holding a Master’s Degree in Organisation Psychology from the University of London, Amanda has worked for over 15 years with Executive teams, Senior Leaders and all levels of employees across a range of industries to create organisational transformation.
You can follow her on Twitter @afajak