Six Keys to Change

January 17th, 2011

Six Keys to Changing Almost Anything

Change is hard. New Year’s resolutions almost always fail. But at The Energy Project, we have developed a way of making changes that has proved remarkably powerful and enduring, both in my own life and for the corporate clients to whom we teach it.

Our method is grounded in the recognition that human being are creatures of habit. Fully 95 percent of our behaviors are habitual, or occur in response to a strong external stimulus. Only 5 percent of our choices are consciously self-selected.

In 1911, the mathematician Alfred North Whitehead intuited what researchers would confirm nearly a century later. “It is a profoundly erroneous truism,” he wrote, “that we should cultivate the habit of thinking of what we are doing. The precise opposite is the case. Civilization advances by extending the number of important operations which we can perform without thinking about them.”

Most of us wildly overvalue our will and discipline. Ingenious research by Roy Baumeister and others has demonstrated that our self-control is a severely limited resource that gets progressively depleted by every act of conscious self-regulation.

In order to make change that lasts, we must rely less on our prefrontal cortex, and more on co-opting the primitive parts of our brain in which habits are formed.

Put simply, the more behaviors are ritualized and routinized — in the form of a deliberate practice — the less energy they require to launch, and the more they recur automatically

What follows are our six key steps to making change that lasts:

1. Be Highly Precise and Specific. Imagine a typical New Year’s resolution to “exercise regularly.” It’s a prescription for failure. You have a vastly higher chance for success if you decide in advance the days and times, and precisely what you’re going to do on each of them.

Say instead that you commit to do a cardiovascular work out Monday, Wednesday and Friday at 6 a.m., for 30 minutes. If something beyond your control forces you to miss one of those days, you automatically default to doing that workout instead on Saturday at 9 a.m.

Researchers call those “implementation intentions” and they dramatically increase your odds of success.

2. Take on one new challenge at a time. Over the years, I’ve established a broad range of routines and practices, ranging from ones for weight training and running, to doing the most important thing first every morning without interruption for 90 minutes and then taking a break to spending 90 minutes talking with my wife about the previous week on Saturday mornings.

In each case, I gave the new practice I was launching my sole focus. Even then, in some cases, it’s taken several tries before I was able to stay at the behavior long enough for it to become essentially automatic.

Computers can run several programs simultaneously. Human beings operate best when we take on one thing at a time, sequentially.

3. Not too much, not too little. The most obvious mistake we make when we try to change something in our lives is that we bite off more than it turns out we can chew. Imagine that after doing no exercise at all for the past year, for example, you get inspired and launch a regimen of jogging for 30 minutes, five days a week. Chances are high that you’ll find exercising that much so painful you’ll quit after a few sessions.

It’s also easy to go to the other extreme, and take on too little. So you launch a 10-minute walk at lunchtime three days a week and stay at it. The problem is that you don’t feel any better for it after several weeks, and your motivation fades.

The only way to truly grow is to challenge your current comfort zone. The trick is finding a middle ground — pushing yourself hard enough that you get some real gain, but not too much that you find yourself unwilling to stay at it.

4. What we resist persists.

Think about sitting in front of a plate of fragrant chocolate chip cookies over an extended period of time. Diets fail the vast majority of time because they’re typically built around regularly resisting food we enjoy eating. Eventually, we run up against our limited reservoir of self control.

The same is true of trying to ignore the Pavlovian ping of incoming emails while you’re working on an important project that deserves your full attention.

The only reasonable answer is to avoid the temptation. With email, the more effective practice is turn it off entirely at designated times, and then answer it in chunks at others. For dieters, it’s to keep food you don’t want to eat out of sight, and focus your diet instead on what you are going to eat, at which times, and in what portion sizes. The less you have to think about what to do, the more successful you’re likely to be.

5. Competing Commitments.

We all derive a sense of comfort and safety from doing what we’ve always done, even if it isn’t ultimately serving us well. Researchers Robert Kegan and Lisa Lahey call this “immunity to change.” Even the most passionate commitment to change, they’ve shown, is invariably counterbalanced by an equally powerful but often unseen “competing” commitment not to change.

Here’s a very simple way to surface your competing commitment. Think about a change you really want to make. Now ask yourself what you’re currently doing or not doing to undermine that primary commitment. If you are trying to get more focused on important priorities, for example, your competing commitment might be the desire to be highly responsive and available to those emailing you.

For any change effort you launch, it’s key to surface your competing commitment and then ask yourself “How can I design this practice so I get the desired benefits but also minimize the costs I fear it will prompt?”

6. Keep the faith.

Change is hard. It is painful. And you will experience failure at times. The average person launches a change effort six separate times before it finally takes. But follow the steps above, and I can tell you from my own experience and that of thousands of clients that you will succeed, and probably without multiple failures.

Book Review: Fearless

October 12th, 2009

Struggling with fear? Worry? Doubt? This book may be just the prescription for you. In his typical easy-to-read style, author Max Lucado has given us a template to use in overcoming fears we all face. Fears that the Bible calls, “common to man” (1 Corinthians 10:13).

While I am one who enjoys reading on a deeper level than Mr. Lucado writes, I found myself unable to put the book down. He has some very interesting assessments of life, of situations, and the depths to which we will go to retain our fear instead of releasing it.

I particularly liked that the author stayed away from “cutesy” sayings, (e.g., “When life gives you lemons, make lemonade.”).

Book Review: Find Your Strongest Life!

October 7th, 2009

I have been a fan of Marcus Buckingham since I saw him on Oprah.  That led me to download his audio book of “Putting Your Strengths to Work.” 

In all of Marcus’ work, his basic premise is this:

Most of us were taught by our parents and teachers that the secret to success is improving our weaknesses. As it turns out, this is completely wrong-headed. You can focus on your weaknesses all you want, but you will likely only make marginal improvements. However, if you will focus on your strengths—those things that you are naturally good at and come easily to you—you can make huge strides. In fact, when you do so, you will be more happy and fulfilled. Not only that, you will make your greatest contribution to the world.

In Finding Your Strongest Life, Marcus applies this basic message to women. Of course, like most books written strictly for women, the principles apply across genders.

Here’s the crazy thing. Based on what you watch on TV and read in magazines, you would think that modern women already have it figured out. Since the feminist movement was launched four decades ago, women have secured better job prospects, greater acknowledgement for achievement, wider influence, more free time, and higher salaries. (Marcus documents all of this in his book.)

And yet, several recent studies reveal that women have gradually become less happy than they were 40 years ago—and less happy than men. And while the research indicates that men get happier as they age, women, by contrast, grow sadder as they get older. Does this mean that women should return to a world of fewer choices and opportunities?

Let’s be honest here.  How many of us walk through the mall and wonder why we see so many older women together.  Where are the men?  Should women return to fewer choices and be stay-at-home moms?

“No,” says, Marcus, but they must discover the unique role they were designed to play and stop trying to conform to everyone else’s expectations. In the book, Marcus reveals:

  • Ten common myths about women
  • The paradox of declining female happiness—at work and at home
  • Why the “juggler” metaphor is inadequate and disempowering
  • The characteristics of a strong life and the quest for strong moments
  • An online diagnostic tool to determine the role you were born to play
  • Specific strategies for understanding and maximizing each of the nine roles
  • How to intentionally imbalance your life and move toward your strengths
  • Tactics for producing a stronger career, stronger relationships, stronger kids, and a stronger future

I found the book thoroughly compelling.  The bottom line is that if you are a woman (or a man who wants to help the women in your life), I think you will find this book life-changing.