Wednesday 26 October 2016

Well-being: Baby steps... to make long term change

Lasting change happens incrementally

Published 05/01/2016 | 02:30

You might decide to stop drinking fizzy drinks in 2016.
You might decide to stop drinking fizzy drinks in 2016.

January is the month of change. Gyms are joined and diets are started. Resolutions are taken up and habits are given up. There is an idea that New Year's resolutions don't work. That's not entirely true. Change is always possible as long as the goal is specific, consistent and, most importantly, manageable.

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Many of us have a tendency to set big, broad resolutions. Lose weight. Start a business. Meet someone... These are the resolutions that don't work because they are much too vague for goals that are so high-reaching.

Lose weight. How much and how exactly? Start a business. Start at the start then. Meet someone. Anyone?

You may as well put 'fly rocket ship to Mars' on that to-do list because you have about as much chance...

We unconsciously filter out these goals when we see them in front of us because they are much too formidable to process.

In the words of Lao Tzu, "A journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step". In other words, make the single step rather than the destination your goal.

Lose weight. Try 'give up fizzy drinks' instead. Start a business. Try 'sign up for Start Your Own Business course in Local Enterprise Office'.

As the old proverb goes, "It is better to take many small steps in the right direction than to make a great leap forward only to stumble backward".

Change begets change. If you give up fizzy drinks, the likelihood is that the small victory will motivate you to make another healthy lifestyle change. In fact, a study published in the Annals of Behavioral Medicine found that participants who made one small change in their food choices lost more than twice as much belly fat as those on a traditional calorie-restricted diet.

Likewise, if you turn up to the first evening of a Start Your Own Business course, you'll probably go to the second one and then the third one.

The wardrobe you've been meaning to clean out? Start with one shelf. The book you want to read? Start with two pages. The friend you've been meaning to catch up with? Send her a text to tell her that you're thinking of her.

Elsewhere, time-management experts often advise those who have problems with procrastination to commit just five minutes to the task.

Baby steps don't just make tasks more doable - they make them more conquerable too. Something wonderful happens when we commit to just one shelf or two pages. We tend to keep going.

The idea of moving slowly and steadily can be off-putting to those who want to achieve their goals right now, or at least by Friday. However, motion and momentum are two very different things - and let's not forget that the tortoise beat the hare. The baby step approach builds momentum. By making small, incremental changes, you will soon be driven by a force bigger than the goal itself.

The late Robert Collier described this phenomenon beautifully: "Take the first step," he wrote, "and your mind will mobilise all its forces to your aid. But the first essential is that you begin. Once the battle is started, all that is within and without you will come to your assistance".

Think of it as sowing seeds and remember that the changes we make slowly and surely have stronger and deeper roots. Or, as the late Robert Louis Stevenson wrote, "Don't judge each day by the harvest you reap but by the seeds that you plant".

The idea of changing your life or losing 10 pounds in seven days is certainly seductive. However, real change takes time. Even the decision to go cold turkey and give up smoking or quit sugar is preceded by a period of contemplation and preparation.

Remember too that spring cleans, body blitzes and image overhauls are what we do after periods of letting certain aspects of our lives become stagnant.

Some people follow a western 'continuous improvement' philosophy that has been loosely inspired by the Japanese personal efficiency technique known as kaizen. They believe that real progress happens incrementally, hence they chip away at tasks and goals on a daily basis.

They clean their plates after eating rather than let them pile up, just as they delete emails from their inbox before they leave the office each evening. More to the point, they don't abstain in January because they didn't overindulge in December.

Continuous improvement is fundamentally about flow and the integrating of polarities. The result is a life of less-pronounced highs and lows, which sounds wonderful for everyone except all-or-nothing personalities, who have either stopped reading or zoned out at this point.

They want change to be immediate, even if they often end up right back where they started within a few days. If this sounds like you, why not make it your New Year's resolution to take up a hobby or sport for which progress is tangible?

Think gardening, weight training or Couch to 5k. You'll soon see that consistent small steps lead to big changes.

Otherwise, break this year's resolution down into small, manageable steps. Lasting change doesn't happen overnight. It happens over time.

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