Tuesday, January 03, 2012

What Does It Take To Make New Year’s Resolutions Successful?

It’s the salutation of the season: “Happy New Year! Do you have any New Year Resolutions?”
New Year Resolutions are a double-edged sword. On the one hand, creating positive change in one’s life is good; on the other hand, our intentions often crash and burn into a sea of self-doubt – not so good.
Why is it so hard to change?
Behavior change is important in my work with clients because organization is more about behavior than organizing tools (see Getting Organized).  Our behavior is a complex subject so I study many disciplines in my journey to help the people I work with: psychology, neurology, philosophy, and spirituality are among those disciplines.
My recent article for Java Journal (my favorite newspaper), The Spark of Change: Getting Organized, blended information from several disciplines. My article mainly focused on the internal work – the head and heart stuff – that happens with change. Interestingly, NPR aired a story yesterday (January 2, “What Vietnam Taught Us About Breaking Bad Habits” by Alix Spiegel ) on the role of environment in addressing addiction. According to Duke University psychologist, David T. Neal, "People, when they perform a behavior a lot — especially in the same environment, same sort of physical setting — outsource the control of the behavior to the environment." When we practice a behavior frequently we develop environmental cues to trigger that behavior. The result is we don’t have to expend a lot of mental energy to sustain that behavior. But if we are trying to change that behavior, the environmental cues can make change difficult because of their link to the old behavior. What to do about those New Year’s Resolutions?
Wendy Wood, University of Southern California psychologist, explains that disrupting a pattern of behavior in a small way can be helpful - "It's a brief sort of window of opportunity to think, 'Is this really what I want to do?' "
Although there is still a lot we do not know about making behavior changes, the value of small changes as a path to larger change, seems to be validated.  Perhaps after we have created our list of resolutions, then our next step should be to ask what small thing can we do to get ourselves just a little closer to the goal of the resolution.  Often we approach resolutions with a “quantum leap” of behavior change – we try to change a lot very quickly. It takes a lot of effort to sustain “quantum leaps.” But it takes comparatively little energy to make a small change.  The assumption is changes that take less energy are easier to adopt than changes that take more energy. 
I think the assumption is a reasonable one. My theory is that gradual change is easier because it provides time for us to integrate changes with our environment. The process brings to mind the act of whittling. When whittling, a figurine is shaped by gradually shaving off small pieces of wood. It takes little energy to make one stroke of the knife across the wood. Additionally, with each small stroke you are evaluating and deciding where the next small stroke should be made. That is, the results of each stroke affect how the next stroke is made. But it is really hard to cut a chunk of wood with a knife. Several attempts of cutting off chunks of wood will not get you the desired figure (and you might end up getting cut in the process!). The analogy is not perfect but I think it illustrates how small changes can create a significant lasting change.
What small change can you make in becoming more organized? Perhaps just sorting the mail each day is a good start. Or putting your keys in a specific pocket of your purse is enough of a start. Many of my clients start by clearing one small area, like a tabletop, and vow to keep that small area clear. Over time the area becomes bigger.  Gradually all of the tiny successes add up and the goal is achieved.
This is not to say that the only way to permanent change is through a process of making small changes. As we know, and as I stated in the beginning, human behavior is very complex, and we do not understand all of its intricacies. However, my experience is that making small changes is one way to successful a life change.