Whenever January is looming, my habitual tendency is to think about New Year’s resolutions.
Of course, resolutions are notoriously bad at motivating change. A book I’ve been reading, and highly recommend, begins to identify why.
Helping People Change, by Richard Boyatzis, talks about two kinds of efforts to help people to change.
One, by far the most traditional, is compliance. You could also call this accountability.
This fits right in the standard New Year’s resolution. You know the one. I’m going to lose 25 pounds. I’m going to stop being so lazy. I’m going to hire a personal trainer to meet me at the gym three times a week at 6 am and we are going to GET THIS THING DONE!
That doesn’t tend to work very well.
The question is why? And the answer doesn’t have anything to do with the skill level of personal trainers.
Our wiring creates our resistance
The answer has to do with our wiring. The sympathetic nervous system (SNS) is the part of us that reacts to stress. It is the source of the fight or flight response, among other things. When our SNS is activated, we get very focused, but also, very narrow.
The parasympathetic nervous system (PNS) is the part of us that rests and recovers from stress. When our PNS is activated, we are more open, more relaxed, and more able to consider and create new possibilities in that calm, open space.
When we are making changes, by definition we are creating something new. But our bodies and brains. want things to stay the same (this is called homeostasis), and they resist anything new. (When you can’t stop thinking about chocolate cake two days after you started your New Year’s diet, this is homeostasis in action.)
The traditional approach is to try to overwhelm that resistance with a plan, very specific things to do, through a closed, compliance-based system. The problem with this is that it also activates the SNS. This creates adrenaline and cortisol and stress, and, ironically, even stronger homeostasis against the very change we are trying to create.
A different approach
What to do instead? Boyatzis calls this alternative approach coaching from compassion.
When we are compassionate, with ourselves or with those we are helping, we open up to new possibilities, to new ideals. And the research suggests that if we start from a place of identifying our ideal self, we have a much higher chance of success.
Maybe that ideal self weighs less, but maybe, if we look behind that initial goal, we see something else. Maybe we just want to be more active or to eat in a way that makes us better. Maybe our ideal self wants something else first—to meditate more or to spend more time with family.
But the crucial part is to allow that exploration to occur. To allow that ideal self to emerge, rather than to be an automatic reaction. Exploring, dreaming even, activates the PNS. It reduces stress and self-judgment and other negativity, and increases love and compassion and awe.
Creating from possibility
The first step, then, is to create, to visualize, and even fall in love with, our ideal self.
And then from that place, we can ask, “What kinds of habits does that ideal self have?”
And only then do we create a plan.
I ask you, as you consider 2020—
Who is your ideal self? What does your ideal self want to create in the world? What kind of habits will support that self and that creation?
If you start from there, your chances of success are much greater. And you might be surprised by what that success actually looks like.
The key is to start, and to be willing to be surprised.
Good luck in starting that journey in 2020.
Happy Holidays, and Happy New Year.