Health clubs experience a surge in membership at the beginning of every new year. A few weeks later, these same people who signed up so enthusiastically are nowhere to be found. Fad diet books make their authors wealthy, but few of the people who bought them so eagerly and zealously began their diets, will stick to them for long. Before the New Year, people often decide to improve themselves drastically, only to find themselves in the same bad habits a few weeks, days, or even hours later.
As we all know, it’s hard to change. It’s easy to decide to change, easy to promise to change, and not that difficult to change for a short while. What’s difficult, is changing significant aspects of our lives, and at least as difficult, is maintaining these changes long-term.
There are a number of reasons for this:
- Habits are hard to break. Exacerbating this is the fact that we become less flexible as we get older. (This is true physically as well; a baby can easily chew on it’s toes, how many people over the age of 20 can do that without ending up in traction?) The longer a person behaves in a certain way, the more difficult it will be to change that behavior.
- Changing is admitting that you were wrong. Admitting being wrong is not something we enjoy, even for a trivial matter. How much more so, when the wrong being admitted is something that a person has been doing for years, or even a lifetime, and may even be a major part of a person’s life? It’s much easier to justify or ignore these behaviors than to change them.
This all sounds pretty discouraging. How are we supposed to ever improve ourselves if change is so hard?
I have a T-Shirt that says “Motivation will get you started; discipline will get you there.” I have always found this to be poignant. Rosh Hashana has just passed, and we are hopefully motivated to think about what’s important in life and to commit ourselves to self-improvement. We’re experiencing the motivation. So now’s the time to get to the discipline.
While being disciplined is important, equally important is being disciplined in an educated and effective way.
The key to successful change is taking small, meaningful steps.
If a bodybuilder is able to lift 100 pounds, and wants to increase this limit to 200 pounds; the best way to do this is by slowly moving up, increasing the weights in increments of 5 pounds or so. Obviously, moving up 50 pounds at a time would not be effective, and any bodybuilder who tries to increase his capacity so quickly would be doomed to failure (and injury!)
This is common sense, and everyone knows it’s true, but as with anything related to self-change, it’s easier to know than to do. Whatever change a person wants to make, it’s important to identify specific goals to be reached, and to divide this goal into small and manageable objectives, set within a reasonable time frame. Otherwise, no matter how motivated a person is, he or she will fail, become discouraged, and give up rather quickly.
Another key concept in self-improvement is to expect setbacks. If a person embarks on a self-improvement project of any type expecting the path to be smooth and unhindered, this will lead to disappointment. This is clearly seen in addiction treatment – it’s vital for a recovering addict to expect failures and relapses, and to consider these part of the recovery process. This is because relapses are almost inevitable, and if the addict has an “all-or-nothing” attitude towards beating the addiction, these relapses can trigger total abandonment of the goal of recovery.
Bad habits are similar in many ways to addictions. If a person wants to change significantly, relapses and failures must be expected and considered to be a part of the self-improvement process. Expecting and tolerating these setbacks successfully will avert frustration, anger, and failure.
Another analogy to the process of self-improvement is a stock chart. If you’ve ever seen one of these, you’ll notice that even the best-performing stocks are not represented by a straight line pointing directly upward. Actually, the stock could have regressed thousands of times on the period represented by the chart, sometimes many times per day. It’s ultimate success, however, is due to the fact that it overcomes these downturns, and consistently trends upward. By doing so, it becomes considerably more valuable with the passage of time.
So, if you made some New Year’s resolutions in past years and they don’t seem to have worked out, don’t give up. Take a step back, breathe deeply, and relax. Then, for this year, redefine your goals for self-improvement. Set a concrete, realistic timetable for achieving them, and commit to being patient with yourself. Allow yourself to not be perfect, and enjoy the process of improving your life.