5 Step Guide - for making lifelong changes
We are seeking to make changes but more often than not, we fail to make changes last or sticky. We start on them excitedly and midway fall back to old norms. Here is a framework on how to make lasting changes in life.
Human beings — you, I and everyone else — are creatures of habit. Anywhere between 40–70% of our day to day runs on auto-pilot i.e. we don’t think about it, we just do it. Simple things like brushing our teeth in morning, taking shower, these are all on auto-pilot. Of course growing up our parents had to force us to do them but eventually they became a habit and now we don’t question why should we do it. We just do it.
That is the power of habit — smooth sailing. To make a change last, we have to create a habit out of it.
Habits are also not just physical habits like showering, exercising etc. We also have mental habits (how we think) and emotional habits (how we react). Below framework is applicable to creating any of the physical, mental or emotional habits.
So let’s get into the process of change. It has 3 phases. 1) Pre-planning phase. 2) Planning phase 3) Recovery phase
PHASE 1: Pre-planning
Step 1: Awareness: You becoming aware of your desire to change. Lot of times we go about life annoyed about things that bother us, but we don’t consciously take note of the fact that we have a desire to change. We assume things will not or cannot change, so we continue our auto-pilot. This is the most important part. You becoming aware that you have a desire to change something. This is not about how to get it. This is why you want it. This is your vision, dream or longing. It can be very broad but it has to be deeply felt. It could be anything from getting healthier so you can dance again, to creating a life of adventure, to serving community. A very simple example lately is sitting at home all day in front of computer, my back aches a lot. My desire is to get rid of my back pain and feel supple in body. There are a million ways for me to do that from yoga, to running, dancing, taking breaks, standing desk etc. But my desire is getting rid of back pain and feeling supple that is what I need to get aware of.
Step 2: Acknowledgement: The ideas and desires that live inside our mind — the invisible world, need to come out and take a shape and form in the physical and visible world. This could be telling your partner what your desire is and let them witness you. Or get on a phone with a friend, parent and telling them. Or just put a post on your social media, a diary entry or take a picture of something that represents your desire and stick it on your fridge. It does not matter how you do it, but it needs to take a shape and form in the real world (verbal/visual/written). Inside the invisible world of your mind, dreams may get lost and buried as that’s where they are fighting battles with your fears and shame too.
Step 3: Allow/Permit: This is THE MOST important and overlooked step. PERMISSION. There are 2 aspects to “allowing”: 1) are you allowed to pursue this desire, 2) are you worthy of / deserve the outcome. There is a saying that “you don’t get what you deserve. You get what you think you deserve”. For most of us and especially women, we are all conditioned beings. Now “What is conditioning?” — It is basically someone telling us what is allowed under what circumstances. So we build this glass box of these conditions inside which we live. Now think of “permission” as a window in that box that you get to put your hand out and feel the air and eventually you can break the glass box. But the first thing you need to do it give yourself permission to pursue your dream and remind yourself that you are worthy of it. This is NOT you getting permission from others. This is you giving yourself permission. In my e.g. I wanted to do some physical movement. Now the time that worked for me was after work and before dinner. I know that by exercising before dinner, I was pushing the dinner time out. And in my conditioning of putting family before me, I was not allowed. So I had to explicitly give myself permission to do it and fight my guilt that kept popping back up. Also I had to have a negotiation with my partner on how much longer is ok to push dinner by to squeeze in my exercise.
Now we are aware of our dreams, we have acknowledged them, and we have allowed ourselves to pursue them. Next comes the tactical part.
PHASE 2: Planning
Step 4: The PLAN: This is where rubber meets the road. And you come up with plans on how to pursue your dream and make the change. This is the fun and creative part with some strategic thinking. There are many possible plans. However the plan should have following pieces
4.A: Micro-habit: There is a lot of research done on effectiveness of “micro habits”. These are the smallest little things you can do that are guaranteed to succeed. E.g. in my case I plan to do yoga to get rid of my back pain. But before I can make a regular habit of it, I focused on creating the micro-habit of just rolling out my yoga mat and laying down on it to rest. This is something that is easy, why would I say no to laying down and resting :). Good news is once I lay down, for 5 mins I feel like doing the next asana and that is the magic. Getting started is the 50% of the battle. And the micro-habit helps you with the getting started hump. Another example of a micro-habit that helps with the larger habit of eating healthy, is when I want to overeat, I allow myself to be lazy and wait for 1–2 mins before getting up to get second serving. Now who does not like being lazy. But what happens is in those 2 mins my urge to eat subsides and I either skip it or take a much smaller serving.
4.B: Trigger: What is the trigger for you to do the micro-habit action. For my yoga, it was a event based trigger. As soon as I come back from walking my dog, I do yoga. Trigger could be event based or time based. The best thing is if you can take an existing habit and make that a trigger for new micro-habit then it increases the chances of you following through your new micro-habit. For example if you couple the new habit of flossing with shower, then chances are when you shower every day you might successfully end up flossing too.
4.C: Reward: Once you do your micro-habit, congratulate yourself on the smallest of smallest victories. Don’t beat yourself for not doing more. Instead appreciate that you could do whatever little thing you did. You can even have external rewards like if I don’t take a second serving, I get to have a piece of chocolate. Or if I do yoga even for 5 mins, then I get to watch TV or boast about it on social media. Whatever your reward is from a simple inner congratulations to physical material reward, you can do it.
4.D: Don’t get greedy: Most of us have perfectionist inside and the perfect is enemy of best. So don’t try to do too many new habits at the same time. Start with one thing let it become bigger and stickier and then you can go on to next thing. So if start a plan of I will eat the healthiest and exercise and sleep on time and wake up on time and……. nothing will stick. Every long journey starts with small first step and then is made up just step after step. So one step at a time.
4.E: Commit to the plan. Commitment releases huge amounts of energy. All the energy that trapped in desire, fear and indecision is now available to go towards this plan. Also commitment is like “pre-decision”. It’s like your current calm self has decided for future tired self. For e.g. when I come back from walking my dog if I am damn tired and then I ask myself “should I do yoga or not” the answer is obviously “eh skip it” . But since my past relaxed self made a decision already and hence my current self might honor the decision and stick to it. Of course my yoga may not be as intense or as long but I will still get on my mat, lie down and do a little bit. It’s going through the motions of it and that is what will form the habit.
PHASE 3: Recovery
Step 5: The learning and Recovery PLAN: Probably most of you already knew of things I said so far. But now the last element of change and most critical that most of the people miss is “Recovery plan”. What this means is that when you mess up, what are you going to do. Default reaction will be of self-criticism — “I am just not capable of making this change” or “I failed and just not in me”. But instead we need a plan for kindness and support. Learning from what is working and what is not without judgement. Also created a support circle you can lean on to keep you on track and motivated. It could be an online group or find a buddy who is also doing this with you. Or your loved ones who can remind you of what you are capable of. For e.g. I am allowed to miss yoga 2 times a week. Also when I miss my yoga, I am allowed to return the next day without judgement. I am also allowed to mess up and learn from it. I joined an online website to follow along videos to help too.
If the change we are making is fear or ego based it will be short lived. Fear and ego are great catalyst but they are not sustainable fuels. For e.g. if I want to beat my friend and do better yoga than them — this is ego based. Or another e.g. is when you say to yourself, I am afraid of failing at my job and I don’t it — this is fear based. Think of ego and fear as your “booster mode in a car video game”. You turn on your boost mode, and you suddenly go very fast but for a short while and then they get over. So for long run tap in your what you want (not what you don’t want or what) and have that desire be based on yourself vs a comparison with others.
These phases and steps will have to iterative and may not follow a strict sequence. But as long as you have all these components and use kindness and curiosity underneath you will be able to make a change and have it stick!
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