THE ADVENTURE OF LIVING
We are what we repeatedly do. Excellence, then, is not an act, but a habit.
“This year, I'm going to stop worrying so much.”
“I will get in shape, once and for all.”
“I'll stop spending beyond my means.”
“I'll get along better with my family.”
“I'll start that business I've always dreamed about.”
“I'll begin volunteering in my community.”
“I'll finally learn Spanish.”
How many of us have made a resolution similar to one of these? We all have something we want to change about ourselves or learn to do. Some of us want to lose weight, become more organized, or quit smoking. Others want to tackle the more existential longings: a sense of purpose, more work/life balance, the courage to leave an unfulfilling career and start over. Whether it's New Year’s Day, an important birthday, after a divorce, or just because we're fed up, at some point we vow to do that one thing we’ve always wanted—make that one leap we are afraid of or give up the thing that plagues us. But by the time the rosy blush of good intentions wears off, the resolution gets pushed aside. Not because we don’t still long to have what it is we really want; but because we just don’t know how to change.
I believe that people can change. Not just superficially, or temporarily. I believe that we have the ability within us to truly rearrange our inner landscape and make changes happen within ourselves and our lives. This is the cornerstone of all the books I have written and all the work I do with my clients: the awareness that we can stop doing the things that hold us back or cause us suffering and create a life filled with meaning, peace, and ultimately, happiness. We can make a dream come true or bring something new into being. Big or small, grandiose or humble, we can have the things we want in life.
But it’s not easy, as anyone who has tried to change a habit or do something new knows. Our brains create strong tendencies to do the same thing over and over. We say we're going to change, we may even do it for a little while, but soon we find ourselves back to our old habits.
To bring new behavior into being takes work. Our brains have enormous “plasticity,” meaning they can create new cells and pathways. But it takes certain mental preparation, particular awarenesses and attitudes, and lots of practice to create a pathway to the new options (six to nine months, say many brain scientists—so much for those seven-day wonder programs).
Change requires that we stretch not only mentally, but emotionally and spiritually. It takes energy, determination, and aspiration, the ability to intentionally bring into being something we want. It requires starting over when we blow it or get discouraged. We may be forced to question our assumptions about what we’re capable of, or confront our deepest fears. An acquaintance starting his own Internet business once told me, “My whole life I've been afraid of looking like a fool, afraid I've got a sign on my back reading ‘Idiot.’ But to get my business going, I’ll have to keep talking to people who say my idea will never work and believe enough in myself and my concept to keep moving forward.” When you go toward what you want in your life, you may find yourself in similarly challenging places.
To top it all off, what works for one person doesn’t necessarily apply to another, so the advice you get from magazines, books, and the Internet may not be particularly useful for you. The good news, however, is that once you learn your particular success formula, once you’ve cultivated new inner and outer emotional, mental, and spiritual resources, you can apply those to anything you want to cultivate in yourself.
Do you keep hoping that a magic fairy will appear to make your dreams come true? That if you just read enough issues of Shape
those thunder thighs will disappear? You’re not alone. Most of us are not concrete enough about what we want, are unrealistic about what we can reasonably ask ourselves to learn, and don't know how to track our progress.
Here’s what a new client of mine said he wanted to learn in three months: “to be less nitpicky and fearful; to be more optimistic, to be more responsible and empathetic; to be more creative; to be more productive; to live a healthier life and to take better care of myself.” “How about create world peace while you're at it?” I replied. “And what does 'more' mean anyway? Even if it were possible to focus on all of this in that time frame, how will you know if you are more of any of these things?”
As this client so touchingly demonstrated, we expect too much of ourselves and we expect to change overnight. When that doesn’t happen, we resign ourselves to staying the same, convinced that we are hopeless, weak, or unmotivated—which makes us even more stuck. As another of my client, eager to lose weight, puts it, “Once I eat the first cookie, I figure I might as well go through the whole box.”
Social scientists tell us that when we change a habit or follow a dream we go through five stages: precontemplation, when we don't even know we need or want to change; contemplation, when we say to ourselves, “someday I'll do that”; preparation, when we are getting ready to do it “soon”; action, as in “I’m starting right now”; and maintenance, which means we keep going until we get where we want and stay there.
I’ve structured the book around these stages, beginning with preparing to change. I’m not here to convince you that you should overcome a bad habit or learn something new. I’m assuming you’ve already figured that out or else you wouldn’t be picking up this book. (Although at the beginning of Preparing to Change, I do offer a couple ways to choose which goal to focus on now.) This Year I Will
… is meant to be a companion after you’ve made the leap to the contemplation stage and are looking for a hand to hold on to as you move forward. Perhaps you’ve attempted this resolution before and are worried about getting stuck again. Or maybe this is a change you have no idea how to bring into being. In either case, I want to help you increase the possibility of success.
Depending on what survey you're paying attention to, approximately 45 percent of us make New Year’s resolutions, but only 8 percent succeed. Armed with the information and suggestions in this book, I know you can beat those odds. I've sifted through psychology, religion, philosophy, and brain science, as well as my experience with clients, to give you the very best advice on what actually works to get from point A to point B, no matter what your issue is. Rather than focusing on one resolution—stopping procrastination, controlling anger, finding a mate, losing weight, or getting out of debt, for instance—I will take you through the process of making whatever it is you want happen.
For the past fifteen years, as a writer and a thinking partner to executives, as a mother and a daughter, a sister, a friend, a wife, I have been consumed with understanding how and why people change. I’ve wanted to learn for myself so that I can be as effective as possible with the people whom I work with every day. What did I do to grow new habits of mind and body in myself? Where and when do I screw up? Why do some folks I talk to make significant leaps while others stay stuck? My thinking about this was intensified recently when I read that 90 percent of heart patients don't stick to the lifestyle changes they need to make in order to live longer and healthier lives. Even faced with the dramatic choice to change or die, they can't do it. I don't believe they want to die. They just don't know how to make the choice for life.
I’m also motivated by the flood of bad advice I've seen out there. As I write, I’m staring at the cover of a women’s magazine. It’s the November 28 issue and the headline blares: you, 43 lbs slimmer by Christmas! I’m sorry but you, no matter who you are, are not going to be 43 pounds slimmer in 28 days using their diet or anyone else's. Such irresponsible “advice” does a great deal of harm. Because it creates unrealistic expectations, it increases the probability we'll give up before we get where we want to go.
What I’ve come to understand is that there are three things needed to make any change, mental, emotional, or physical: desire, intent, and persistence. Each and every one of the ideas in this book strengthens one of those three elements. You will learn how to identify what you really desire; make specific, measurable, achievable goals to focus your intention; avoid common pitfalls that sap your desire and intent; and persist in the face of inevitable setbacks.
You’ll learn that the process is not about getting rid of bad habits—the pathway to your current behavior is there for life, baby—but building new, more positive ones. Even stopping a bad habit, like smoking, is really about creating a good new habit, nonsmoking. And you’ll discover that, because of the way our brains are structured, the most powerful thing you can do is to engage your emotional brain in a way that makes it easy, fun, new, and different.
Some of what you’ll read will be familiar. It’s included here because it works. Other ideas, particularly the cutting–edge brain science, will hopefully give you new perspectives and practices to try. And you won’t find some usual advice, such as to reward yourself along the way. What’s important is to find out what helps you keep momentum. For some folks that turns out to be rewards, for others it’s something totally different. You will also encounter a bit of contradictory advice, such as take a tiny first step and give yourself a very big goal. Again, that’s because each of us is unique. As I say in all of my books, take what works for you and let the rest go.
This is not an ordinary book that you read cover to cover and then put away. It's meant to be a companion to something you actually do. My hope is that after you read “Preparing to Change,” you’ll pick something specific to work on through the rest of the book. This means going through “Getting into Action,” and trying out the ideas. And it may mean coming back to “Keeping Going,” when you find yourself stuck or need to start over.
I’m passionate about This Year I Will
…because, like my past books, it hits upon a very primal and definitive human need—how to cultivate new habits. When we have this invaluable tool in our arsenal, when we know that we can actually bring about the things we want through our own efforts, the world opens up to us in new ways. We become empowered and through our empowerment, we experience greater satisfaction and fulfillment in our lives. We become the masters of our fate rather than the victims of old choices.
You'll hear from John, for instance, a client of mine who's lost thirty pounds in four months when he’s never been able to stick to a diet before. His secret? Rather than seeing cutting out fried foods (his nemesis) as depriving himself of something, he's seeing it as a choice to feel good about himself physically and emotionally. He’s incorporating one of the principles of change: “Remember What Will Truly Make You Happy.”
You’ll also meet Clea, who has been trying for years to complete her memoir and is finally writing every day rather than talking about writing. She did it by asking, “What's the price of not changing?” You’ll read about dozens of other folks who got more organized, lost weight, stopped smoking, found meaningful work, or developed greater work/life balance, to name but a few personal changes. It is my fondest hope that their stories will inspire you to take action on the things you want to make happen in your one and only precious lifetime.TOP TEN RESOLUTION PITFALLS
1. Being vague about what you want
2. Not making a serious commitment
3. Procrastinating and excuse making—no time, wrong time, dog ate my homework
4. Being unwilling to go through the awkward phase
5. Not setting up a tracking and reminder system
6. Expecting perfection, falling into guilt, shame, regret
7. Trying to go it alone
8. Telling yourself self-limiting rut stories
9. Not having backup plans
10. Turning slip-ups to give-ups
Don't despair. If you read and follow the suggestions in this book, you'll be able to navigate past these danger zones and meet with success.THIS IS YOUR LIFE CALLING
We have only this moment, sparkling like a star in our hand …and melting like a snowflake. Let us use it before it's too late.
A carpenter decided to change careers. He had two children and his wife was expecting twins. They needed a larger house, and he needed a job that brought in more money. He went to his boss to explain. The boss was reluctant to see him go, as he was a very fine carpenter. But the carpenter was determined. Finally the boss asked if he would build just one more house. The carpenter agreed. And he did build the house. But preoccupied and distracted with his family and his future, he just went through the motions. He worked on autopilot and the house wasn't up to his usual standards.
Finally the day came when the house was done. The boss came to inspect. As the two stood at the doorway, the boss handed the carpenter the key. “This is my gift to you for all the fine work you've done over the years.” The carpenter was in shock. If only he had known this was to be his house he would have paid better attention to what he was doing.
In many ways, we all live our lives like this carpenter building his last house—on automatic pilot. We go through the motions of our day without paying attention to what we’re doing and end up living a less than stellar existence.
Scientists tell us that 90 percent of our daily lives is spent in routine. Such habit is a good thing. We don’t have to think about how to brush our teeth or tie our shoes or make toast or drive a car. We learn it by practicing enough for the pathways in our brains to repeat the sequence without our “thinking” about it. That frees up our brains to do something more interesting and useful. At least in theory.
Habit is also a bad thing. Depending on what our habits are, they can become prisons of misery: habits of negative thinking, of self-destructive behavior, of patterns of inertia that are very hard to overcome. We’ve practiced those things over and over so they’ve become automatic too. And so now we are living in the shoddy house of our own making.
Excerpted from This Year I Will... by M. J. Ryan. Copyright © 2006 by M. J. Ryan. Excerpted by permission of Harmony, a division of Random House, Inc. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.