How to make long-lasting positive change in your life?

“Whenever you find yourself on the side of the majority, it is time to pause and reflect.” – Mark Twain

(Note: This is a relatively long article, if you don’t have that much time skip right down to bottom for the “Spark Notes” of this article.)

Why is it that you struggle to make long lasting positive impact. Why is it that the fudge sundae at the diner seems irresistible and you can’t control ourselves from eating it? Why does it seem like some higher power takes control over you and makes you do things you will regret and you know will not contribute towards achieving your goal? Why is it that some days you are easily able to follow your discipline and others you can’t? This post will answer these perplexing questions.

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Understanding Will Power 

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There is this serious misconception that when you do not follow through and succumb to temptation you’re just a jelly fish and that you need to be more disciplined. So every time you falter you beat yourself up, and promise next time will be different. But it never is. This paradigm is a loser’s strategy and is the main reason for the questions above that may ruminate throughout your heads on a daily basis.

Will power is NOT a fixed trait but is very dynamic. Comparing will power to a muscle is a very illuminating analogy. While you can have the strongest muscle in the world, it will not function well if it is overtaxed. Have you ever noticed that you are much more likely to reach for candy instead of vegetables at the end of a hard and stressful day then at the beginning of the day after a great night of sleep? But how can YOU leverage this knowledge to improve your adherence to positive changes you wish to make in your life?

Firstly, make no more than one or two minor changes to your daily lifestyle at one time. Any more will just overburden your will power “muscles” and cause you sooner or later to revert back to your old patterns and give up the positive changes. Secondly, it is vital that throughout your day that you remain cognizant that your will power is a limited resource and that you don’t indiscriminately use it. Perfectionism (speaking from experience) only leads to heart ache. Embrace your imperfections and set up as much fail-safes to prevent temptation from being present. For example don’t have any junk food in the kitchen, so at the end of a long hard day you have nothing to do but eat that delicious whole food meal.

This understanding will help dramatically improve your compliance with making positive changes. But it begs the question: if willpower is a “muscle” how can we improve it? There are two main ways in my experience that have worked wonders in improving my will power. Firstly, you need to constantly push your will power just a little bit each day. For example, declare that you will make your bed every morning. But, one very important caveat if you are going to do this is: whenever you decide you are going to make a change you need to follow through NO matter what. Otherwise you will develop the habit of failure and you will teach your brain that you never follow through so what’s the point of adhering to the disciplines you set forth in the first place. Secondly, as Sam mentioned in an earlier post, mindfulness practice or meditation will dramatically improve your will power, and it has to do with something regarding the habit loop (discussed below).

Habits – “Why we do what we do.”

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As discussed above, how does meditation/mindfulness help improve will power? What meditation and mindfulness practice does it causes the pre-frontal cortex to short circuit this habit loop temporarily and delay the time between cue and routine which can prevent the negative behavior for occurring. For example, instead of instantly grabbing that cupcake to assuage your worries you will more likely pause and reflect if that is really the course of action you wish to take.

To any readers of the Power of the Habit this diagram above will be very familiar. Over 90% of our daily lives are habits that occur due to a specific cue. This helps explains why will power alone will always fail when trying to make long-lasting positive changes in your life. Even if you can will yourself to not automatically complete the routine in response to a specific cue, there will be a moment when your will power becomes overtaxed due to extenuating circumstances and you will falter and revert to your old behavior. This explains why alcoholics/smokers have a high tendency to revert back to old patterns. There are two very important keys to make sure that you follow through with making positive change and create new and empowering habits.

1. You need to develop a new routine that will replace your old one. For example when you feel overwhelmed and stressed out from work do not instantly grab for that bag of potato chips but, for example, every time you have that craving get out your favorite pack of gum and start vigorously chewing. A lot of times you’re just craving a distraction and not the actual calories.

2. You need to have a belief in something outside of yourself that you can and will follow through and sustain this positive change. In the power of habit they completed a case study of Alcoholics Anonymous (AA) and were trying to determine the “secret ingredient” to their success. They found out that the emphasis on introducing religion into their participants lives was the key component that allowed some to never touch a drink again while others would falter. At first you may be skeptical as a lot of people who go through the AA program are, but sooner or later everyone will experience an significant event, such as a parent dying that will push them over the edge and cause them to revert back to their old disempowering habits if they don’t have a belief in something bigger than themselves that will propel them through. The key scientific principle that helps supports this principle is that old neural pathways never disappear but only get weakened. That is why an alcoholic can never drink again. If he tries to drink in moderation his brain will instantly being firing up the addiction pathways.

If you find this topic of understanding and changing habits interesting, I would highly recommend you read the Power of Habits. One of the top five influential books I have ever read.

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Summary (“Spark Notes.”)

1. Will power is a limited resource. Use it wisely!

2. Don’t overload your will power by trying to make more than two changes to your lifestyle at a time (one is best, and it should be a small change)

3. Understanding habits and the habit loop is vital to understanding why you do what you do.

4. Need to use cues to propel you into completing empowering routines instead of disempowering ones.

5. A belief in something bigger than yourself is vital to sustain positive change through adversity.

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