January Revolutions v. Gradual Change
Did you, like me, wake up to stupendous sunshine and blue sky on new year’s day and fleetingly entertain the idea of new year’s revolutions? That bold, life-giving copper coin has a way of filling us with hope, optimism, possibility and on January 1st has the extra power of instilling in us the belief we can make radical changes to our behaviour with ease. In this post I’m sharing how gradually improving an aspect of ourselves, whatever the weather, is probably better than attempting to revolutionise it.
Long time readers of my columns know I’m not into new year’s resolutions and instead promote behavioural flexibility – trying new things, expanding behavioural repertoires, challenging habits – as on ongoing thing rather than a January fad. If change is on your mind you might find the other posts from Januarys past, marked at the bottom of this post, useful.
So, onto ‘getting better’ and three ways to gradually get better at something rather than attempting a January revolution. To give you a little context, I recognized the need to make a change in my attitude towards one of my children. She’s a small, squeaky honey of a four year old who I adore but who does my head in a good proportion of the time, particularly when she says ‘mummy can I help you?” If I’m honest, these are words I dread when in the kitchen trying to get into state of flow (that restorative state where we’re completely absorbed by the task in hand which in the case of cooking is me making the best of a necessary domestic activity). But seeing her slink away without a fight when I turn her down makes me feel bad as I reflect on how she must be feeling at my rejection. So I’ve made a pact with myself to get better at graciously involving the little honey in my activities. Here’s how I’ve set about it:
- Modelling a person who’s really good at it
We’re social creatures; we learn from watching others. In my case I watch my mother-in-law in action who is patience personified. She’s warm, accommodating and always finds a way to let Artemis be involved in whatever she’s doing. Ironically, as I type Artemis has sidled up to me and thank goodness she hasn’t asked to help or else I’d really be in a hypocritical bind. Who do you – or could you – take notice of because they’re nailed the ‘thing’ you’re looking to get better at? How does he or she keep the behaviour up under pressure? Spend a bit of time observing and then gradually introduce a bit of how they do things into your approach. For instance if you’re keen to up your presence at work look around and tune into who gets noticed, listened to and respected. There’ll be a whole series of interconnected things they do – dress, tone of voice, choice of words, body language etc – that confers this presence on them. Your task is to start experimenting with a couple of those elements yourself. Also keep in mind this person’s behaviours and thinking style by asking yourself ‘what would X do/say/think in this situation?’
- Aim for the behaviour 80% of the time
We can only will ourselves to behave differently for so much of the time because, as psychologists have discovered, willpower is like a muscle and it gets fatigued. So for example, if you’re aiming to get fit through five short burst of exercise a week, managing to do that for 40 weeks this year would be a top result. And we’re talking about ‘getting better’ here which means building up to 80% of the time, not 80% of the time right now, so it may be that aiming to do two short burst/week in January and three/week in Feb would be more realistic, particularly if you’re starting from zero.
- Keep the WIFM factor front of mind
We’re motivated to do things either for short term pleasure or long term gain and making a change usually hinges on us focusing on the latter. Ask what will I get for toiling away trying to be different? (WIFM = what’s in it for me?) Before and throughout your journey to behaving differently, be clear on how things will be better for you. What’s the prize? How will you benefit? In my case it’s about feeling good in my role as a parent (and avoiding feeling bad), taking pleasure in my daughter’s pleasure and knowing that I’m growing as a person by continuing to challenge myself.
January revolutions sound sexy but rarely deliver so here’s to a month of growth and incremental change instead. You might also like these other psychology-based columns on personal change:
This post was inspired by Muraven, M. and Baumeister, B. F. (2000) Self regulation and depletion of limited resources: Does elf control resemble a muscle? Psychological Bulletin, 126, 2, pages 247-259.
‘Change’ image by David Reece.