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Six key steps to making change that lasts

Monday, December 26, 2011

1. Be Highly Precise and Specific. Imagine a typical New Year's resolution to "exercise regularly." It's a prescription for failure. You have a vastly higher chance for success if you decide in advance the days and times, and precisely what you're going to do on each of them.

Say instead that you commit to do a cardiovascular class (like Cycling) on Monday, Wednesday and Friday at 6 a.m., for 45 minutes. If something beyond your control forces you to miss one of those days, you automatically default to doing that workout instead on Saturday at 9:15 a.m.

Researchers call those "implementation intentions" and they dramatically increase your odds of success.

2. Take on one new challenge at a time. Over the years, I've established a broad range of routines and practices, ranging from ones for weight training and running, to doing the most important thing first every morning without interruption for 90 minutes. In each case, I gave the new practice I was launching my sole focus. Even then, in some cases, it's taken several tries before I was able to stay at the behavior long enough for it to become essentially automatic.

Computers can run several programs simultaneously. Human beings operate best when we take on one thing at a time, sequentially. 

3. Not too much, not too little. The most obvious mistake we make when we try to change something in our lives is that we bite off more than we can chew. Imagine that after doing no exercise at all for the past year, for example, you get inspired and launch a regimen of jogging for 30 minutes, five days a week. Chances are high that you'll find exercising that much so painful you'll quit after a few sessions.

It's also easy to go to the other extreme, and take on too little. So you launch a 10-minute walk at lunchtime three days a week and stay at it. The problem is that you don't feel any better for it after several weeks, and your motivation fades.

The only way to truly grow is to challenge your current comfort zone. The trick is finding a middle ground — pushing yourself hard enough that you get some real gain, but not too much that you find yourself unwilling to stay at it.

4. What we resist persists.

Think about sitting in front of a plate of fragrant chocolate chip cookies over an extended period of time. Diets fail the vast majority of time because they're typically built around regularly resisting food we enjoy eating. Eventually, we run up against our limited reservoir of self-control.

The same is true of trying to ignore the Pavlovian ping of incoming emails while you're working on an important project that deserves your full attention.

The only reasonable answer is to avoid the temptation. With email, the more effective practice is turn it off entirely at designated times, and then answer it in chunks at others. For dieters, it's to keep food you don't want to eat out of sight, and focus your diet instead on what you are going to eat, at which times, and in what portion sizes. The less you have to think about what to do when it is time to eat, the more successful you're likely to be.

5. Competing Commitments.

We all derive a sense of comfort and safety from doing what we've always done, even if it isn't ultimately serving us well. Researchers Robert Kegan and Lisa Lahey call this "immunity to change." Even the most passionate commitment to change, they've shown, is invariably counterbalanced by an equally powerful but often unseen "competing" commitment not to change.

Here's a very simple way to surface your competing commitment. Think about a change you really want to make. Now ask yourself what you're currently doing or not doing to undermine that primary commitment. If you are trying to get more focused on important priorities, for example, your competing commitment might be the desire to be highly responsive and available to those emailing you.

For any change effort you launch, it's key to surface your competing commitment and then ask yourself "How can I design this practice so I get the desired benefits but also minimize the costs I fear it will prompt?"

6. Keep the faith.

Change is hard. It is painful. And you will experience failure at times. The average person launches a change effort six separate times before it finally takes. But follow the steps above, and I can tell you from my own experience and that of thousands of clients that you will succeed, and probably without multiple failures.


 
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