It’s that time of year again. New Year’s resolutions for all the things we have procrastinated, avoided, run away from or just couldn’t be bothered to make time for. Getting fit, stopping smoking, cutting down on sugars or alcohol are your typical personal goals, with taking that course, learning a new skill, going for that promotion or starting your own business are more popular business related ones.
So why is it we have to wait until the New Year before getting going? Why do we need to time our ‘fresh start’ with the change in an arbitrary date invented by someone hundreds of years ago? Perhaps its just because we are too busy trying to accomplish last year’s goals or just waiting for the holidays to pass, as “nothing can be done over Christmas”?
Even if we agree that somehow it makes sense to start something new, particularly if life changing, in January, we still fail miserably to keep up the momentum. Statistics show that 76% of fitness centre memberships purchased in the New Year are no longer used by March. That’s largely typical of any commitment for change that requires sustained effort, rather than a one-off decision. Within a short period of time being out of our comfort zone we bounce back to our old bad behaviours, or chicken out from sustaining the change we really wanted to achieve a few weeks earlier. Our energy and motivation seems to fizzle out.
76% of fitness centre memberships purchased in the New Year are no longer used by March
The reality is that we are swimming upstream in trying to create meaningful change in how we live our lives. Humans are creatures of habit. We need to be, in order to survive the complexity of modern life. We need to ‘think in patterns’ to ensure we can get more done in the same amount of time. We are driven to automate our lives so we can cram more and more into our 24hrs. We automate our meals, our commuting, our businesses and our relationships. What I mean is that we create HABITS that create repeated behaviours that make life easier for us to function. Ready-made meals, getting into a work routine, and spending our life ‘doing’ rather than BEING has let us into a world where we no longer have time to think, time to truly experience and time to enjoy. We seek pleasure in the absence of stress and pressure, rather than the appreciation of the experience of being alive.
Before this turns into a philosophy blog, let me get back on track to the subject of commitment to raising your game. In reality, small changes to our behaviour makes a huge change in our outlook. Ever if we raised our performance by a few percentiles we would seek significant results in our health, business and relationships. So how do we break out of these bad habits and create powerful new ways of performing?
The best analogy for our difficulty in breaking bad habits is the idea that habits are patterns that have been etched into our brain over time, much like prehistoric cart-ruts carved in rock or the groove on a vinyl record. Once you are in that ‘groove’ it is very difficult to find an alternative course of thinking or action. It becomes our only programme and one that we feel compelled to follow. The more we live them, the more these pathways become superhighways that force all traffic to flow in that direction. There is no getting off!
The only real solution is creating a new ‘groove’ or pattern that is deeper, wider and more attractive than the one we have. That usually takes a long time… but there is another faster way.
Using the concept of FLOW (Csikszentmihalyi, Kotler & Wheal) we can generate new patters of behaviour more quickly by triggering Dopamine and Oxytocin to act as ‘lubricants’ for the new pathway. These chemicals are the ‘feel-good’ and ‘feel loved’ substances secreted by our brains that encourage us to repeat the behaviour that triggers them. Using flow, we can put our brain onto a powerful ‘loop’ that drives the new pattern of behaviour.
It’s not that simple, however. Opposing chemicals like Cortisol and Adrenaline make us feel stressed, uncomfortable and afraid. These are extremely powerful emotions that kick us out of flow and demolish any new pattern we are trying to create. Even in small doses, they disrupt our Dopamine and Oxytocin triggers. We must therefore avoid them at all costs when creating new pathways.
When we start a new exercise regime we are often eager and enthusiastic. We therefor go out too hard and end up sore and in pain. This discomfort causes us stress and kills the feel-good we would usually get from exercise, neutralising any dopamine feel-good effect. We then spend a few days resting (too sore to train) and that pattern of behaviour we started to lay doesn’t get etched deep enough. The discomfort makes us backtrack to our old behaviour and we make excuses, which makes us feel guilty and ashamed at our lack of discipline. Guess what? This negative feeling in ourselves is downgrading our Oxytocin, killing any chance of us ingraining the new pattern.
Rather than try and develop superhuman willpower to overcome this vicious cycle, there is another way. We know that Dopamine is associated with rewards that give us a sense of accomplishment. We also know that Oxytocin is triggered by a feeling of gratitude. So in order to flip our MINDSET into a virtuous cycle of positive behaviours, we need to reward ourselves and practice gratitude for our progress (no matter how small) frequently along the process. Furthermore, ensuring we build up our new behaviour slowly to reduce the ‘pain’ of the change, will also keep the Cortisol at bay.
These rewards at set progress milestones are flow triggers that keep us focussed on the challenge. Ramping up slowly ensures our challenge/skills ratio is not too far out of our comfort zone and fear doesn’t kick us off the flow train (think 4% stretch). We can further enhance flow by giving full attention to the challenge or task, and getting deeply absorbed into the process of development.
The measurement of success and practice of gratitude become cues to move to the next level. Examples might be reaching a milestone for minutes jogged, reducing snacking or sugars or smoking. You can also create measures of performance in hours studied, progress made, KPIs achieved, profits made or customer feedback scores received that can all trigger rewards and gratitude.
Sustaining this process for long enough will etch that pattern deep enough into your brain so that it becomes the ‘new behaviour’ while the old one slowly fades as it becomes an unused highway that disappears over time. Consistently using the new route will ensure that becomes the path of least resistance and you gravitate naturally towards it. You can then extend your rewards to greater accomplishments or stretch, further driving positive behaviours. So remember:
- create clear and short term goals
- ease into change slowly so it doesn’t cause ‘pain’
- reward yourself every time you achieve a milestone
- be mindful of your progress and grateful of the commitment
- recognise the change and keep moving forward relentlessly
- revisit goals frequently to stay on the flow train
- persist with the new behaviour until it becomes a habit
Unfortunately many people get side-tracked because they are not self-disciplined enough to make themselves accountable and consistent. Here is where coaching comes in. Getting a coach that can make you accountable will ensure that you are supported for long enough for the habit to form. This usually takes a few months. We use apps to track goals and ensure people are accountable to both us and themselves and can’t ‘cop out’ too easily.
Our Coaching for Performance programmes provide a drip-feed solution to high performance development of executives and CEOs across industries, because we focus on unlocking the individual potential for high level behaviours and mindset. We help people set the right goals so they are truly creating meaningful change, and then support their growth mindset in our sessions.
If you find yourself stuck on the hamster wheel of behaviours that you’d like to change in your life, get in touch with us and we can explore how to get you off it, and onto the flow train of success! email [email protected] or use our contact page.