The Science Of Change: Think Small And Work Your Way Up

Goodbye 2016 and Hello 2017. Another year has come and gone. No matter how bad or how good the previous year was for us, it is time to say goodbye and welcome the new year with a fresh start, a clean sheet, and a new beginning.

With more or less a week into the new year, some of us has gone back and resumed work. Some of us are still in the holiday, festive mode and are still on vacation but there is one thing that all do whenever the new year comes, make new year’s resolutions.

It is during this time that we take some time to contemplate and look back on how the past year has gone. Was it a good year for us? Were we productive and did enough? Could we have done things differently in order to achieve a different outcome? It’s these types of questions that we ask ourselves during the beginning of every year that becomes the basis of how we make our new year’s resolutions.

We set goals like getting healthier, getting promoted at work, becoming a better friend, partner, family member. That is all well and good. We need these types of goals to aspire to and work towards to achieving. The question then is, why is it that we almost always never amount to that promise, that goal or that potential? Well according to science of it, it has something to do with ‘habits’ and ‘self-stories’.

What Is A Habit?

First, let us define what a habit is in the first place. You’ll find any number of definitions for what a habit is all over the internet so I will just give you my own take and understanding of it. Put simply, a habit is a specific behavior that we form subconsciously – as the term implies, it is outside our own consciousness or awareness – through repetition and is a reaction to external influences or environmental cues. This is how we create ‘routines’ in our daily lives.

To better illustrate what a habit is, let us look at some of the most common habit we do in our day-to-day:

  • Waking up and getting out of bed(habit) when the alarm rings or the sun rises(cue).
  • Washing our hands(habit) after going to the toilet(cue).
  • Brushing our teeth(habit) after eating(cue).
  • Going to work(habit) at 9-5 at the office(cue).
  • Getting ready for bed(habit) when night comes(cue).

Looking at the situations stated above, these seemingly simple and trivial things that we do everyday are in fact, habits and that is the whole point. While there are more complex habits like ‘politeness’ in reaction to social cues, habits start out small. Habits are formed by doing a simple task in reaction to a time, place, or situation in repetition.

The process by which habits are formed can have both positive and negative effects on our lives. On one hand, it helps us form good habits such as punctuality and good manners but it can also result in bad ones like addiction or aggression and rage in reaction to a traumatic event or experience.

So how do we change our habits or form better ones? Based on the works of Standford professor, B. J. Fogg and Charles Duhigg, author of the book “The Power Of Habit”, there are three things we need to take into consideration:

  • Starting Small – If you want to become healthier, you don’t just decide to go into starvation and go outside and run like hell as if you were one of the extras in a zombie horror flick. Start with something small that you can perform and repeat consistently. Cut carbs and fat in your daily diet by mixing in some veggies and lean meat and slowly reduce the proportions until you only eat enough to feel full. Walk more than you usually do and slowly increase the duration by which you do it or start jogging at your own pace and go into running once you get used to it.
  • New Action, Same Habit – You don’t necessarily have to create a new habit to change. Not all habits are bad, you just to replace them with ones that go in line with your goals. Going back to health, if you need to go somewhere nearby, walk instead of driving there. If your office building is not that high, instead of taking the elevator up, walk up the stairs instead. Replace actions in your daily routine with ones that enable you to be up and moving, that way your habits remain intact but the actions associated with them are more suited to your goal and what you want to achieve.
  • Make It Easy – A repetitive action usually takes 7 to 10 days for it to ‘stick’ and become a habit and part of our routine. Aside from starting small, you also have to make it easy for new habits to form. This means putting yourself in situations where your are reminded and encourage to do specific actions in response to certain situations and stimuli. Put up post-it notes all over your house to have a prominent reminder to perform certain actions throughout your day. When you go out the door, have a note reminding you to walk 30 minutes today, have pre set meals that goes in line with your diet goals so when you get hungry, you never eat anything you shouldn’t or eat more than you need. Use the ‘pomodoro technique’ at work if you are able. Not only will you increase productivity and quality of work but you can also use those short breaks as a way to up and get your body moving from sitting on your chair all day.
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Always remember that while these guidelines will help you form new habits in a more controlled environment and manner, there is the possibility of relapsing and falling back on old habits. This is also part of the process and should not be considered as a reason to give up and quit. I was a heavy smoker for the better part of a decade and it took me multiple failed attempts before I finally went ‘cold turkey’ and quit smoking 3 years ago and I have never touched the stuff since.

Self-stories And Self-perception

Part of the reason why we make new year’s resolutions is because of change. We use these resolutions as a means to initiate change within ourselves to compensate for our inadequacies and shortcomings. There is always an opportunity to improve, to be better and while changing doesn’t necessarily have to occur during the beginning of every year but at any point in time, it just so happens that it is during this time that people have these thoughts and make these types of promises to themselves. Whether it is with our work or our relationship with friends and loved ones, it is all part of how we perceive ourselves and everything that makes us who we are. Our story.

We all have this underlying idea of who we are as a person and this drives us to act the way that we do, to think and make decisions the way that we do. You may be that person who lives to work that you neglect and forget to spend time with your family; that honor student, so focused on maintaining your 4.0 GPA that you forget to enjoy the other aspects of academic life such as making new friends; or that loner who prefers solitude over the company of others that you become detached from society. If we want to achieve real change, we must first change how we see ourselves, we must change our story.

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In the book “Redirect” written by Timothy Wilson, he describes how changing our stories can have a positive effect on our long-term behavior. The book also describes a simple technique to achieve that by not only thinking it, but also writing it. We literally become the author of our own lives, just as it should be.

The techniques involves just two simple steps:

  • Write Down Your Existing Story – Narrate your story as it is right now, paying close attention and detail to aspect of your life that you want to change. Take it seriously, write truthfully and highlight all the things you think you are doing wrong in your life. Working too hard and neglecting your family; becoming a social outcast and all other things that made you want to change.
  • Write The Story The Way You Want – Now take all of what you wrote down and start re-writing and creating your new story. Write the story how you want it to play out. Write it in such a way that goes in line with your resolutions and goals. Avoid working late hours so you can come home early for dinner with your family and taking the weekend off so you can spend time with them. Become more friendly with other people. Strike up a random conversation with your fellow students or work colleagues. Be more outgoing and spend more time socializing with others.

This might seem superfluous at first but there is a reason for this. It gives us a sense of control and clarity. We are visual people and having it written down and actually seeing it helps us understand better and gives us a concrete goal to work towards.

Change is difficult because doing everything the old way and the way we are used to is easy but we cannot let ourselves get stuck in a rut, an endless cycle of regret and discontent. Something has to change. We need to move forward. This is what it means to grow.

As with all post like this, written about new year’s resolutions all over the web, there will always be a fair amount of skepticism from all types of people and that is all right. This will be for those who can get something out of this post and hopefully help them fulfill their goals for this year. If this post can help you change even the smallest of things in your life, that would already be an important first step to self-improvement and self-betterment and it would have served it’s purpose. Happy new year to you all.

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