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The Hardest Thing
You resolve to change; you might even take action, but only rarely do you make significant changes that stick. This proves especially true when the change also involves other people. As hard as it is to quit smoking, for example, the effort pales compared to changing things that aren’t fully in your control and require other people’s cooperation or assessment of your progress. Instead of committing to change, you continue your ways, regretting your weaknesses and lack of improvement. You make promises: I’ll be a better spouse, or I’ll build better relationships at work. But obstacles appear. People don’t meet you halfway or you face too much work. Stress and exhaustion wear down your resolve to ask about – let alone listen to – how your family members fared that day at work or school. You make excuses and let yourself off the hook.
Why People Rarely Change
People avoid change or fail to change due to deeply seated personal beliefs. You believe you know what to do and will do it, so who needs discipline, a plan or structure? You place false faith in your powers of resistance and put yourself in risky environments that tempt you. You believe you can take breaks from your resolve and easily return to it, so you allow frequent “lapses.” You compare yourself to someone worse, and take a pass. You scorn simple processes and structure, and you wing it. You forget that your resistance wanes as the day goes on and so you lose “self-control.” You put things off, thinking you’ll have time to start tomorrow. You forget that whatever your plans are, reality always intrudes. So you set yourself up for getting knocked off course. A crisis might make you change, but even crises usually produce only temporary change.
Other fallacies abound: You think that if you do change, you will magically stay changed. This may lead you – like everyone else – to not account for the effort it takes to stay changed. So you – and everyone else, remember – will backslide. You unconsciously expect an extrinsic reward for changing and if you don’t get it, you feel cheated, which provides an excuse to give up. You think no one’s watching, so you take a break. But when you revert to past behaviors, people notice. That harms your credibility and undermines their trust. You think you should resist change because it would betray your “authentic” self, so you retain your flaws. And you think you can judge yourself accurately, so you overrate your behavior and dismiss any need for change.
Procrastinating on Change
Your environment blocks change even more effectively than your misplaced beliefs. Environments rich in “triggers” battle your resolve constantly. Triggers exert an “insidious” control over most people. For example, you smile and wave at your family as you set off for the airport, yet you instantly turn into a “monster” if your flight encounters a delay. You eventually board the plane and resolve to do several hours of work. But the in-seat television with its 150 shows and movies makes child’s play of your plans. You get to your destination and deliver the same presentation to two audiences, the first, in a room with a cool temperature, the second, in a warm, stuffy room. You fail as much in the warm room as you succeed in the cool one. At work, the boss creates an environment of “do whatever it takes” to make sales. So you bend the rules.
The extreme, long-term effort that change requires plus the triggers in your environment wage constant battle against your complacency. It would be good to study more, do nice deeds for people, and the like. But absent a crisis, things feel good enough. And besides, your favorite TV show is about to start. For a thousand reasons, you put off real change.
Taking Control of Change
Strive to manage your environments, or they will manage you. To take control, acknowledge the power and effect of your work and life environments. Build awareness of your environment by seeking “feedback.” For example, many people speed through small towns. Numerous signs warning of the risk of getting a ticket don’t cut through drivers’ inertia and make them slow down. The mechanism that slows traffic is a “driver feedback system” – a fancy term for digital signs displaying your speed. The feedback system provides what you need to cause change: “evidence” in the form of the display; “relevance” in that it shows your speed versus the posted, legal speed (you’re breaking the law!); “consequence,” in that you might get a ticket, or worse, and responsive “action” – you put on the brakes.
Change requires heeding evidence of the damage your behavior causes. That damage gains relevance when your actions affect your co-workers, family or friends. The effect hits harder when it brings career or relationship consequences. These conditions set the stage for better behavior (action), the last stage in the “feedback loop.” Most people don’t know when and how environmental triggers spur them to behave badly. Greater awareness turns the environment itself into a feedback loop. You can control your triggers to make and sustain change.
Triggers come in many varieties. You smile when you see a giggling baby; something inspires you and you act on that inspiration; you see the “finish line” ahead in a race and gain strength; or someone tailgates you and you fume. People’s responses to identical triggers vary greatly. The good news is that – with great and sustained effort – you can control your response, no matter how primal or impulsive your current reactions seem.
Start by gaining insight into the dynamics around the change you want to achieve. Suppose your goal is to lose weight and you’ve been trying for years with no success. Create a “quadrant” diagram and label it “Encouraging” across the top and “Discouraging” across the bottom, “Counter-Productive” on the left and “Productive” on the right. In the upper-left quadrant – the space between Counter-Productive and Encouraging – list “temptations,” such as a trigger you often face, such as the easy availability of ice cream when you indulge your love of television.
The right side is where change happens. Consider having nothing to report – no supportive spouse or personal trainer to place in the Encouraging, upper-right field – and no threat of consequence should you not lose the weight in the Productive field, lower right. You fail because the counter-productive triggers on the left of the quadrant face no competition from anything on the right, except your flimsy resolution to lose weight. To succeed instead, you must control your triggers.
Try a simple remedy: Pause. That’s it. Before you respond to one of your triggers and regret it later – be it a bowl of ice cream, a “know-it-all” colleague, a late plane or your whining child – stop and breathe. Ask yourself whether whatever you’re about to say or do will evoke the response or advance the cause you desire. Instead of raising the stakes with your colleague, for example, take the first step toward fixing the relationship – let his comments pass, or even praise him. Rather than losing your temper at the airline clerk, accept that neither you nor her can do anything about a late plane. Before you yell at your child, consider the harm it might cause and the regret you’ll feel later. Before you eat ice cream, consider your commitment to lose weight.
In dealing with other people at work or elsewhere, avoid the triggers that cause you to say hurtful or dismissive things, either because they make you seem smarter or because you mistakenly equate “honesty” with full and often hurtful “disclosure.” Use the AIWATT technique: “Am I Willing, At This Time to make the investment required to make a positive difference on this topic?” Ask whether you must say anything at all. If so, is this the right time, and is it worth the energy? Will it make a positive contribution to the topic at hand? Before you speak, take the time you need to run through these questions.
Act with Intention
A “hostile” trigger-rich environment works behind the scenes to undermine your plans. You can’t expect to overcome your environment without acting intentionally to address it. Where you can, recognize and avoid trigger-rich settings, as you would dodge dangerous neighborhoods on your walk home. For example, try to avoid that co-worker who sparks your annoyance.
Active and Passive Questions
Where you can’t avoid, “adjust.” Prepare for environmental triggers by creating a coping plan in advance. Practice your reactions and responses to likely triggers ahead of time. Build a structure for change. Create a set of personal “Daily Questions” to track your progress on the behaviors you most want to change. Suppose you struggle with focus and commitment in your career because you have no solid goals or your goals are vague. Avoid the “passive question”: “Do I have clear goals?” Hold yourself to a higher standard by asking an “active question,” such as: “Did I do my best today to set clear goals for myself?”
Organizations spend billions of dollars to change employee engagement levels. They focus on what companies can do for employees by asking passive survey questions about the work environment. That tactic hasn’t worked. Active questions that give individual employees responsibility for making change bring big gains. Asking, “Did you do your best to find meaning today?” versus “How meaningful was your day?” makes engagement scores increase by double.
Daily and “Hourly Questions”
Use similar questions to force “structure” into your change efforts. Perform a daily progress appraisal. Stay honest. In trying risky environments, turn your most relevant Daily Questions into Hourly Questions. For example, say your tendency to speak off the cuff in meetings harms your credibility. Use hourly action questions to assess your performance during the meeting. Hourly Questions keep you disciplined and “in the present.”
Daily Questions make big change manageable by breaking it into small, gradual steps. Ask questions that are consistent with your most important goals and that bring you closer to “becoming the person you want to be.” If you have a problem with needing to show you’re always correct, even over trivial things, and getting along with your colleagues matters to your career success, include a question such as: “Did I do my best today to avoid trying to prove I’m right when it’s not worth it?” If your relationship with your mother needs attention, include a question like: “Did I do my best today to say or do something nice for my mother?”
Keep score daily, rating your activity between zero and 10. Don’t try to do it on your own. Enlist a friend, a family member or a coach to keep you on track. Touch base daily with your support person to share your results. As change evolves to habit, learn how to use triggers to coach yourself.
Like most people, you probably start the day with high energy and sharp discipline, but they dissipate as the day wears on. Triggers, temptations and distractions that you overcome easily in the morning cause problems in the afternoon. For example, studies of parole boards reveal that they approve 70% of cases that they hear in the morning versus only 10% of those that they decide late in the day. Try to make important decisions in the morning. Delegate where you can, and rely on the structure of your daily questions to preserve your energy and slow things down.
You’ll never achieve perfection. Attempting it makes no sense in many situations. But sometimes “good enough” just doesn’t cut it. Your environment can erode your professionalism. You risk putting in a poor performance that can jeopardize your reputation or harm your relationships when you lack the motivation to do a task – often because you don’t enjoy it. That can happen when you agree to do something for free or as a favor, when you aim low, or when you act nonchalant about the rules or place yourself above them.
Choose change, engage in your environment, anticipate and prepare for triggers, and develop a daily structure to help you stick with your plan.[/text_block]