Making positive changes is simple. You know exactly what to do—and what you should do. You’ve got a list of changes you’d like to make. It’s all there on paper in plain language. You know how to eat better—eat healthy animals, tons of plants, cut unnecessary carbohydrates, ditch grains and seed oils, eat enough fat and protein for hormonal health and satiety. You know how to train effectively—sprint once in awhile, lift heavy things, stay physically active throughout the day, don’t sit so much. You want to “eat less fast food,” so you stop going through the drive-thru. You want to sleep more, so you sleep more. Right?
Except it doesn’t work like that.
Real change is simple, but it’s not easy. It takes planning. It means facing fears and overcoming stress. To really succeed, you have to know what you’re changing and have the willpower to see it through.
Here are five tips for ensuring your success—in anything—this year. I tried to make them as general as possible, so they should apply to most changes you folks are trying to make. In a way, you can seem them as the necessary conditions to check off your list before tackling whatever goals you have your sights set on. So let’s go.
Setting general goals doesn’t amount to much. It’s easy to say “get more sleep” because it’s open-ended. There’s no line in the sand. And hey, technically going to bed at 12:15 rather than 12:30 does give you more sleep. It’s slightly better. But is it good? Is it enough to make you bound out of bed, excited to take on the day? Probably not.
Most people fail to make real changes because they don’t define their terms with any degree of specificity. What is success? What is failure? When you don’t have hard numbers or specific definitions, you’re more likely to fail. The words we use indicate how we think. If we can’t articulate the specific parameters of our desired change, we don’t actually know what we’re seeking (and we’ll never reach it). So no meandering around your goals in a vague, haphazard way. You should be able to describe what you want to achieve in short, concrete terms, specific terms.
If you haven’t gotten specific, do so now. Take a look at your goals and make the necessary adjustments.
Fear memories—bad memories about unpleasant situations—hold us back. They teach us to avoid truly dangerous situations, but they can also keep us from facing and defeating uncomfortable ones. Since we’re often seeking change to overcome unpleasant, damaging habits, the ability to face discomfort is necessary. If we can only remember our bad experiences in the gym, we’ll never want to exercise. For decades, Tony Robbins has been helping clients get over negative experiences through “memory scrambling.” To scramble a bad memory, he has you recall and edit the past experience like you’re a film director in the cutting room.
First, you watch it uncut. Just let it play to the end.
Run it back again, only as a ridiculous cartoon. Say it’s a bad public speaking experience. You’ve got big floppy clown feet. Everyone else does, too. The audience is full of Looney Tunes characters throwing around a beach ball. Marvin the Martian is keeping time. Gandalf’s fireworks from Fellowship of the Rings are exploding around you.
Do this twelve more times, changing things as you go. Run the memory backward, then forward. Chop up the chronology Tarantino-style. Add music.
Now go through the memory again and note how you feel. Better?
By the time you’re done, the “real” memory is scrambled and the fear associated with the experience should be mitigated or eliminated. This may sound silly or “New Agey,” but emerging neuroscience is confirming that fear memories can be edited like this.
Willpower is the currency of change. You need a lot to make it happen. You’re fighting the tide; you’re reversing course and going the other way. Opposing inertia takes a lot of willpower. Optimizing and maximizing willpower could take an entire post, but I’ll give you the juicy bits.
Avoid decision fatigue. Willpower is willpower. The willpower we summon to eat eggs and bacon instead of a blueberry muffin is the willpower we need to make it to the gym after work. And it’s finite, so don’t expend it by agonizing over pointless decisions, which deplete willpower.
Precommit. Precommitment beats willpower every time. Even better, precommitment circumvents willpower. There’s no need to muster up the willpower to decide to do something when you decided long ago (and prepared the logistics). This reserves the willpower for the actual doing. It’s like going low-carb during training and carbing up before a big race: you’ll be so good at burning fat that you have plenty of glycogen left over for the big push at the end.
Do things earlier in the day. Willpower is highest in the morning and lowest at night. Enacting the hard changes (working out, walking, cooking) closer to peak willpower makes them more successful and likely to stick.
Recognize that willpower is about self-control. Willpower isn’t something “you do.” It’s about what you don’t do. Willpower determines your capacity to resist temptation.
For many of you, the express goal of 2016 is to “reduce stress” (or maybe “rethink stress“). For slightly fewer, it’s “sleep more.” That’s awesome, and this section will certainly help both groups. But getting a handle on stress and sleep matters to anyone making a positive change in their life. The negative effects of stress and poor sleep are that pernicious and far-reaching.
Like willpower, stress is fungible. Stress is stress is stress. Stress and inadequate sleep both impair our ability to perform (and recover) in the gym, lose body fat, making good decisions, and achieve pretty much every positive change people set out to do.
I’m not here to recommend a certain number of hours in bed. You know what you need, and you know if you’re not getting it. Most people aren’t. I’m simply recommending that you prioritize sleep because it will impact your ability to achieve your goals—whatever they are. That means tearing yourself away from your Twitter feed at 11 PM. That means reading a book or meditating before bed, rather than playing Candy Crush.
Nor am I suggesting you go hang out at the ashram or live in a yurt, strap biofeedback sensors to your temples 24/7, or otherwise target stress as your ultimate goal. But don’t assume you’ve got chronic stress under control, or that relaxing won’t help you lose more weight or work out more regularly or make better food choices.
When you’re dealing with stress and sleeping well, everything gets easier. Trust me on this.
Peter Thiel, co-founder of PayPal, likes to ask people “How can you achieve your 10-year plan in the next 6 months?” He thinks most people simply aren’t thinking big enough. I agree. You (yes, you) are capable of way more than you probably think. Think and do big.
I’m not downplaying the small steps. On the contrary, their importance is implicit in the recommendation. The thing about reaching the moon is it took decades of hard work in the trenches to create space-faring technology, after all. Just because a person aims high doesn’t mean they ignore the details and skip the small steps. They can’t. The small steps are everything, but only if they take you closer to the goal.
And even if you don’t quite reach the goal, taking the steps toward it will improve your situation. So you didn’t lose the 50 pounds you wanted. You lost 45, which is 5 pounds more than the 40 you originally aimed for. That’s a win!
Now let’s hear from you:
Do these tips resonate? Think back on past changes you’ve attempted—would following these suggestions have improved your outcomes? How are you implementing them this year?
Thanks for reading, everyone, and Grok on!
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