Lower Your Expectations! 3 Easy Steps to Accomplish Your New Year’s Resolutions
January 2, 2017
Happy New Year! If you are like 92% of us, every December you make New Year’s resolutions and by March (at the latest) they are already broken. This year, resolve to accomplish your goals by lowering your expectations. These 3 easy steps will help you accomplish any goals you set for yourself (no matter when).
Step #1: Understand How Change Really Works
When considering making a change you probably have the mistaken belief that it is a linear process, where you make a decision to change and then move directly from where you are now towards your goal. In fact, change in real life is not such a straightforward, clean process.
Virginia Satir, widely regarded as the “Mother of Family Therapy” created the Virginia Satir Change Process Model. Her model takes our fantasy of what change looks like and pairs it with reality. The process of moving from the old status quo to a new status quo includes resistance, chaos, a transforming idea, and integration, all of which take place over time. Understanding how change actually happens gives us permission to be understanding with ourselves when change isn’t instantaneous and to move on without getting derailed.
To successfully change, you must understand your own humanness, and allow yourself to be human in your humanness. Otherwise, you can get stalled, discouraged, or even stopped in your tracks by not being realistic. When (not if) the resistance comes, you must recognize that this is par for the course, pick yourself up and keep going.
I worked with a client named “Sharon” who had recently finished surgery, chemo, and radiation treatment for breast cancer. She was delighted to be a survivor and wanted to be able to mark her one year anniversary of being cancer free by running in a 5k race to raise money for cancer research. She was so excited to accomplish this goal and wasn’t going to let anything stop her. In our work together, we discussed the normal process of change, predicted that there would be setbacks and devised some strategies to move forward when these challenges arose. Sharon later shared that she probably would have gotten frustrated and quit when she hit obstacles, but because we had done the work of normalizing and planning, she was able to continue forward towards reaching her goal successfully.
Step #2: Taking Small Steps
Change is often viewed as a fast, big, flashy process. It advocates getting the largest result in the smallest amount of time by taking massive action. This too is a recipe for disaster because our brains are programmed to resist change.
When you make big changes in your life, you trigger what I like to call The Deer in the Headlights Syndrome, getting stopped cold in the face of anxiety, fear, and overwhelm. The alternative to the massive action theory of change is the Kaizen approach, where gradual positive change is accomplished in small increments. Kaizen works with what we know about brain physiology. Specifically, when fear takes hold, it inhibits creativity, change, and success. The amygdala, the part of your brain that keeps you safe by initiating the fight, flight, or freeze response views any new challenge or opportunity with some degree of fear. It’s programed to resist change, and to approach any change as potentially dangerous.
The small steps advocated by Kaizen trick the amygdala by presenting the change as “no big deal” and, in so doing, creates new connections between neurons in the brain. The desired change is now the new norm, so the brain begins to conspire with you in the process of change, and helps you progress more rapidly than you would under the massive action theory of change. As Lao Tzufamously said, “A journey of a thousand miles must begin with the first step.” Note he didn’t say, “A journey of a thousand miles begins with a big decision and then running as fast as you can for as long as possible.”
In his book, The Kaizen Way: One Small Step Can Change Your Life, psychiatrist Robert Mauerer describes six strategies for making incremental positive change towards your goals:
- Asking small questions to dispel fear and inspire creativity
- Thinking small thoughts to develop new skills and habits — without moving a muscle
- Taking small actions that guarantee success
- Solving small problems, even when you’re faced with an overwhelming crisis
- Bestowing small rewards to yourself or others to produce the best results
- Recognizing the small but crucial moments that everyone else ignores
Using these six strategies as a guide, Sharon and I devised a plan to enable her to be able to run the 5k race. Since she was exhausted and physically depleted from the hard year of cancer treatments, taking things one very small step at a time was the only way that she could hope to achieve her goal. The first week, her goal was to get up each morning, put on her tennis shoes and walk to her front door. Yes, that was all–that is how small a step can be to make it accomplishable on a sustainable basis. Then she consistently employed Step 3, and this step was crucial to keep Sharon motivated and continuing her forward progress.
Step #3: Adopt an Attitude of Gratitude
Making incremental changes using Kaizen also allows you to acknowledge each small accomplishment you achieve. Don’t miss this opportunity to recognize your accomplishments, this is will go a long way to help you maintain your energy and motivation. Celebrating your wins, even in small ways, increases your sense of happiness, confidence, and self-esteem. Cultivating these positive emotions through gratitude, on a regular basis increases your overall well-being, health, relationships, and resilience.
Sharon, who had always been healthy and athletically fit, would have been extremely frustrated and demoralized by her new level of fitness, post-treatment if she hadn’t adopted an attitude of gratitude. Instead of getting discouraged, she decided to focus her attention to everything she was grateful for, namely having survived cancer. As she took action towards her goals, she made sure to recognize, acknowledge, and celebrate every small achievement. She kept a journal of her positive actions and what she was grateful for and used this journal to both see her progress and also to help her maintain her motivation when setbacks occured.
In the fall of last year, Sharon was thrilled to be able to accomplish her goal of celebrating her one year anniversary of being cancer free by not only running a 5k race, but also raising over $10,000 for cancer treatment. She is a survivor and a fighter and if she can successfully fulfill her new year’s resolution, so can you!