You’re Not Finished Yet: Life Change Is A Long-Distance Run
Humans are excellent at being cognizant of their shortcomings. Women know this skill well. We are always too tall or too short, too open or too guarded, too aggressive or too passive, too much of a brick wall or too much of a doormat, the list goes on and on. We are completely aware of all of the ways that we may fail others or ourselves on a daily basis, and we often feel like the list of changes that must be made is insurmountable…achieving perfection is a little harder than we thought.
Each day, I read articles and have conversations with others on how to better myself and the world around me. Each day, I take more and more responsibility for my actions and for the outcomes they have on my environment. And each day, I find myself saying something like this: “Well, I really needed to do that differently. But tomorrow is a new day and I’ll hopefully be able to get it right soon.”
There’s nothing wrong with wanting to improve yourself. There’s nothing wrong with taking ownership of your decisions and wanting to live in control over them instead of the other way around. There’s nothing wrong with challenging others to be their best selves. The problem is not the desire for the ideal–the problem comes in two forms: 1) trying to make all of the changes at once, and 2) not recognizing the success we have and the strides we’ve already made.
To be a healthier individual, I need to: change my diet, take up running and yoga, hit the gym, go to bed earlier, quit smoking, and drink tea instead of coffee. To be a smarter individual, I need to: read more, be up-to-date on current events, have more intellectual conversations, and take a class in something new. To be a more successful individual at the workplace, I need to: arrive 30 minutes early to work to set up my day, stay organized, not be afraid of failure and thus take more chances, be persistent and not get distracted, stick around at the end of every day to clean my desk and set up my to-do list for the next day, and then leave work at work.
I’ve got a lot of changes to make.
At the beginning of the year, I wrote about tracking your progress and keeping yourself motivated with new life changes. It turns out that resolutions aren’t just for the beginning of the year, however. Any changes we want to make must first come with baby steps and with understanding that we are forming new pathways in our brain, new inroads for our bodies to make new choices, and that we may occasionally veer back to our comfortable habits. Deepak Chopra, in one of his many works about creating healthy habits, has this to say:
So begin with a victory you can define and which means something to you. Skip red meat for a week. Take the stairs, not the elevator. If you’re very out of shape, walk 10 minutes every day and gradually build up your time. Put down your fork halfway through your meal, take a few deep breaths, and ask yourself if you’re still hungry. If you work at a desk, make it a rule to always stand or pace when you’re on the phone. Over time, what seem like baby steps produce new physiological changes in every cell of the body.
Not only should these small steps be taken seriously into consideration, but we need to recognize that we no longer live in a world where negative reinforcement is a solution commonly agreed upon. We understand in our environments now that we must positively reinforce behaviors in order for them to stick around–we as individuals are not to exempt ourselves from that kind of encouragement. Positive reinforcement is not just for domesticated animals or people who thrive on compliments; it is for all of us:
We may overindulge in chocolate cake because we tend to value the short-term outcome we know (deliciousness) over the long-term outcome we have never experienced (weight loss and increased energy from better nutrition). One way to break that cycle is to reward ourselves in a different way. Instead of eating cake, we can go play a game or listen to music. How long does it take to form a new habit? An average of 66 days, according to a 2009 study from University College, London. Repetition and giving yourself time to adjust are the main factors in forming a new behavior pattern.
This week, in your journey toward perfection, cut yourself some slack. Pick one thing that is going to be quantifiable for you and create a short term goal in the process. Did you go back on it? Don’t give up yet…keep going. Cut the negative reinforcement out of your words and your actions and reward yourself when you hit your goal. Remember that it takes 66 days, on average, to make a new habit stick...take them one day at a time and be mindful that this is not a sprint, but a marathon.