We are constantly being bombarded by the media and social networks with tips and advice for making New Year’s resolutions. You can’t open any social media platform these days without seeing recommendations on goal setting, planning, resolutions, statistics and self-improvement advice. The suggestions are endless… “try this, stop that, and change this…”, and the list goes on!
Research shows that more than half of the population do not make New Year’s resolutions. I’d like to know how that figure can be true if we look at the information flood in the media? Also, a meagre eight percent of people successfully accomplish their resolutions. The generation who are under 30 seem to be the most successful with thirty-seven percent of them who are successful with their resolutions. With such a low success rate, I find it hard to believe that we still continue with this “mindless” tradition.
Let me transgress for a moment and explore the origin of this tradition. New Year’s resolutions date back 4000 years to the ancient time of the Babylonians who celebrated New Year for three months from January to March. During this time, the Babylonians promised their Gods that they would dutifully repay their debts and return borrowed objects to their rightful owners. These intended gestures were so that the Gods could bestow blessings and good fortune onto the people. Fast forward to the 21st century and this religious tradition has shifted to us making promises to ourselves on self-improvement and development.
Studies have shown that self-improvement focuses on four main topics. Forty one percent of people resolve to enhance their personal development and education, followed on the heels by forty percent promising to improve their money matters. Then there are thirty-four percent who focus on health and weight topics and twenty-two percent on cultivating healthier relationships.
Also, the origin of the word “resolution” stems from the 14th century Anglo-French and Latin language and directly translated means “to break down into small parts”. Taking the lead from this definition, it provides a possible answer as to why by the end of January our positive intentions have petered out and lost energy.
Perhaps the answer lies in our mindset thinking? Our New Year’s resolutions might be hairy, audacious goals that we truly want to achieve, but with an unrealistic timeframe. It took us time to master our existing habits, and obviously, they cannot be undone in 10, 30 or even 90 days. We consciously, or sub-consciously perhaps, repeated the negative habit on a very regular basis, which allowed pathways to be developed in our brain. If we look at neuroscience, the evidence suggests that neurons that fire together wire together. To replace negative with positive wiring, we must undergo two simultaneous processes. Firstly, we must stop thinking and doing the negative stuff so that with time the neuropathways starve and die-off. At the same time, we should very diligently and regularly engage in new positive behaviour to get new pathways connecting with each other. This process of the new neurons starting to fire together can take anything from ninety days to six months, depending on the conscious regularity. Only after six to nine months does the new positive habit become automated and part of our natural behaviour.
A second reason for the high New Year’s resolution failure rate is that we are not crystal clear of the underlying reason, the WHY, for the desired change. The WHY factor is a very important and often overlooked component and is the motivation driver that keeps us focused and committed when we have wobbles, self-doubt, exhaustion or feel overwhelmed. Start with understanding the WHY for the New Year’s resolution. Write down reasons and benefits WHY you want to pursue change.
There is nothing wrong with wanting to change for the better and setting resolutions, however it’s a mindset to keep throughout the year. Going back to the Latin origin of the word “resolution” (break into small parts) we should consider breaking down our resolutions into monthly ones. At the end of every month we should take stock of the progress made, the learning experienced and then celebrate our wins. It’s important to do all three of these elements every time.
New Year’s resolutions are positive intentions and promises for our own self-betterment and improvement, so let’s move the success ratio upwards.
Most personal development changes don’t endure for long periods; rather for brief moments. We have all experimented with changing some aspect in our life. We had to increase this or decrease that, do more of that and less of this. We might have seen the results, but in the long-run we didn’t sustain the process and fell back into old patterns and habits. Grrrrrrr.
The process is frustrating, disappointing and energy depleting which causes us to treat the word “change” with scepticism. The core reason our change plans don’t last is because we don’t assimilate and internalise them. We don’t identify with the new habit and somehow latch onto the old way, even if it has harmful or has negative consequences for us.
To sustain change we must establish a new identity – one that resonates with us. How do we focus on a new identity as we often are unable to visualize what that new identity actually tangibly looks and feels like?
Letting go of the old and replacing it with the new requires clarity on what must change, honesty about the need for change, courage to get started and ownership of the change process.
Establishing a new change identity
These six principles recommended by Dave Ulrich (university professor, author, speaker, management coach, and management consultant) are useful and effective in establishing a new change identity.
Principle 1 – Focus
What do you want? This question requires reflection but results in clarity. Stay disciplined until you are clear what you really want. You can even reverse the process by stating what you don’t want.
Principle 2 – Explore
What are your options? Explore ideas and options on how you can get what you want. Look for alternatives, be innovative and consult others. Think big here and don’t censure your thinking.
Principle 3 – Claim one choice
Knowing what we want gives us direction. Having options provides paths on how to get there, but claiming and owning a choice creates momentum. We often stop here because we get lost in the choices that we are tempted to try. Claim one choice and give it all your energy!
Principle 4 – Decide
What decision do you need to make? Deepen the “Claim one Choice” principle and shift into action. Think about the two or three decisions you can make. Work out who needs to make the decisions, and when they need to be made by.
Principle 5 – Act
What concrete actions do you need to make? Until now the change process has been mostly in your head. It’s time to shift gears into doing, behaving and experimenting. As the saying goes “We often judge ourselves by our intent, but others judge our intent by our actions!”
Principle 6 – Learn
How will I know and grow? This is a powerful question that is critical to sustaining the change identity. What tangible results will indicate to you, your change progress? If you don’t approve of what you see ponder on how will you readjust or make improvements on your change process. Measurement outcomes without learning fail to sustain change. Two types of measurement are important in this stage 1) Behaviour – what did you do right 2) Outcomes – what did you accomplish.
Sustaining change is a journey and a process. It has no finite start or ending. It’s the regular pattern of behaviour that supports us to shift to a new identity; one that personally resonates with us.
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As personal coaches, we know that people often over-think things so that we can gain insight into a problem and hopefully find a solution. But we seldom find that solution! Instead, our thoughts go around in circles and we get stuck in our thinking. It drains our energy, dampens our mood and pushes others away. Over-thinking is thinking too much, where thoughts are endless, passive, pointless and solution-less. We believe that if we ponder longer and harder we will find the solution, but we don’t and it zaps all our physical, mental and emotional energy. Other disadvantages are that we develop a sad, sombre mood, negative bias thinking, can have concentration lapses, distracted thoughts and a pessimistic outlook on life. That’s quite a few consequences which hinders us from leading an optimal flourishing life.
The main reason that causes us to overthink is social comparison. We continuously compare ourselves to our friends, family members, co-workers, sports buddies, total strangers and even fictional characters. Are we brighter, smarter, faster, richer, healthier, or more or less attractive? Research has shown that comparison can be useful and motivating but only if it inspires us. Upward comparison makes us feel inferior, resentful and distressed. In contrast, downward comparison brings on feelings of shame and guilt. Comparison is a zero-sum game as there will always be people better or worse off than us.
Try this five step personal development approach
However, if you have gotten yourself entangled in self-focused rumination, then try this five-step approach developed by Susan Nolen-Hoeksema.
- Stop comparing yourself to others by distracting yourself. Get up and do something totally different that refocuses your mind. Physical activity is powerful!
- Develop a STOP strategy. Set yourself a visual reminder or set a limited timeframe. When time is up start doing something else.
- Talk to a trusted friend who is a good listener and who can bring in a new perspective. Alternatively, engage with a professional coach to work through this with you.
- This step might be contrary to the previous strategies and paradoxical. Consciously set aside a 30-minute time slot where you can ruminate as much as you like, pause all your other thoughts for that designated time. However, be disciplined with the time and stick to it, that the clue.
- Finally, write or draw your thoughts on a piece of paper. We often observe patterns or gain clarity from this type of exercise.
Now, that you are aware of your overthinking tendency, give yourself permission to change your thinking pattern.
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In most self-development interventions, the term “optimal functioning” is used. But what does that actually mean? Can a human function optimally, and based on what criteria? Is it your own perception, or against a list of benchmarks? Let’s unpack this.
The term optimal functioning is about flourishing and realising your potential. Researchers have identified four quadrants that make up functioning: autonomy, social relations, meaning and personal growth. You may be surprised that words like performance, productivity, efficiency, goal orientation and perseverance are not included. I was! However, optimal functioning is a subjective self-identified thing with the emphasis on creating and executing plans that lead to fulfilment of our needs and goals. Optimal functioning is not a concrete outcome, but a self-perceived evaluation.
Let’s clarify what each of these four quadrants of happiness and optimal functioning means
- Autonomy refers to the combination of power and choice to what you endorse in life.
- Social relations are what makes humans thrive. We need to be engaged and be accepted by others to function. Social connections contribute immensely to our wellbeing.
- Meaning is a more complex component and its crux is about understanding the purpose of our tasks and activities.
- The fourth quadrant is personal growth. Although many people strive to develop themselves, few understand that growth is about the cognitive structure of being flexible in the unknown and adapting to change. A pleasant mind is easily distracted whereas an engaged mind keeps focusing on the current goal needed to enhance personal growth.
The common perception is that optimal functioning is synonymous with feeling good, but that is not the case. Optimal functioning means deliberate practising of tasks, skills and knowledge to stimulate personal growth. Enjoyment contributes very little to the process of attaining optimal functioning. Enhancing your proficiency requires extra focus and consistent time on the task. This is why optimal functioning is unrelated to pleasure or satisfaction with the task. The phrase “no pain, no gain” summarises this point.
Furthermore, not all functioning is automatically optimal. One main component that makes it un-optimal is if we compare ourselves to others and then stop growing as we see the process as too difficult or unattainable.
The last point I wish to discuss is how to grow and develop your optimal functioning. Firstly, everybody has a different zone of arousal versus performance. You need to identify for yourself what the sweet spot is that does not cause you anxiety or boredom. It will differ from person to person based on your readiness, emotional state and current competencies.
Step 1: Identify your optimal functioning zone.
Step 2: Focus on what gives you autonomy, meaning and personal mastery in your life. Is there any room upwards? I am sure there is. What would that mean for you practically?
Step 3: Optimal functioning means balancing and attending to all your life domains at the same time. It does not mean a trade-off of optimising the one at the expense of another i.e. work for relationship. Bring in all of your life domains.
If you want to enhance or attain optimal functioning, but don’t know how, then we can show you how to craft your happiness. Contact us for more information today.
There are always topics that society diagnose as taboo. Who and how that is determined is intriguing but for now not the topic of this mindfulness blog. Years ago when the word “meditation” popped up into our vocabulary we regarded it as a cross-legged sitting exercise that yogis or monks did to control their mind or to pass the time; who knows? It was something practiced in the far distance and we felt safe. Now, it’s right here and something that people talk about all the time. These conversations aren’t about meditation for private use or relaxation benefits, but the use of meditation in a corporate work setting. You think I’m joking? Think about how many of your friends either talk about or actively practice meditation.
The cousin of mindless is mindful
Meditation is one of many ways for us to become mindful in our daily activities, be that at work or in our private lives. Mindless is the art of being on autopilot – something we might recognise and practice regularly. This would mean going through the motions of the day without taking a moment to recognise or appreciate anything. You’ll notice it in a missed smile from a colleague, a tender touch from your partner, or the taste of a home cooked meal. There is little difference between Sputnik the robot and people when they’re in autopilot mode. We function, nothing more and nothing less.
The cousin of mindless is mindful. Mindful pays attention, is in the moment to observe, take-in, absorb and participate in being present, in the here and now. Mindless lives in the past or future and mindful in the now. Mindless is easy to accomplish but it comes with no fulfilment, whereas mindful takes conscious practice but the rewards are worth it!
How to become mindful is the question and you don’t have to meditate if you don’t want to. I also would not recommend it in the early stages because your reptilian brain loves to chat uninterrupted and needs training to become disciplined which is what meditation does. Let’s begin slowly and ease into this gently.
As a start let’s bring mindfulness into our daily work life, practicing it every day for a couple of minutes. Start by becoming more mindful before attending a meeting by following these five steps:
- Become aware of your thoughts and emotions before the meeting. Are they appropriate for the meeting? Do you need to take a moment and sift through your emotions?
- What is the intention of the meeting? Why was the meeting called? What does it aim to achieve?
- How can you best participate and contribute in a positive manner?
- Are there any below the surface topics or conflicts that need to be addressed?
- Is this timing right for the meeting? I’m referring here to the circumstances of the meeting and not if you physically have the time.
Try these simple five steps over the next week by bringing all of you to a meeting and not just your physical body. If used appropriately you should experience much better connections, make good decisions and save time.
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