I do not believe in the adage, You cannot teach an old dog new tricks. Personal change, even transformation, is possible. And, with the right strategies, it can be relatively painless and certain. John Tierney, on yesterday’s New York Times op-ed page, lists seven research-based strategies to optimize your ability to transform yourself – or at least to keep your New Year’s resolution!
Write down your plan and read it at least once a day
But first, let’s start with an anecdote. As a young father, I found myself caught in a power struggle with my pint-sized but leonine daughter. And – no surprise to any parent – I was losing. Terribly. She had me completely figured and was playing me as her favorite tune. She’d call – seeking my attention by displaying negative behavior – and I’d respond – with angry discipline. The pattern was strong, established and escalating. I knew I was in serious trouble when I found her leaning against the screen in a second-floor window.
Coincidentally, I was soon off to the Creative Problem Solving Institute. I decided that I needed to make significant change and transform my relationship with my daughter. Good fortune had it that I went to a session by Roger Firestien. As I recall, he was presenting how to apply the creative problem-solving process (CPS) to personal transformation. He reviewed the standard CPS steps, with which I was intimately familiar:
- Identify a goal, wish or problem
- Gather data
- Clarify the problem
- Generate solutions
- Select solutions
- Plan and act
And then he recommended a strategy I hadn’t heard before: if you really want to implement your plan, write it down and read it at least once a day for two weeks. He guaranteed that fidelity to that final piece of advice would result in success in much less time than that.
Upon my return home, I did just that. I wrote the plan down and then I read it every morning when I got to work, before lunch and before I left for home. Although I read the plan for two weeks straight as recommended, the desired change occurred after about four or five days. I had transformed my relationship with my daughter.
Tierney’s strategies to maintain will power
Tierney’s strategies are based on Roy F. Baumeister’s recent research on will power, which “social scientists no longer regard as simply a metaphor. They’ve recently reported that willpower is a real form of mental energy, powered by glucose in the bloodstream, which is used up as you exert self-control…He and many of his colleagues have concluded that the way to keep a New Year’s resolution is to anticipate the limits of your willpower.”
Here are Tierney’s strategies for managing your limited will power and avoiding “ego depletion” and failure to change:
Set a single, clear goal: Set “a specific goal…and limit yourself to one big resolution at a time…With a finite supply of willpower, it’s tough enough to keep one resolution.”
Precommit: Have a plan and “further bind yourself by e-mailing your goal to friends or posting it on Facebook.”
Outsource: Use newly available tools such as Twitter or websites such as stickk.com. There you can make a formal contract, identify a “referee” and even put money on the line. “The more you precommit, the better you do, according to stickK’s analysis of 125,000 contracts over the past three years. The success rate for people who don’t name a referee or set financial stakes is only 29 percent, but it rises to 59 percent when there’s a referee and to 71.5 percent when there’s money at stake. And when a contract includes a referee and financial stakes, the success rate is nearly 80 percent.”
Keep track: Monitor your progress continually. Again, use the emerging tool sets available to you: “Entrepreneurs are rushing to monitor just about every aspect of your life – your health, your moods, your sleep – and you can find dozens of their products by consulting Web sites like Quantified Self and Lifehacker.”
Don’t overreact to a lapse: Avoid the “phenomenon formally known as ‘counterregulatory eating’ – and informally as the ‘what the hell effect.'” That is, don’t use a lapse as an excuse to give in completely and abandon your plan. You know, like the dieter who succumbs, eats a bowl of ice cream and then figures, “Hell, I may as well eat the whole carton.”
Reward often: Finally, reward yourself often. As Tierney says, “If you use willpower only to deny yourself pleasures, it becomes a grim, thankless form of defense. But when you use it to gain something, you can wring pleasure out of the dreariest tasks.”
The parents among you may be curious to know how I transformed my relationship with my daughter. I used a basic creativity technique called reversal. Each time the call came, my response was the exact opposite to what it had been. Instead of angry disciple, I gave my daughter a warm hug and told her I loved her. Simple as that.