How change happens. (Hint: it’s not through New Year’s resolutions.)

Photo: Levy et fils via Wikimedia Commons

Things are going to be different this year, you have resolved. But that’s not how change happens. It’s a process.

Here’s how New Year’s resolutions (don’t) work.

  • You figure out something you want to change.
  • You make a resolution. “I want to quit smoking” or “I want to stop using the passive voice.”
  • You try really hard.
  • You fail.
  • You give up.

That’s just not how people change. You are the same person today that you were on December 31. If one cookie started you on a sugar binge then, it will in January, as well. If you wrote long, rambling emails last year, your emails will look about the same this year.

Why you fail — and how you don’t have to

Habits are hard. If you want to change one, you need a few things:

  • Understand the cause of what you do. You have a cup of coffee first thing because it’s part of your morning ritual. You react defensively to criticism because you had to defend yourself from a nagging mother as a child. Unless you understand why you do what you do, you’ve got no chance to fix it.
  • Break it down into steps. If your resolution is to be a better writer, that’s complicated. How about resolving to read each email over before sending, and delete any equivocations? That’s actually doable. Big changes begin with small changes. Master one, then go on to the next.
  • Find trigger points and create substitutes. As Charles Duhigg explains in his insightful book The Power of Habit, every habit has a trigger. The trigger creates a response that leads to satisfaction and reinforces the habit. To break the habit, you need to do something different when you encounter the trigger. So when you complete a blog post, go for a walk instead of a snack. Figure out what your trigger is and create a response that you can sustain.
  • Learn from failure. Failures leads to regret, which is human but not useful. Instead, figure out why you failed. What’s behind your bad habit? What was the trigger? And learn from your successes, too: why did you succeed? Can you build on that?

A better way to change: evolution, not revolution

The really big things in life rarely change because of a single decision to be different. They change because you realize that something new is better than something you used to do. Or they change because change is forced upon you — for example, you lose your job. Think back on your life. When something important changed, did you change it? Or did it just seem to happen?

You can harness this power to change consciously, if you’re aware of it. But it doesn’t happen overnight, even on New Year’s eve.

For example, I used to be a sedentary person. Then I decided to try biking to work a few times. I liked it. Then my office moved to a place closer to where I lived — close enough that I could bike nearly every day. So I didn’t pay for parking, which forced me to become a regular bicycle commuter, and go up a big hill every day to get home.

Look for opportunities at work. Maybe you find yourself a project leader for the first time. Do you enjoy that — does it make you feel alive — or do you hate it? If you like it, seek more. Most people’s job evolution happens because they identify job elements that fulfill them, and then edge in that direction. To do this well, you need to be constantly aware of what parts of your work make you happy, and then find ways to do more of them. (You also need to be open to new experiences, even if they frighten you or seem uninteresting. There’s something exciting in every work work experience, you just need to find it.)

A career happens because of a hundred such changes. I became a writer, mostly, by writing, getting feedback, writing more, interacting with editors, writing different things. enjoying writing more, seeking more and more varied writing assignments . . . you get the idea. You can’t make a New Year’s resolution to be a writer. You can resolve to spend years focusing on being a better writer. And that might actually work.

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