The Secret to Sustainable Change

The problem

You want to make a big change--lose weight, stop smoking, start exercising--but you don't know where to start. Maybe you've tried before and kept it up for a bit, but after a while the old habits, or lack thereof, crept back in.

(You're not a freak, by the way. As humans, we're hardwired to keep doing what we were doing before, even if that's nothing. A body in motion stays in motion, and a body at rest stays at rest and all that.)

A solution

Here's the secret to sustainable change (in habits or whatever). When you've decided on a change, ask yourself: 

"Is this something I'd be willing and able to do for the rest of my life?"

If the answer is no, scale back the degree or nature of what you're trying to do. 

So, can you do 30 minutes of mediation every day, right out of the gate? Probably not. Do what you KNOW you can do. If that's 5 minutes, and only on Monday mornings, let that be okay.

Eventually you'll ask yourself the same question and be willing and able to take on more.

Why it Works

Most of the time when change fails, it's because we asked our hardwired brains to make too big of a shift.

Your brain is like a thickly wooded forest. The things you do all the time wear a clear path through all that foliage. But when you ask yourself to do something differently, you're asking yourself to enter a thicket, and not that nice clean path that's right next door. That's hard. And the branches leave marks.

Asking yourself if you're willing and able to make the change you've decided on every day for the rest of your life is a shortcut, a framework, for testing it. It helps you know whether the change would cause you more stress or more pain than whatever it is you're doing (or not doing) now.

Why do you have to test it? Because if the pain of the change is more than the pain of what you're experiencing now, you won't be able to sustain it. Not because you don't want to, but simply because you can't.

You need to figure out what you'd still be willing to do in the worst minute of the worst day of the worst week of the worst month of the worst year. Ever.

Because you know what? Almost every day has a moment like that, and in those moments, that old, beaten down path in your brain looks easy. So you need to make the change just as easy.

What to Remember

Asking yourself what you'd be willing to do every day for the rest of the life helps you find that right balance for you. Yes, someone else may be able to comfortably sustain 10 minutes of meditation every day where you've decided that those 5-minute sessions on Mondays are all you can realistically do.

But those other people are not you--you're the one that has to keep this up.

And you know what? Eventually that 5-minute session on Monday--that new, small change--is the new, clear path. You'll feel like you could make it a little wider, and you'll think about how you could do that, and then you'll test it: Would you be willing and able to do it for the rest of your life?

Yes? Then go.

And I'll see you on the path.



Show Me: Jane McGonigal's Massively MultiPlayer ThumbWrestling at TED

In short talks, the first minute is critical.

Watch how Jane McGonigal handles the first 55 seconds of her seven-minute talk at TED on "Massively MulitPlayer ThumbWrestling." She gets the audience intrigued -- and gives them a roadmap for the remaining six minutes -- in one fell swoop.

Her conclusion isn't as strong (other than having taught you how to play a game, you're left with a bit of a "now what?" question in your head), but the intro is textbook.

What do you think? What do you see?