The Secret of Sustainable Change

Change is hard. So difficult in fact, that scientists report the prospect of radical change can create a neurological reaction in the brain similar to those produced by torture. We fear change and yet we want it.

Initiating change is challenging enough, but it has been my experience over the years as life coach and personal trainer that sustaining change long enough to establish outcomes is by far a greater challenge.

What is the secret to maintaining the momentum of change?

Here are the basic steps:

Ask What. What is the hard truth about where you are now in contrast to where you want to be? Our tendency is to get distracted from the change by dwelling in the circumstances or “story” about how we got to this point in the first place. For example, if the change being sought is a full commitment to consistent exercise, the focus and energy toward this change can be scattered by engaging in justification, blame or explanations regarding our circumstances. Circumstances such overwhelm at work, lack of energy or expectations/needs of others can sabotage intentions. Instead of focusing here; ask yourself what will my life be like if I continue to not consistently exercise, or allow it to get even worse than that? Explore the dark side of why you want to start exercising- the consequences, the fears and disappointments that could come from degenerating health, loss of functionality and continued weight gain. Be very clear about the “pain” aspect of not choosing to stay with your change. Then, ask yourself what could my life be life if I could consistently exercise? Consider what success would mean. Imagine a year from now of consistently exercising- what are the outcomes in terms of energy, confidence, ease and quality of work and family life? Once again, the idea is to be very clear about the “pleasure” aspect of the change you want. Asking “what” is not about defining the environment, and its limitations surrounding the change, the “what” are the outcomes you will be getting if you do or don’t make the change.

Ask Why. What is the motivation behind the change you are seeking? In the example of a commitment to consistent exercise, it is critical to determine the basis on which you are making this choice. Is it because you “should” since you’ve made a financial investment in a heath club membership? Is it because you imagine that your declining state of health/appearance is unacceptable to your friends, family, and society? If the desire to make change is based on factors outside your values, the change will be less sustainable. Consider how the change supports or limits you from the standpoint of your values. Values that support a commitment to better health could be ‘independence”, “vitality” and “family” (need to stay healthy to support them). Values can also serve as barriers to the change you want. A value of “family” could create guilt around time spend working out, a value of “independence” might bring resistance to the structure of specific, scheduled workout times. The key is to know what your values are and use them to create a solid connection to the “why” of the change you want as well as to shed light on where resistance might come.

Ask How. Understanding without action is like a boat without oars. Asking “how” is the step of creating a plan to transform the “what” and “why” of our intentions into concrete reality. In considering “how”, acknowledge what will be different. By saying “yes” to this action of exercising more consistently, what am I willing to say “no” to? Be honest about what the commitment to “yes” means; maybe it is less sleeping in, leaving work early or just giving up making excuses. Ask yourself what action you can do that you will most likely be successful with. A dramatic change in action is not highly sustainable. What are small, simple steps? This might mean letting go of all the rules you hold for yourself about what an effective exercise program is. Instead of giving up when faced with an unpredictable schedule, exercise 10 minutes one day, an hour the next, 35 minutes the next day and so on- take what you can get and create a plan that supports your success. The perspective of continuous, small successes, however you get them, is much more effective for long-term change than satisfying the self-imposed “rules”.

In additional to asking what, why and how, these are other considerations to creating and sustaining successful change:

• Change can be threatening as well as enlightening. One of the difficult aspects of change that is the fear some have that higher expectations will demand more of them than they can give. Stay curious with this and know that most of us are living from a very small part of our actual potential.
• Get comfortable with the idea of failure; progress often takes the form of one step forward, two steps backwards. Failure can become an excuse to quit. Acknowledge when failure creates a setback but actively decide how much you are willing to let it impact you.
• Find ways to enjoy and engage in the change you want; accept that it is an ongoing process without a true endpoint.
• Create structures to remind you of the personal values you are supporting with the change. These might be photographs, quotes, art, or journaling – anything that is a physical reminder of why you are committed.
• Notice the internal dialogues that limit your success. These might take the form of “I don’t have time for this”, “this is not working”, and “I’ll do it later”. Writing them down can help you determine what truth or value, if any, that they hold.

Change is an inevitable; and is the means by which we grow and evolve as humans. We can choose to let change happen to us, or can create it for ourselves. By asking what we want, why it is important and how to make it happen we take responsibility for the change that brings excitement, possibility and new realities to life.

Author's Bio: 

Sarah Kennedy, MS, is a credentialled,certified coach who works with people who know what to do to live healthier but struggle to stay committed to the process. She has ten years experience in the fitness industry as personal trainer, lifestyle modification mentor, eating management program coordinator and certified life coach. She has completed 7 marathons and 6 triathlons, all after age 40. She believes that everyone has an inner athlete waiting to be set free. Complimentary sample sessions are available for people who are curious about how to create positive change in their lives by contacting her at sarah@getalifecoach.net, 651-426-0382.