Nike got a lot of mileage out of their “Just do it” slogan. But as a recipe for change, this mantra leaves much to be desired.
Action is an essential part of any change. Nike’s “just do it” slogan can hit just the right note when someone is stuck in indecision or afraid to make the first move. At another time, it can be a source of unnecessary self-condemnation when change fails to happen. Below I’ll describe some of the major aspects of change beyond the mere willingness to act.
All but the simplest changes require planning. And as common as that word is, really good plans are hard to find. A quality plan usually starts with a goal: some concrete condition that signifies that change has been achieved. Maybe that’s abstinence from drugs or alcohol, a new relationship, or a better career.
Defining the target as much as possible provides several major advantages. First, if a goal can be imagined, then the tangible benefits of achieving it can be sampled in advance. Second, a specific target is usually time-limited, which can make the change less daunting. Sticking with something for a few days is easier than for an indefinite time, or for the rest of your life.
A plan anchored to a specific, time-limited goal also requires a series of steps that lead from where we are today to where we want to be. Picking out the right steps can be harder than it looks. Most substantial changes require many steps, and not all of them are obvious. A lot of the people I see with alcohol and substance abuse issues end up working as much on their careers or relationships, because often the stresses in those areas were some of the initial causes of use, and later triggers for abuse and addiction.
Picking out the right plan is also complicated because one person’s perfect plan is another person’s nightmare. Individual differences require that plans be tailored to the person making the change and the kind of life they are living. Trying to change by doing brand-new things is far harder than pulling out some activity that has worked in the past. In therapy, it’s hard to go wrong by asking “what has worked for you in the past?” Often the best plan is one made from older plans that were tried and discarded.
Life is a lot easier when you make it a team sport. One thing the “just do it” mantra misses is that everything we do happens in a context. Doing pushups on one’s own initiative at home feels very different than doing the same pushups in a gym, in a group fitness class, with everyone around you doing pushups at the same time. Surrounding yourself with people engaged in the same sort of change you want to make is so useful that it shows up everywhere, from 12-step meetings to book clubs.
As I noted earlier, planning for change isn’t so straightforward. Having some expert advice from someone like a coach, a therapist, a doctor or a financial planner can not only instill confidence, but also get you on the right track for success.
Teammates for change can also help you in two more important ways. The first is accountability. Managing change means monitoring progress and noticing what’s working and (more painfully) what’s not working, or when we fail to “just do it.” Having someone you are accountable to cuts off the option for self-deception or avoidance. Second, good teammates provide encouragement when you yourself lack confidence. A kind word at the right time can help you get “over the hump.”
A funny thing happens when someone starts to make a major change in their life: people around them start to notice. And even if the change doesn’t seem to materially affect these peers, they often start to object to the change in subtle and not so subtle ways. The truth is that most people compare themselves to their peers most of the time, and if that comparison turns negative because the other person is getting better, discomfort ensues.
It would be a much better world if everyone would take that discomfort as motivation to improve themselves, but in the real world, this ill will turns to resentment, discouragement, alienation or even sabotage. Sometimes, making changes requires changing friends, changing coworkers, and even redefining family ties.
The Heart of Change
Up until this point, I’ve focused mostly on the ideas that lead to change. But of course, change has an emotional component as well. Emotions are key during goal setting because, unless the goal is tangibly felt (or alternatively, the costs of failure are previewed viscerally), then it’s difficult to muster much motivation.
Every serious change effort involves setbacks or roadblocks of some kind. Dealing with the practical issues is only part of the problem. Obstacles also take an emotional toll in the form of discouragement that saps resolve and raises the risk of giving up on the plan. Recognizing discouragement, then dealing with it through social support, or reframing what the ‘failure’ means are essential to making progress in the face of difficulty.
Even an Iron Will Can Bend
“I would have changed if I had had more willpower.” I hear that all the time, and I think it’s a myth and a red herring. We now know from research that willpower is a limited resource. Whether you start with a lot of it or a little of this valued commodity, if the plan for change isn’t sound, you will run out eventually.
Rather than blame yourself, consider which parts of your plan consumed the most willpower, then replan around them. A great plan for change is one that seems easy and do-able from the outset. It’s also important to refill your supply of willpower regularly through rest, recreation and recovery. Great athletes know their success relies as much on sleep, nutrition, and self-care as much as it does on intense practice and training.