This is a topic I have been wanting to write about for a long time, but it has been difficult to gather my thoughts and more importantly find the resolve required. Perhaps because this is something that makes me want to scream inside. Here goes.
Do you feel unhappy about some aspect of your life? Not in the perfect relationship you dreamt about when you were young, but hey the guy/girl you’ve settled with is not that bad. Maybe you drift through workdays in a state of semi-consciousness, hoping to lay low enough not to raise any unwanted attention while browsing celebrity gossip sites. Sure, it’s not the job you wanted. Not even the profession you secretly desired, but your parents got you convinced that you’d be better off studying law instead of breeding miniature pigs. One day you realize that those love handles are starting to really show, but what’s a girl to do? After all, you spend good 4-5 hours a week on a treadmill in the local gym and always eat your vegetables.
Guess what, no one is going to solve those problems for you, or otherwise change your life for the better.
You have to take complete no-bullshit no-excuses ownership of who you are and where you are in your life. You have to man up. Not happy with the job? It’s your fault, your responsibility. You’ve made some bad decisions. Not happy with your guy? Nor the ones before him? You have bad taste. Your fault. Always turning off the lights when having sex because you don’t want him to see you naked? Your body, your fault, your responsibility.
You cannot change your life and fix things unless you are ready to take full, absolute, complete responsibility of your actions. The past and future ones alike. What you need is naked honesty. Because only by going through this necessary step will you be able to truly own your problems. Ownership leads to control, and control means you can finally start changing things.
I cannot stress enough the importance of this part. Stop. The. Fucking. Excuses. You don’t eat Ben & Jerry’s in evenings, slouched in front of the tv, because “it was a hard day at work.” You eat that shit because you choose to do so. Relationships, jobs, friends etc., they are all choices. If you are not satisfied with something, it’s time to choose again. If you are not the one who controls what those choices are, then who does? If you are not the one living your life, then who is? How can you call yourself a free individual if you won’t accept the responsibility that comes with freedom?
You can take control of your life if you want to, but before that you need to take responsibility of every single aspect of it; all the decisions, actions, and their outcomes. No one else can do that for you. To imagine otherwise is to be a puppet, a subject to other people’s machinations. Do you think the company you work for has your best interests in mind? Or your spouse? Or your parents? Fuck no. They may believe so and even get you convinced, but they are not you. They can’t possibly know what it’s like to wake up in your skin every day, or what really goes on inside your head.
Start making some decisions. After you have accepted raw, unfiltered, naked responsibility, it’s time to identify what you want to change. What aspect of your life is in most desperate need of improvement? Don’t try to do everything at once. This is big stuff, so it’s better to proceed one issue at a time.
After you’ve acquired your target, you need to decide how to tackle it. What will you start doing differently?
Don’t like your job? Start scouting for a new one, but this time actually spend some time figuring out what your heart desires to do. Unhappy in your relationship? You have two options: you can leave, or you can work on it and see if it can be turned into a happy one. What doesn’t work is sitting on your ass and expecting things to change on their own. Or repeat doing the same things that got you where you are now. This is about taking responsibility of your life, remember? And if you indeed eat your vegetables and spend 4-5 hours a week on a treadmill but are not getting the results you want, your method is obviously not working. As Einstein said; “insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results.”
Do your research. I have to admit that this step might be something that is more suited to a geek like me. However, I have found it to be extremely effective in multiple domains. What it means is that instead of making just any decision, you strive to make an informed one. Not sure what you want to do for a living? Read a couple career guides, find out what your Myers-Briggs personality type is, and see if you can identify what your values are (you know, things like integrity, learning, love, joy, honesty etc. that guide your behaviour in both conscious and unconscious level).
I was never able to lose weight following the “eat less exercise more” adage, but after I eliminated sugar and grains from my diet and started lifting weights instead of spending endless hours doing cardio on the “fat burning zone”, I got in the best shape of my life in a matter of months. This probably would not have happened unless I had started questioning my assumptions and studying nutrition and exercise more in detail.
Change tends to be difficult as it is. Don’t make it more difficult by using inferior methods.
Act. Decisions alone are worth nothing unless they are followed by actual changes in your behaviour. This won’t be easy. The single best book I have read about the topic is Switch by Chip and Dan Heath. Read it if you are serious about improving your life. Nevertheless, here is a quick summary about how to improve the odds of succeeding in a behaviour change.
- Make sure you really understand what your goal is, and more importantly why you want to achieve it. Is your goal really to hit the gym 4 times a week, or is there a deeper goal, e.g. the desire to lose weight, and you simply assume that going to the gym is the best strategy for achieving that goal? The goal should also be your own. Not something someone else tells you should do. Change is easier when you know where you’re going and why it’s worth it.
- Knowing something isn’t enough to make change happen. Every single person knows that smoking is unhealthy, stupid, and pointless, yet they keep doing it. What you need is a catalyst that propels the change forward. This is not something you know or learn, but something you feel. Try to find the feeling that keeps you motivated to change.
- In most cases it is easier to break down the change into small steps, and tackle one step at a time. This builds momentum and confidence that you can actually achieve what you set out to do. Want to eat healthier? Don’t overhaul your entire diet at once, but start by fixing your breakfast. After it has become a routine and takes no conscious effort, move on to the lunch, and so on.*
- Behaviour is largely environmental. We see something that triggers a familiar thought process and we act automatically. The more often we repeat a behaviour, the more ingrained it becomes. For example, if you often buy some last-minute candy at a check-out counter in the local grocery, the script for that behaviour gets triggered every time you are at a check-out counter, and it takes willpower to overcome it. Willpower, as we know, is a limited resource and when it gets depleted the impulses take over. The trick is to tweak your environment in such a manner that it prevents undesired behaviour while supporting desired ones. Eating healthy is a lot easier when you don’t have cupboards full of beer, candy, cookies, and chips. Even small environmental changes can have a surprisingly large effect.
- One way to create a trigger for the desired behaviour is to determine beforehand when, where, and how you will behave in the new way: “When I am in the coffee shop, sitting opposite to my date, I will smile a lot and be genuinely interested about his life. I will also listen to everything he says, giving my complete attention.” Visualising yourself behaving in a situation has a similar effect on your brain than if you actually did it in real life. This will make the desired behaviour more natural, familiar, and easier to trigger when the actual situation occurs.
* As I said, this works in most cases. If, for example, you have a gluten intolerance this kind of approach is just going to keep you feeling miserable. Sometimes a zero-tolerance approach is a necessity.
In the end, you decide. Do you want to cruise through your days more or less on an autopilot, as a bystander to whom life just happens, or do you have the guts to take control of it? Let me know in the comments.