Change that lasts

I was 18, renting one room from a delightful New Zealand couple, Brian and Sally. For a reason I don’t recall, I went shopping with my landlady. We bought various things, and then Sally said it was time for a coffee break at a nearby café. For her, it was far more than a coffee break, as I watched her also order a large piece of cake smothered in cream. Now, Sally was considerably overweight and, I thought, on a strict slimming diet. I said nothing, but she saw a puzzled look on my face. ‘You mustn’t tell Brian,’ she said. ‘He thinks I’m sticking rigidly to my diet.’

During the time I knew her Sally never lost any weight, and I suspect Brian was well aware of what his wife was doing – sometimes sticking to the healthy-eating rules, sometimes secretly yielding to unhealthy-eating habits. Thankfully he loved her whatever her weight.

In the last two blog posts I’ve written about change. In the first, about a dramatic change in the life of a convicted murderer, so great a change that after prison he studied theology and became a church pastor. In the second, I outlined four important steps for personal change.

However, here’s the problem with change: often it doesn’t last. By a few weeks into January most of us have broken our New Year resolutions. My one-time landlady Sally couldn’t sustain a lower weight. She was a yo-yo dieter: the weight would go down (when she controlled her eating) and then up again (when temptation took over).

It’s important that changes ‘stick’, because when they don’t the effort is wasted, the experience is depressing, and we’re tempted to think ‘I can never change’.

So, how do we make change last? Inconveniently, the answer to that varies from person to person, and is different from one situation to another. Which means there is no simple answer. However, some principles or practices help. I’ve listed seven below.

Determination   The decision to change must be much more than wishful thinking. All of us would like some things in our lives to be different, but often the idea is little more than a fleeting desire. And that won’t do. Change demands effort well beyond the thought that we’d like to live or work better.

Sandy had a hot temper which upset everyone on whom he vented his anger. It nearly cost him his job. He promised to change, and believed that recognising his problem and resolving to be different was all he needed to do. But next time the red mist came down, his anger flared, and terrible words were shouted. He was no better. Simon had a hot temper too. He caused damage every time he inflicted his rage on family and his business customers. Simon also knew he must change, but Simon’s advantage was a determination which verged on stubbornness. He absolutely resolved that his temper would not control him. When he  felt his anger building, he’d pause, calm himself, and control what he said and did next. And the change ‘stuck’. Simon was no longer the man with a fiery temper. Deep determination to be different is a necessary part of lasting change.

Vigilance    Those who make change last are vigilant in two ways.

First, they recognise and avoid situations where temptation might get the better of them. For landlady Sally that would mean not entering a café where she’d have to walk past a counter of super-fattening delicacies. For Murray, it meant developing a social life outside his home. Why? Murray was in his thirties, lived alone, and found little fulfilment in his work or anything else. His loneliness led to evenings of accessing extreme social media sites and online porn. Eventually that diet of evil made Murray feel even worse. His decision to change involved joining a volunteer group which maintained the homes and gardens of those too old or infirm to cope, and becoming a member of a computer club where he learned programming. He made friends, attended football matches with them, and afterwards joined them for meals and a drink at a local pub. In time Murray’s life became enjoyable and purposeful. He’d recognised and avoided the circumstances that generated his bad habits, and created a rich and pleasant set of friends and activities.

Second, change also requires vigilance to notice tendencies back to old habits. That’s what Simon – the man with the fiery temper – learned. Spot the problem when it’s only a small problem, and prevent it becoming a big problem. A couple I knew got into deep debt simply because they loved buying things. Debt collectors came to the house, sometimes very late at night. The couple hated how bad things had got, said they’d change, but they kept their sales catalogues (there was no internet back then). Inevitably when the old desires stirred, out would come the catalogues which they’d scour for goods, buy things they could not afford, and thus get into yet more debt. Change requires vigilance to recognise and deal with old patterns before they do damage.

Timing    Imagine this scenario:

  • there’s a deadline for the most major work project in which you’ve ever been involved. You feel stressed and exhausted
  • your son has failed his university exams, and come home depressed with no idea now what he’ll do with his life
  • your wife is ill, going through tests, with the potential that her condition is terminal
  • your car keeps breaking down, and you should buy a better one but there’s no money for that

Given these circumstances, is this the time to make another attempt to stop smoking? Quitting cigarettes is entirely a good idea, but is it realistic when faced with serious life-pressures?

In fact, sometimes what I’ve called ‘life pressures’ are exactly the things that cause our bad habits. Drinking too much alcohol, over-eating, being irritable, are often responses to negative events around us. Certainly, such bad habits need to go, but we may have to delay the challenge until some of the stress-causing events of life have eased. I don’t like writing that, but I think it’s realistic. You can’t plant a tree and expect it to grow if it’s placed in the middle of a building site with earth-moving vehicles heaving up the soil almost every day. Likewise, change that lasts often requires other things in our lives to be relatively settled, thus allowing the change to grow and take root.

Habits    We think that change means giving up bad habits. But lasting change means picking up good habits. We can liken this to ways of improving memory. When I’m setting off to play a golf match, I must take ten different golf-related things with me. Several times I’ve forgotten one of those ten, but thankfully the course where I usually play is only two minutes drive from home. If there’s time, I come back for the omitted item. If my tee time is imminent, Alison (wonderful wife that she is) will bring it to me. But now I’m almost never without all ten golfing essentials. A miracle? No miracle, just that I’ve developed a routine – a habit – about the order in which I put the ten in the car. So, the sequence for the last five is this: electric trolley, trolley battery, golf shoes, bag of clubs, and last my driver and fairway wood because they’re the longest clubs and they rest on everything else. My sequencing isn’t evidence of an obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD) – I don’t do this with anything else – just a way of ensuring I have everything I need to play golf.

Developing good habits – ways we should think or act – serve a similar purpose. If what we need to change is that we don’t get enough sleep, then the practice of making, say, 10.00 the latest stopping point for work or watching TV, and then being in bed by 10.30, is a good  habit. It’s an aid to sustain our goal of sleeping better and longer.

Baby steps    Every parent is excited when their child takes his or her first steps. Suddenly your little girl is standing up, moves one leg, then the other, perhaps one more step and then… she falls over. Hopefully she’s not hurt, and she’s up trying out her walking skills again. Parents hug and congratulate their child when those baby steps are taken. What they don’t do is announce: ‘Great, you’re walking now. We’re going for a hike over the hill.’ One day that hike will happen, but right now parents and child have to be content with just two or three steps across the lounge.

I could give plenty more examples where there’s value in starting gradually, such as someone training for a marathon beginning with a gentle jog and not attempting a 26 mile run. But you get the point, which is that some (not all) changes shouldn’t be attempted in one super-ambitious effort. The person spending more than they earn might be wise to lower their purchasing budget by only ten per cent per month, and, when that’s accomplished, to then lower it a further ten per cent, and so on. The person working well beyond their finishing time might be wise to start by working one hour less, and cut out another hour only when the first goal is settled. For most, attempting too much too soon is a recipe for failure, and thus discouragement and giving up.

But are there some changes which shouldn’t be done gradually? Yes. I won’t spell them out but they’d fit under the headings of law-breaking or immorality. Those demand immediate attention.

Persistence    My landlady Sally had tried dieting many times. She wasn’t grossly obese but certainly overweight enough to be damaging her health. But every time the weight-loss plan failed, she gave up. She stopped believing she could ever change; she’d always be large. After a year or two, though, the guilt and concern of being overweight would lead to another diet, and then the recurring cycle of failing, condemning herself, deciding she could never be slimmer, and giving up for at least a year.

It didn’t have to be like that. Sally needed to know six things:

  • Most people fail in the early stages of change.
  • The best response to failing is to return immediately to doing what’s right. One lost battle doesn’t mean you can’t win the war.
  • Set a new and realistic time target for sustaining the changed behaviour (healthy eating in Sally’s case). It might be as short as two days.
  • Tell someone else what you’re doing, and get their support.
  • When you achieve your short-term goal, celebrate – not with something unhealthy, but certainly with something you like. It might be watching a favourite film.
  • Set another goal, which should be a little more challenging but never too much.

Most of us get very excited that we’re changing our lives. The price of that enthusiasm is deep disappointment when we fail. We must not let our discouragement rob us of starting over again. There’s an old saying: falling down is not the problem; staying down is the problem. When we fail, if at all possible we should get up and get on with doing the right thing.

Support    One of the points just above is telling a friend or partner or spouse about the change you’re trying to make, and getting their encouragement and help. That is so important I could have put it at the top of my list.

When I struggled with depression my wife Alison and friend Jim were essential to help me escape the dark pit in which I felt trapped. Alison never judged me, just gently spoke hope into my thinking, and loved me no matter what. Jim kept telling me my depression wouldn’t be forever, that one day I’d see my life and the world in a better light. Despite his busy schedule, he’d meet with me or we’d talk by phone at least once a week. I remember he called one evening when I couldn’t bear to speak with anyone. Alison explained to him, and Jim said to reassure me that was fine and we’d talk again when I felt better. Many times I wanted to give up on myself, but neither Alison nor Jim would give up on me. They kept me going, and eventually I got out of that pit.

A good supporter will never give up on someone trying to change. When you doubt you’ll ever change, they’ll help you believe it will happen. When you fail, they won’t condemn. When you confess what you’re doing wrong, they’ll listen and respect your privacy. When you’re not coping, they’ll be patient. When you’re being awkward, they’ll make allowances. When you’re going astray, they’ll care for you enough to tell you to get back on the right path. When you achieve a goal, they’ll celebrate with you.

I strongly encourage you to find support, someone with whom you can be ruthlessly honest and to whom you can make yourself accountable. You need that person if the change you want is to last.

In conclusion, then, change is tough. Small changes are easy to make, but the big ones are hard. If only we could just throw a switch and behave differently from that moment forward. But there’s no switch. We need time, perseverance, willingness to sacrifice, and support along the way. I’ve known some who never reached their goal, but I’ve also known many who did. And I’ve walked that hard road in my own life, and I’m so thankful I did. When we know we need to change, we must never shy away from doing whatever it takes to achieve that goal.