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3 Ways to Keep Technology from Ruining Your Relationships

In Triumphs of Experience, George Vaillant writes that “there are two pillars of happiness revealed by the seventy-five-year-old Grant Study. One is love. The other is finding a way of coping with life that does not push love away.”

We all do things — perhaps daily — that push the people we love away from us. We sneak “harmless” glances at our smartphones while playing games with our children. We forget to take thirty seconds to greet our spouse warmly when we haven’t seen her or him all day. We decline a call from our friend or grandmother because we don’t feel like mustering the energy to truly listen. This modern world we live in is full of common situations and experiences which, if not handled well, create resistance rather than ease, impairing the strength that a relationship brings us. Tiny ruptures in our relationships drive love and connection out of our lives.

You know the feeling: You’re having coffee with an old friend, and her cell phone keeps buzzing. She’s left her thirteen-year-old daughter home alone, so she keeps checking her phone, just to make sure everything is okay. But then a text comes in from one of her colleagues who is working late on a problematic project. Your friend feels the need to answer her questions. In the end, you feel you had only half her attention for most of the meal. It was good to see her, but the friendship isn’t what it once was.

Tiny ruptures in our relationships drive love and connection out of our lives. Click To Tweet

Or you are having dinner with your extended family, and everyone is excited to catch up with the college kids who are home. But throughout dinner, the kids can’t resist the pull of Snapchat, laughing at photos that school friends send and trying to share them before they fade. Soon, all the adults have their phones out, too, just to check what’s happening on their Twitter feed or to post a picture of the college students on their Facebook page. No one really gets to catch up with the kids.

In these situations, and many others we’ve all experienced, our smartphones and laptops and tablets and all the social media they carry disrupt the very social connections they promise to create. They make us available to work 24/7, which might seem like a bonus to our relationships because now we can have our work and our family time, too — in theory.

But actually, technology can damage our relationships and our work. We don’t really experience our family time, and the work we do while spending time with friends and family isn’t our best. Rather than bringing us together, new technologies often create an illusion of togetherness, but without the joys, benefits, and, frankly, the challenges that real relationships bring.

Our technology addiction erodes our connection with others. Each time our phone dings, we get a nice hit of dopamine, a neurochemical that activates the reward system in our brain. It feels good, but it also makes us less willing to return to the much more demanding world of live conversation. Real-life friendship has a lot of benefits, but instant gratification is rarely one of them. Our live relationships can be exhausting compared to our online “friends.” At the end of the day, it is so much less taxing to text a friend than to actually call her. It is so much less draining to update our Facebook page and reap the instant satisfaction of dozens of “likes” than to share our ideas and interests with our actual neighbors. In the short run, it seems easier to connect with others through technology, but we need to be clear that this is a false ease. In the long run, these behaviors introduce strain into our relationships.

Sherry Turkle, an MIT sociologist and author of Alone Together, writes that we avoid the vulnerability and messiness of “real” contact and intimacy while getting the sweet satisfaction of a neurochemical high from being connected digitally to more and more people. We can hide from each other, even while we are tethered together.

This hiding from others (and sometimes from our own feelings) that technology can facilitate is a pernicious poison in our relationships. Fortunately, the technology itself is not at all the problem. We need only to use it differently.

Here are 3 ways to keep your gadgets from harming your relationships:

1. Carve out technology-free zones and times in your life when you can pay mindful attention to what is happening in real time.

Being really present with people means that when we are on the phone with them, we don’t do anything else. It means initiating real, face-to-face conversations with people, even though they can bring conflict, even though they can be tiring. When we are really present, we stop interrupting ourselves and others all the time. It might be gratifying to sneak a peek at your texts, but we don’t have to react to our devices all the time. We can command them instead of always letting them command us.

2. Practice being alone. When we don’t learn how to tolerate (and even relish) solitude, we often feel lonely.

“Solitude — the ability to be separate, to gather yourself—is where you find yourself so that you can reach out to other people and form real attachments,” explains Turkle. “When we don’t have the capacity for solitude, we turn to other people in order to feel less anxious or in order to feel alive. When this happens, we’re not able to appreciate who they are. It’s as though we’re using them as spare parts to support our fragile sense of self.”

Spend time alone at home and in the car unconnected. Learn to tolerate the initial boredom that may come; it will pass. Go on a hike or to the beach without a cell phone. Deep down I think we all have a deep, dark terror of being alone and are hardwired to stay with our clan. But when we experience our ability to turn inward— which we can do only when we need the silence and stillness of solitude — we realize that we are never really alone. We feel our innate connectedness. So we need to catch ourselves when we “slip into thinking that always being connected is going to make us feel less alone,” writes Turkle. “It’s the opposite that’s true. If we’re not able to be alone, we’re going to be more lonely.”

3. Limit the time you spend in virtual worlds — including Facebook and Instagram.

Virtual realities, video games, and social media are addictive. In the short term it can be far more rewarding to spend time in a fantasy world — rewarding in the way that a sugary soda is rewarding (but very unhealthy if over-consumed). Social media and other virtual realities allow us to put on our best performances, showing the world the moment when we looked (or imagined ourselves to look) pretty or felt proud. If we’re feeling lonely, we can easily “connect” with dozens of online “friends.” More than that, we can avoid the problems of real people and real relationships in all their untidiness and vulnerability and pain (and all our own messiness, as well).

But the reality is (no pun intended) that our vulnerabilities create real intimacy and draw us together, and when we avoid the messiness that real-life relationships require, we end up isolated and disconnected. So be very deliberate: Use online games, social media, and virtual realities to facilitate live connections with real people, choosing real connections and real people over fake ones. Use Facebook to deepen your connection with a faraway friend by sharing articles, photos, and videos that you think she will appreciate. Play online games with your son rather than a stranger. Use match.com to make new connections, but then actually meet those connections live, in person,  instead of constraining your relationships to online forums.

This post is based on an excerpt from Chapter 7 of The Sweet Spot.

Misery Loves Expectations

Irritated with your husband (or your wife)?

You probably expect too much.

I find it ironic that the month after Valentine’s Day tends to be the busiest time of the year for divorce lawyers (or so they say). Seems that many people are not feeling as much love and romance as Hallmark would hope.

I have a theory about this.

If I asked my grandmother if her late husband was her best friend, her provider, her lover, and her partner in parenting and life—her go-to guy for emotional fulfillment, practical help, AND the center of her social universe—she would have laughed uproariously.

She did love her hubby until the day he died and she missed him so much she wept when she would talk about him more than 30 years after his death. But my Opa wasn’t her best friend (her girlfriend Beulah was). She didn’t rely on him for help raising the kids or with the housework (times have changed!), nor did she expect him to understand her feelings. She relied on herself for happiness and fulfillment—and truthfully, she didn’t have high expectations there, either.

But she’d tell you she had a wonderful marriage. When I asked her if she had had a happy life (she lived to be 104 years old), she giggled at the absurdity of the question. Clearly she did.

And yet, like most of my peers, I would not sign up for her life—or, in particular, her marriage. Today, we expect our spouses to be our partners in just about every realm. We expect them to be our co-parents, our household running mates, and to help provide for our family financially. We’d think there was something wrong if they didn’t consider us their soul mate, their go-to buddy, and their lover.

Our expectations hugely influence our perceptions, and therefore our decisions, our experiences, our judgments, and ultimately, how we feel. Click To Tweet

Like individuals, couples are increasingly isolated from the outside sources of support that previous generations had, and so our partners have become our primary sources of emotional (and for some, spiritual) fulfillment. When we aren’t happy, it is easy—and quite common—for our generation to blame our spouse for it.

There is an expectations paradox here: The demands put on our relationships have become so great—and our expectations of them have gotten so high—that we are more likely to be disappointed when we don’t get what we want from our partners than we are to feel grateful when we do.

My grandmother expected very little from her husband—I imagine only that he provide her with financial stability, and that he be faithful to her. My grandfather delivered on these things, and as an added bonus, shared with her a love of dancing, a social life full of mutual friends and dinner parties, and a muted joy in raising children and grandchildren.

My grandmother was content not so much because of what she had in her husband, but because of what she lacked in her expectations. This is both ironic and instructive for our generation.

Consider the study where Duke professor Dan Ariely, author of the book Predictably Irrational, had research subjects try two different types of beer. One was Budweiser; the other was Budweiser with balsamic vinegar added to it.

The majority of subjects vastly preferred the Bud and vinegar concoction—when they weren’t told what it was. When they were informed before they tasted it, they hated it.

Ariely’s conclusion is that when people believe that something might be distasteful, they’ll experience it negatively, even if they would have liked it otherwise. The reverse is also true.

In other words: Our expectations hugely influence our perceptions, and therefore our decisions, our experiences, our judgments, and ultimately, how we feel.

But the idea that we should just lower our expectations of our spouses and call it a day is inherently unfulfilling. Seriously: Is the answer really to just lower the bar?

I can’t think of anyone for whom this would work. We can’t just drop our beliefs–especially our long-held romantic notions about who are partners should be to us–without replacing them with new beliefs and values that feel as true or truer to us.

So what do we do? How much can we really expect of our spouses and still be happy?  If expectations create relationship-killers, like nagging, contempt, and criticism, how can we respond constructively when our expectations aren’t met?

I’ve spent years combing the research for answers to these questions. I’ll be sharing what I’ve learned on the first live call of my Brave Over Perfect Group Coaching on Friday, March 1. We’ll be digging deeper into the misery of high expectations, and more specifically what to do when our partners don’t measure up. Learn more or enroll now.

Happiness Tip: Let Someone See Who You Really Are

These days, you can have both an actual life AND a life you present to others that’s been optimized for your audience. There can be what really happened, and ALSO what happened as captured on Instagram or Facebook or Snapchat. There’s how you really look, and how you look after you whiten your teeth or crop out that belly fat. There’s how you actually feel after a workout (sore, depleted, out-of-shape?) and what you post about your latest exercise class (OMG! I am so sweaty and inspired after SoulCycle!!)

Although you may not go out of your way to create a complete facade of awesome for your online persona, the lure of wishful thinking is real. Slowly, the filtered colors (lark? lo-fi?) of a funnier, sexier, more intelligently-lived life can take over.

Online, it’s a perception game. But is that game bleeding over into your offline life? What happens when you fib to your coworker about how great your weekend was (why not be consistent with what you posted on Instagram?) when actually, your weekend sucked and you’re feeling pretty depressed and anxious. So what?

You may not want to reveal that you and your significant other had a major fight over the weekend, but if you pretend that you are okay — and you’re not — you’ll probably make the people around you feel worse, too. Research shows that when we accept and let ourselves feel (and even express) what is going on emotionally for us, our overall happiness increases and depression decreases. (Ironically, research shows that people who regularly suppress difficult emotions tend to experience more negative emotions overall.)

A consistent benefit of letting ourselves feel what we feel is that our relationships tend to improve. Click To Tweet

A consistent benefit of letting ourselves feel what we feel is that our relationships tend to improve, sometimes dramatically. For example, the less often that people report suppressing their emotions over a two-week period, the better they tend to feel about their relationships over the course of three months. This sort of authenticity predicts the tendency to avoid destructive behavior in intimate relationships. More than that, it predicts greater relationship quality overall.

Why?

Because authenticity creates intimacy. Research shows that people in romantic relationships are most intimate with and most committed to romantic partners who see them as they see themselves; connection and intimacy in our relationships depend on our feelings of being understood. In other words, when our romantic partners see us the way that we see ourselves — which they can only do if we don’t hide our feelings or pretend to be better than we are — our relationships last longer and are more fulfilling.

Take Action: This week, show someone who you really are.

Join the Discussion: What benefits have you experienced from showing people who you really are? When has pretending backfired for you or someone you know?

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If you want closer friendships and better relationships, consider joining my Brave Over Perfect coaching group. This is a great time to join, as you’ll get two themes for the price of one.

All three Habits & Resolutions call recordings and resources will stay up until the end of February. We’ll kick off March with some of the best research-based advice related to relationships and marriage. Learn more or enroll now.

4 Ways to Keep the Flames Alive

4 Ways to Keep Passion Alive

Research shows that with a little elbow grease, romance can last a lifetime. This week, put some energy into your relationship. How can you best improve it?

  • Do you need to dedicate more mind/heart space to your partner?
  • Do you need to foster more admiration, fondness, and appreciation?
  • How frequently do you “turn towards” your partner?
  • What special family celebrations, traditions, and routines do you have? Can you add more?

This video is the 3rd in a series about the science of great relationships from The Raising Happiness Homestudy. Check out the rest of the Homestudy here.

If you would like to download the audio version of this video to listen to in your car or on the go, click the link below.
DOWNLOAD THE AUDIO VERSION HERE.


If you’d like to delve a little deeper, I hope you’ll join my Brave Over Perfect  group coaching

In our next theme, we’ll be talking about relationships and marriage, which are foundational for finding meaning and joy in our lives. Join us to practice some science-based ways to improve your relationships.

Group coaching is a highly effective alternative to individual coaching. We do three recorded calls per theme (cost is $20 per theme). Learn more or enroll now.

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Resolutions Slipping? 5 Quick Ways to Stay the Course

We all understand that when we first attempt to drive a car or ride a bike, we’ll make mistakes. Behavior change is no different; it’s a process of slipping, learning from the mistake, and trying again.”

— John C. Norcross, Changeology

Unless you are some sort of superhero, you will not be able to establish a new habit perfectly the first time. Research indicates that 88 percent of people have failed to keep a new resolution. In my experience as a human being and a coach, 100 percent of people trying to change themselves lapse back to their old selves at least some of the time. So what to do if you’re struggling?

1. Don’t get too emotional about your slip or succumb to self-criticism. Instead, forgive yourself. Remind yourself that lapses are part of the process, and that feeling guilty or bad about your behavior will not increase your future success.

2. Figure out what the problem is. This may be blazingly obvious, but in order to do better tomorrow, you’ll need to know what is causing your trip-ups. What temptation can you remove? Were you stressed or tired or hungry–and if so, how can you prevent that the next time? Figure it out, and make a specific plan for what to do if you find yourself in a similar situation again. What will you do differently? What have you learned from your slip?

3. Beware the “What the Hell” effect. Say you’ve sworn not to check your email before breakfast, but you’ve been online since your alarm went off…three hours ago. You’re now at risk for what researchers formally call the Abstinence Violation Effect (AVE) and jokingly call the “What the Hell” effect. If you’ve already blown your plan today, why not go hog wild? What the hell–you can begin again tomorrow, right? Wrong. The more damage you do during your binge, the more likely you are to slip again the next day, and the less confidence you’ll have in yourself that you can change. So as soon as you notice you’ve slipped, go back to your plan. Double down, friends, double down.

4. Rededicate yourself to your resolution (now, in this instant, not tomorrow). Why do you want to make the changes that you do? How will you benefit? Do a little deep breathing and calm contemplation of your goals.

5. Above all, comfort yourself. To boost follow-through on our good intentions, we need to feel safe and secure. When we are stressed, our brain tries to rescue us by activating our dopamine systems. A dopamine rush makes temptations more tempting. Think of this as your brain pushing you toward a comfort item . . . like the snooze button instead of the morning jog, onion rings instead of mixed greens, or that easy taxi to work rather than the less-than-comfortable urban bike ride. So sometimes the best thing that we can do to help ourselves unplug is to preemptively comfort ourselves in healthy ways. What makes you feel safe and secure–and doesn’t sabotage your goals? Perhaps you need to seek out a hug or take a walk outside.

What are you struggling with? Post a comment and I’ll try to help!

If you want support establishing a new habit, it’s not too late to join our Brave Over Perfect Group Coaching. Our January/February theme is about setting and keeping the right resolutions. It’s only $20 to join us! You’ll get instant access to previous call recordings and an invitation to our next live call. We also have a thriving online community, worksheets, and online resources. Learn more or enroll now.

Cheers to making this your happiest year yet!

The Power of Taking Time Off

Do you work around the clock, just because you can?

If so, you aren’t alone. These days we check our smartphones (and laptops) constantly to abate our anxiety that we are missing something. Are we supposed to be responding to something urgent at work? What if someone called about something really important? Constant device checking looks a lot like an addiction (or obsessive-compulsive disorder). One study found that many people respond to “phantom phone vibrations”—they think they feel their phone vibrating even when it isn’t.

And even if we aren’t addicted or don’t check our emails and texts and feeds compulsively, often our mental health is still, in fact, at stake. Certainly our productivity and satisfaction with your life are. For example, Harvard University’s Leslie Perlow’s intervention with the Boston Consulting Group executives was nothing short of transformative. She required that participants establish “Predictable Time Off” (PTO)—time when they would not check their email or work remotely from, say, the family dinner table.

Work satisfaction and, ironically, productivity shot up for the BCG executives, dramatically. Before establishing PTO, only 27 percent were excited to start work in the morning. After PTO, 51 percent were. Before, less than half were satisfied with their job, but after, nearly three-quarters were. Satisfaction with work-life balance went from 38 percent to 54 percent. And people found their work to be more collaborative, efficient, and effective; for example, just establishing PTO made 91 percent of the consultants rate their team as collaborative, up from 76 percent when they were checking their email at all hours of the day and night.

Unplugging isn’t easy, but it is necessary. Click To Tweet

Perlow explains:

Busy managers and professionals tend to amplify—through their own actions and interactions—the inevitable pressures of their jobs, making their own and their colleagues’ lives more intense, more overwhelming, more demanding, and less fulfilling than they need to be. The result of this vicious cycle is that the work process ends up being less effective and efficient than it could be. The power of PTO is that it breaks this cycle, mitigating the pressure, freeing individuals to spend time in ways that are more desirable for themselves personally and for the work process.

Unless we want to feel overwhelmed and exhausted, we need to unplug.

A lot. Specifically, we need to carve out times and spaces that are insulated from checking behaviors. This can be very, very hard when it doesn’t come as a company mandate, as it did at the Boston Consulting Group. But even though it might be difficult, and requires some courage, I promise, it’s worth doing.


This post is from a series about gaining control of your time, attention and energy in my online course, Science of Finding Flow, an online course I created as a companion to my book The Sweet Spot: How to Accomplish More by Doing Less. Want to take the course? It’s free! Just click this The Science of Finding Flow tag. Enjoy!

Habits are everything

Habits Are Everything

You might know how to be happy, but can you do it?

Watch a video of any elite athlete or performer before a big game or show, and you will likely see one thing: their pre-performance habits, the things that they do every single time in exactly the same way.

This is because habits are everything. Not just for game-day, and not just for elite performers. For normal people like you and I, for raising our children, for being happy in our relationships, for being happy as individuals.

Our routines and habits allow us to access a part of our brain that runs on relatively little gas. The newer (in evolutionary terms) part of your brain—your smarty-pants pre-frontal cortex, the area that sets you apart from the family dog—works pretty well. But it requires effort and willpower to make it tick. The more you use it throughout a day, the less reliable it becomes. Low blood sugar? Your decision-making will falter, whether you realize it or not.

Good thing there is a back-up plan in the older part of your brain: your basal ganglia, a primitive knob of tissue deep in your noggin that acts as your own personal auto-pilot. It controls your breathing, and swallowing, and that weird way that you sometimes drive to work while sort-of unconscious.

Your basal gangla is, among other things, your habit center. And once it is programed, it requires no effort on your part to accomplish truly amazing feats. (Really. Charles Duhigg, in his inspiring book The Power of Habit, gives a detailed account of the way Olympic swimmer Michael Phelps won his world records by honing his habits.)

This means that when we are too tired to think—as we often are—we default to our habits. Which made me realize: Our habits are our most critical cornerstones for happiness.

I have long advocated finding habits and routines that actually work.  It doesn’t have to be the most efficient or productive routine; it’s simply one that makes us feel good, or at least it doesn’t make us feel bad.

We need a dinnertime routine that creates feelings of gratitude rather than annoyance, for example, and a morning routine that doesn’t make us want to lay our heads down and cry before we even get to work. We also need bedtime routines for ourselves and our children that don’t leave us exhausted and irritable.

An important caveat: Cultivating habits and routines doesn’t mean that we go through life mindlessly. I mention this because mindfulness—when we consciously pay attention to what we’re thinking, feeling, and experiencing in the present moment, without judging our thoughts and feelings as “good” or “bad”—is a research-tested way to reduce our stress and, generally, be happier.

How can we be mindful about things we do habitually?

Well, consider how we breathe. On the one hand, our breathing is on auto-pilot—we aren’t thinking, “Okay, now I need to breathe in! Now breathe out! And in! And out!” At the same time, though, we can pay attention to our breath as a part of a meditation or another relaxation practice.

So when we make something a habit—say, washing the dishes right after dinner—we don’t need to become mindless about it—we can still pay attention to the way the water feels on our hands, for instance, or even appreciate the fact that we have dishes and food to eat off of in the first place. Habits can make something relatively routine and effortless, but not necessarily mindless. In fact, I find it much easier to be mindful about something once it is a habit—once I’m not trying to figure out what I’m going to do, or how I’m going to do it, or even IF I’m going to do something.

So our habits can routinely make us feel grateful, or joyful, and they can prompt us to pay attention and be mindful. But HOW?

I have spent years pondering this question, subjecting my clients and readers to my habit tracker and methods for getting into better routines.

Habits are a critical component of the happiness equation. It is one thing to know what to do to be happy (or to raise happy children, or to create a happy marriage) but it is quite another thing to actually be able to do those things. You know that you should exercise and meditate and eat kale, for example. But do you often do those things? Perhaps the missing piece is a habit.


What bad habit would you like to kick in the coming year? What new habit would make you a happier person, or happier parent, or happier spouse? If you’d like support, I hope you’ll consider enrolling in Brave Over Perfect Group Coaching. Our January theme is all about setting and keeping the right resolutions. Get instant access to three live coaching calls (and call recordings), a thriving online community, worksheets, and online resources. Use the code BESTYEARYET to enroll for just $10.

Learn more or enroll now. Cheers to making 2019 your happiest year yet!

 

3 Resolutions to Make You Happier

I do understand why people don’t like New Year’s resolutions: they can be a source of failure, year after year. Folks often pick resolutions that are inherently unrewarding, that necessitate relentless hard work, or that remind them of their mortality in a way that makes them feel small instead of grateful.

This year, make the right resolution. Make the wrong one and you won’t keep it; you’ll just add another habit to the “fail” list. This year, pick just one resolution that research shows will make you happier. Here are are three of my favorites:

1. Spend more time with friends. Study after study shows that we tend to be happier when we feel connected to our nearest and dearest, when we feel like we are a part of a group or a clan. Even introverts don’t like to feel lonely; this may seem like the science of the blazingly obvious, but it bears repeating. Do you frequently feel isolated or lonely? Make a resolution to routinely reach out to others.

2. Every day, find a way to give something to somebody. My favorite happiness booster is to give thanks: to a higher power for the abundance that surrounds me; to my dad for taking my kids to ice cream; to my husband for all the ways he makes me giggle. Equally good is to give something else—a helping hand, a compliment, a much needed $5 bill—even if it is just a tiny act of kindness. In a world that is more focused on getting than giving, a New Year’s resolution to do one kind thing each day is a pretty radical act. When we make giving a habit, we make gratitude and kindness central themes in our lives. In so doing, we transform our lives with joy.

3. Get more sleep. The science around this is clear: You’ll be less stressed, less sick, and less grouchy in the New Year if you get more shut-eye. Try increasing your sleep 10 minutes a night for a week, and then another 10 the next week, and so on until you are regularly getting your eight hours.

It is miraculous to me that people can change themselves simply because they want to. New Year’s resolutions are an amazing act of creation, an art form where the canvas is the self.


Want more advice for keeping New Year’s resolutions? Enroll in Brave Over Perfect Group Coaching. Our January theme is all about setting and keeping the right resolutions. Get instant access to three live coaching calls (and call recordings), a thriving online community, worksheets, and online resources. Use the code BESTYEARYET to enroll for just $10.

Learn more or enroll now. Cheers to making 2019 your happiest year yet!

Why New Year’s Resolutions Work

 

Thinking of making a New Year’s Resolution this year? This quick, research-based explanation by Dr. Mike Evans of why New Year’s Resolutions are a great way to make positive changes is an essential watch!

And those tools Dr. Evans mentions at the end? I’ll give them to you! Join my Brave Over Perfect Coaching Group. Gain support in forming a new habit or would like to be a part of a community of people on a similar journey. We’re kicking off the year talking about New Year’s Resolutions and how to create new habits for ourselves. Use the code BESTYEARYET to enroll for just $10. Learn more or enroll now.

 

3 Signs You Won’t Keep Your New Year’s Resolution

Like most self-help authors and coaches, I love New Year’s Resolutions.

Weeks ago I started asking my kids what theirs were going to be. I have a fantasy that January 1st will be THE day we launch headlong into our new-and-improved lives. I LOVE a fresh start, and there is nothing fresher than the first week in January.

But I know better.

By strongly “encouraging” my friends, family and readers to make New Year’s Resolutions, I’m failing to recognize that people don’t just make resolutions and then the next day spring into lasting action. I may wish this was possible, but research shows that it probably isn’t.

For the last four decades, behavior change researchers James Prochaska and Carlo DiClemente have written extensively about how people actually do change.

According to Prochaska and DiClemente, people change in stages. They go from not even really considering making a change, to contemplating making one, to preparing to make the change…and THEN (and only then) do they spring into action. The actual behavior change (like starting to exercise, or going on a diet) is not the first stage of change, but the fourth.

Here’s the long and the short of it: To be successful in a New Year’s Resolution, you need to be in that fourth stage of change. What stage are you in?

1.) You sorta want to make a change…in theory…but in your heart of hearts, you know you don’t intend to make that change just yet. Or maybe you don’t really want to make the change, but someone else is pressuring you to make a New Year’s Resolution. Maybe your doctor has mentioned that she’d like you to lose weight, or perhaps your husband wants you to go to church more often. You can see their point, and you aren’t entirely opposed to the idea, but…just reading this you can feel your resistance rising.

You probably know this, but you aren’t ready to make a New Year’s Resolution. If you do make one at this stage, you’ll probably fail. You’re in the first stage of change, which is called “Pre-contemplation.” Prochaska, in his book Changing to Thrive, details three primary reasons that people get stuck in this stage; perhaps you can recognize one of these reasons in yourself:

  • You don’t know how to make the change you’d like to make.
  • You’re feeling demoralized by previous attempts to make similar changes and don’t want to fail again.
  • You’re in denial — you tend to defend yourself or rationalize your behavior when others suggest you make a change.

If you are at this stage of change, instead of making a New Year’s Resolution this year you’ll do better (again, according to Prochaska’s research) to make a list of all the good reasons, or “pros,” to make the change. How will you benefit? How long can you make this list of “pros”? Just start contemplating these things for now.

2.) You’re thinking about making a change, but you’re still worried about the drawbacks to doing so. Perhaps you’re considering starting a meditation practice, and you are aware of the benefits. But you also are pretty sure that you don’t have enough time to be regular about it, and your back hurts a lot when you’ve tried meditating before. Or maybe you’d like to cut back on your drinking, but you hate the idea of being the teetotaler at the party–you’re afraid the people you’re with will think you’re uptight and unfun. Your doubts are keeping you from getting started.

I’m in this stage of change in thinking about cutting gluten out of my diet once and for all. I’m aware of the benefits for someone like me (I’m very sensitive to gluten — the angry rash on my face makes this quite clear) but a life without sourdough bread doesn’t quite seem worth living. Yet. Right now it’s easier for me to really think a lot about going fully gluten-free, without actually doing anything. By thinking about something (but not taking action) I feel like I actually am doing something about the rash on my face (even though I’m not). This is safe, because I don’t risk failing, given that I’m not actually doing anything to change.

If this is you, you’re in the second stage of change, “Contemplation.” Before you take action or commit to a resolution, you’ll need to deal with your list of drawbacks to the change, or the “cons” that are holding you back. If you’re worried you don’t have enough time to meditate, for example, you’ll need to convince yourself otherwise. Can you find five minutes in the morning? How can you convince yourself that this will be worth it? Finding the benefits of making a change for others can be enormously helpful in this stage. How will your friends and family benefit from your change? How can you use these benefits to assuage your fear about how others will perceive your change?

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3.) You do truly intend to change, but you still feel some dread about it. You’re out of denial, in that you recognize that you really do need to change — or you’ve solved the problem of not knowing how to make a change (for example, by joining my Brave Over Perfect coaching group). Your list of benefits is longer than your list of drawbacks. The only thing you have to surmount now is fear of failure. This third stage of change is called “preparation.”

The way to move from here into action is to take an honest look at how the change you are preparing for can truly make your life better. How do you think and feel about yourself as you are right now, if you never change the behavior in question? Maybe you are often stressed, and you’re seriously thinking about getting in an exercise habit to combat this. Without more physical activity, you think of yourself as sedentary and out of shape, and you feel stressed and anxious. Now, imagine yourself having made the change you are looking for. How will you think of yourself differently? Most importantly, how will you feel?

Sometimes, on New Year’s Eve — or in life — we feel pressured to commit to changes we just aren’t ready to make. If you aren’t ready to spring into action, there’s no harm in that. Please realize that you have more options than either making a resolution (and probably failing, if you aren’t in the fourth stage of change) or doing nothing at all. All you need to do to grow is to move from one stage of change to the next!

Already made a resolution, but now it seems like you might not be ready to leap into action? Please check out my Brave Over Perfect Group Coaching. January is all about setting you up to cultivate a lasting habit. You’ll get real resultsUse the code BESTYEARYET to enroll for just $10. Learn more or enroll now.