Don't Make Any New Year's Resolutions ...
Until you understand how to make lasting behavioral changes
AS WEIRD AS 2020 was, there are some predictable things that happen at the start of a new year. There’s a natural sense of a fresh start and renewed hope that perhaps now we can do some things differently. Thus, new year’s resolutions.
It’s also predictable what will happen for most people who try them. By February 1st they will have gone by the wayside.
Why is this? Why, despite all the good intentions and resolution of will, do most people fail to keep those good intentions? First, most people simply don’t know how to make behavior changes that last. Second, there are some common mistakes that prevent success.
In this brief article, I will share a process for making behavioral changes and ensuring that they stick.
The Weakness Mountain Sherpa Coaching Process
I have been a certified Sherpa Executive Coach for 13 years, a Master Sherpa Coach since 2014, the 7th person in the world to earn that designation. We help our clients make changes they have identified through a process called Weakness Mountain.
In short, the steps of Weakness Mountain are 1) Acknowledge, 2) Observe, 3) Change, and 4) Evaluate. Let’s walk through how you might use that process to accomplish your goals, plus common pitfalls and solutions.
Step 1: Acknowledge
The first step is acknowledging a need or desire to change. Let’s face it: We all know we aren’t perfect. That means every one of us has faults and bad habits. Why don’t people change them? Often, they simply don’t care. In other cases, they have tried and failed. For those who try, like those who make new year’s resolutions, why do they fail?
Using generalities, the failure to be specific. Aspirations like, “To be a better leader” or “I want to make more sales this year” are too vague to be pursued.
Too many goals at once. Effective problem-solving involves applying discernment: “to separate.” Individual problems must be analyzed separately, each with its own action plan.
Focus. Identify no more than two or three issues important enough to put time and effort into, then attack them one at a time.
Be specific. Make sure you are considering a behavior of your own and give it a name.
Instead of “Be a better leader,” identify the problem behavior behind it. Try “Not giving clear expectations and following up.”
Instead of “Make more sales,” try “Not staying close enough to my customers.”
When you’ve identified one to three problems you want to address (no more than that), you are ready to move to the second step.
Step 2: Observe
One of the greatest reasons people fail in their sincere efforts to change is that they aim at the wrong things. Using Weakness Mountain, we will put significant thought (hard work in itself!) into understanding and making sure we are attacking the right problem.
Jumping to conclusions. People tend to be too quick. “Losing my temper” doesn’t identify what’s really going on. More understanding is required.
Mistaking the fruit for the root. Many clients quickly identify “procrastinating” as a weakness. “No,” I reply, “procrastinating is not a weakness; it’s a behavior. I can think of eight or ten reasons why someone might procrastinate. Until you know why you are procrastinating, you don’t know what to change. What is the root of the behavior?”
Take a high-altitude look. Step back. Ask why this behavior occurs. Using procrastination as an example, possible roots include perfectionism, disorganization, fear, reluctance to venture out of one’s comfort zone, avoidance of unpleasant or boring tasks, poor prioritizing, failure to delegate, and many more. Which is it? That’s when you know what to attack.
Look for patterns or triggers. Think of other times this behavior has occurred. Are there common denominators? Certain people involved? Other common conditions such as time of day, or settings such as meetings? Do your biorhythms affect this?
As a personal example, several years ago I found myself losing my temper with a teenage child and I wanted to stop it. After some processing, I realized there definitely were common denominators. I summed them up as the 3 T’s: “Tense, Tired, and after Ten.” That provided the direction I needed to get and keep control of the behavior.
Step 3: Change
Often, when a client does a good job in the Observe step, what to do to correct the behavior is obvious; it tends to jump out at you.
Making changes sounds easy, but it can be a genuine challenge to pull off and maintain. As usual, there are some pitfalls to avoid.
Not having a plan. This is a classic case of “failing to plan equals planning to fail.” Life simply throws too much at us too fast, and we have the problem of shifting emotions and moods.
Focusing on the negative. “Trying not to procrastinate” or “Trying not to lose my temper” as resolutions don’t work. Besides, when you’re thinking about what you don’t want, what are you thinking about? What you don’t want. We tend to gravitate toward what we are thinking about.
The solutions are imbedded in the meaning of the Change step: Choose a behavior within your control stated positively to interrupt or replace the behavior you don’t want.
Every phrase in that definition is important. Let’s break it down.
“Choose a behavior …” Lasting changes are not simply a matter of restraint. They come from intentionally adopting a new behavior.
“Within your control …” There are few things more useless than focusing on what we have no control over. We can’t control other people or their attitudes or actions. We have little control over our circumstances. We can always control our own attitudes, words, and actions, and our own response to circumstances.
“Stated positively …” A positive focus is more powerful than a negative one. Instead of “Don’t be late,” think, “Be early.” Instead of “Don’t speak negatively,” think, “Speak optimistically.” The positive always includes the negative.
“To interrupt or replace the behavior you don’t want.” This is how you build new habits of behavior, which is precisely how you ensure they will last.
The person who wants to “Be a better leader” might choose to “Put thirty minutes a day on my calendar to check in with my team in an unhurried manner.” The person who wants to “Make more sales this year” might determine to “Work with my assistant to ensure I schedule a visit to each customer every month.”
Those examples fit the definition of the Change step. They identify a behavior within one’s control, each one stated positively, to interrupt or replace the undesired behavior. They will lead to the desired results.
Most people need a memory device to help them: A key word, object, visual aid, or acronym. Something to keep your desired change before your mind and trigger your alternative behavior. Whatever works!
Step 4: Evaluate
As with any experiment, you check the results. How is it working? Can you improve on it? If it didn’t work well, what else can you try? Remain positive and determined that desired improvement can be made.
Perfectionism is not helpful here (unless we are talking about a serious, show-stopping kind of fault or behavior, in which case you must find a way to end it altogether). Most often, incremental improvement is a good!
It’s far better to take a Ready-Fire-Aim approach. Or, as I often say, “It’s easier to steer a moving car than a parked one. Get into action and improve on it as you go.”
You really can make behavior changes that last! Best wishes for a Happy New Year, and hopes that you make significant progress toward your goals in 2021. Li