As always happens at this time of year, millions of people have made resolutions to make major changes in their lives, and magazines and websites are full of sage advice about achieving and maintaining change. Yet we all know how many of these resolution will end in failure.
But this year could be different. There is an interesting article which has been widely reported in the United Kingdom.
Jonny Wilkinson is a 26-year old rugby legend, who is prodigiously talented, but whose career has been plagued by injuries. He is known for his enormous determination and dedication to the sport, and so he became the subject of a study carried out by Professor Caroline Douglas, a sports psychologist at Loughborough University. The study was funded by the Boots, a well-known pharmaceutical and pharmacy chain, as part of the company's Change One Thing scheme which provides starter packs to people determined to improve their lifestyles by giving up smoking, getting fit or losing weight.
We all know that there is a monumental difference between setting a goal and actually working to achieve it. I have worked with countless people who have felt that setting a goal was an achievement, rather than it being the first step in an action plan. Professor Douglas points out that sports professional place equal emphasis on the goal and the means of achievement. She and her team have come up with a formula for willpower which is:
(Goal + Action Plan + Initiation) x (Belief + Perseverance)
I think that most of us would agree that these are indeed some indispensable factors in achieving an aim, but I think that there is more to it, and that there are some better ways of staying with a program.
We must first consider motivation. There is a great deal of research about this powerful force in our lives. One of the most difficult aspects of some mental illnesses, like depression and schizophrenia, is that people can lose all their motivation. Once you have seen that happen to someone, you will never again take it for granted. Every motive that we have is driven by a need and by a desire to satisfy it. But motivation is richer and more interesting than a simple stimulus (need)/response model. It is closely linked to mood, self-regulation and context. Jonny Wilkinson is clearly motivated by a desire to play professional rugby again. But we then have to ask why? Is it pride, or money, or a need to be respected? I don’t know in his individual case, but it is essential for you to drill down as far as you can to discover what needs motivate you; what core constructs are driving you. Because if your plan or resolution is not synchronized with that core construct, or core desire, you have little hope of succeeding with a plan. The reward that you garner for successfully completing a plan must be tied to the need for action.
And here is a useful trick. You want to find two core desires that are driving you: one for yourself, and one for somebody that you care about. So giving up smoking could be driven by a desire to live longer and to be able to participate in a favorite activity, and also because you do not want your children to grow up without a parent. And here is the other part of the trick, whenever you are picking out motivating factors, look at them from physical, psychological, social, subtle and spiritual perspectives. To say that you are going to quit smoking, without taking into account the fact that you may suffer some physical withdrawal symptoms would make you plan very difficult. Our rugby player is very sensitive to the demands of his body and some of the psychological components of his will to carry on playing. But he will do better still if the other three components of his life are also being addressed.
When people are suggesting a course of action, they sometimes neglect the role of time. We are pulled to behave by our conceptions of the future, our recollections of the past and the pressures of our current situation. The importance of the past as a motivating factor has been discussed for over 60 years. There seems little doubt that your memories have a key role in planning your future. This is why techniques that help us reframe our past lives are often so helpful. I particularly advocate re-writing your life story.
Many of us do not take account of the fact that few of us exist as one integrated person. Our personalities are a composite fashioned by our genes, our environment - particularly during our formative years – our beliefs, desires, attitudes and our culture. We change, grow and mature over time, but we are also constantly buffeted by immediate changes in our environment. In very practical ways, you are not the same now as you were yesterday. Our motives will likely also change from day to day and throughout life. This is why I place so much emphasis on personal integration, so that you are able to unite and utilize all your skills to achieve whatever it. If you are integrated, you are also less likely to deviate from a course of action. I have written a lot about achieving integration in my book Healing, Meaning and Purpose, and in my forthcoming book, Sacred Cycles.
But for now, a practical consequence of this changeability is that you must start your new plan immediately, before anything else can distract you. Also start with baby steps. To say that from tomorrow you are going to exercise for an hour a day and start meditating for an hour a day will never work. I always start people with ten minutes of physical exercise, and a one minute (yes, that’s right, 60 second) meditation.
I have mentioned the value of having personal reasons for doing something, and also a reason to do something for someone else. Now there is the last piece: also see if you can work out a transpersonal reason for doing something. We have rock solid evidence that one of the most powerful motivators is a belief in something larger than yourself. People will do the most incredible things for their faith. If you can also find a third reason for following through on your New Year’s resolutions, you may well find the most powerful motivation of all.