Sustaining change

As I’ve been making some changes, big and small, in my personal life (as outlined in my New Year’s post), I’ve been thinking a lot about how to maintain that change over time.  So, for example, I vowed to work on my finances, and one of the things I promised myself was to check all my accounts daily.  I did that for 30 days, and it was helpful to give me a sense of the ebbs and flows of my balances.  But I didn’t need to continue doing that forever.  So now, I’m scaling back to something more scalable.  I’m checking about once a week. A long time ago, I tried to set a specific day for this, but that didn’t really work since other things in my life regularly get in the way.  So now, I just try to check that item off once a week.

I’ve also been working on getting my house back in shape (goal #2 from the post above).  I started over spring break by tackling the kitchen.  I spent a large chunk of time getting started and then a little bit every day after that.  And then, I’ve been diligent about taking 5 minutes when I get home to straighten anything that’s out of place.  I started tackling the basement a couple of weekends ago.  Originally, I had planned on tackling this a little bit every day, but it’s really dirty down there, so I’ve decided it’s okay if that’s a weekend project.

I’ve had success in the past in starting new habits and sticking with them.  But real change is hard.  I read somewhere (or maybe saw it in a TED talk) that in order to really change behavior, you have to be able to say, I’m the kind of person who . . . fill in whatever action you want.  So, I would like to be able to say, “I’m the kind of person who has a clean house.”  But I don’t think I really believe that.  I know people with clean houses, and I’m not sure I identify with them or aspire to be them.  No offense to those of  you out there who have perfectly neat houses, but some people I’ve met with really neat houses seem to have nothing much else to do except clean.  And some, of course, just hire others to clean for them.

Other changes I’ve been contemplating have to do with how I spend my free time–too much tv watching, not enough book reading.  Or too much tv watching, not enough exercise.  I used to be the kind of person who read lots of books, so going back to that wouldn’t be that hard (I still read a lot in the summer; it’s the school year that gets me).  But I’ve never been the kind of person who gets up at 5:00 a.m. to exercise, or who throws on gym clothes right after work.  If I want to become the kind of person who exercises regularly, the latter scenario is more likely because I’ve never gotten up at 5:00 a.m. regularly for anything, not even something I wanted to do.

So sustaining change, ultimately requires changing who you think you are.  Your habits, what you do day in and day out reflect who you are, so changing those things does change you.  I think I’d need to find a way to seamlessly incorporate the change into my life.  Dealing with the finance stuff, for example, has been easy, thanks to technology.  I can just log in periodically, move stuff around, and I’m done.  Exercise is harder.  No 5:00 a.m., and after work can be unpredictable.  Some days I’m home by 4:30.  Other days I’m stuck until 7:00 or later.  And that’s often enough that I can’t create a pattern.  But if I can find a way to exercise regularly and that becomes a habit, now I’m a person who exercises regularly.

Also, I need to see some real benefit fairly quickly.  I do often feel better after exercise, and I have lost weight as a result of sustained exercise.  But that’s not quite enough to make it feel worth my while.  It’s not quite part of who I am and what I do. Likewise, I like seeing the basement start to look better, but I don’t have to go down there and see it–good or bad–so I’m not inclined to work on it.  The areas I spend time in are mostly neat.

So, change in my life needs to fit in with what I’m already doing–at least at first–and I need to see some immediate benefit.  The latter, I think I have to trick myself into a little, because most of what I want to accomplish takes longer and most have no end date–I will always need to exercise and always need to manage finances. Though, maybe the basement will eventually be clean.  Ultimately, change is pretty hard.  But I’m not giving up yet!

I wonder what lessons might exist in my own personal journey toward making change and how change happens in organizations and cultures.  It’s sort of about ritualizing something new. Or about having organizations believe (can organizations believe?) that they are the type of places where x happens. Something to think about.