New Year's Resolutions? Make Just One Small Change

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It’s that time again! A brand new year! Time to begin afresh! Time to make New Year’s resolutions! Sadly, many of us will make too many! And in so doing, we will only defeat ourselves, and end up feeling like failures.

So don’t do it! Instead, make just one change. And watch how, in turn, the ripples of that one change will radiate outwards, transforming your whole life. You don’t believe me?

A few weeks ago I blogged about the power of substitution in changing habits, based on Charles Duhigg’s book The Power of Habit[1], a book I highly recommend. Duhigg begins with the story of Lisa Allen who had started smoking and drinking at 16, and had struggled with obesity for most of her life. In her mid-20s, collection agencies were hounding her, trying to recover over $10,000 in debts. An old resume showed that her longest job had lasted less than a year.

One day Lisa’s husband came home from work, and announced he was leaving her because he was in love with another woman. Lisa spent the next four months crying, and binge eating, unable to sleep, feeling shamed, helpless and angry all at once. After a period of mourning, there followed a period of excessively spying on her husband, and stalking the other women, showing up drunk at her door, and threatening to burn down the condo where she lived. Then, though she couldn’t really afford it, Lisa flew to Cairo, Egypt, a place she had always wanted to see.

But instead of escaping her problems in Cairo, Lisa seemed to hit a new low. Awakened at dawn by the call to prayer at a nearby mosque, she tried to light a cigarette in the dark. When she smelled burning plastic, she realized that it was not a cigarette she was lighting, but a pen! “I can’t even smoke right!” she thought. Then she upset a water jug. Lisa began to think about her ex-husband, how hard it would be to find a job when she got back, how unhealthy she felt all the time, and of all the things that had gone wrong in her life. Soon she was spiralling down into deep despair.

In her desperation, Lisa felt like she had to change something, to find at least one thing that she could control. Later, as she rode in a taxi to see the Sphinx, the Pyramids, and across the vast Egyptian desert, her self-pity gave way, and she decided that she needed a goal. She committed to return to Egypt one day, to treck through the desert. Though she was out of shape, overweight, and had no money in the bank, none of that mattered. She needed something to focus on. Lisa decided that she would give herself one year to prepare, and that, to survive such an expedition, she would have to make sacrifices. In particular, she decided that she would have to quit smoking.

When, Lisa finally did make her way across the desert, just 11 months later, it was in an air-conditioned and motorized tour. The caravan carried so many supplies – water, food, tents, maps, GPS, and two-way radios – that throwing in a carton of cigarettes wouldn’t have made much difference. But back in the taxi, when Lisa had set her goal, she didn’t know that.

It was that one small shift in Lisa’s perception that day in Cairo that made the difference. That conviction, that she had to give up smoking to accomplish her goal, had touched off a series of changes that would ultimately radiate out to every part of her life. Over the next 6 months, she would replace smoking with jogging, and that, in turn, changed how she ate, worked, slept, saved money, scheduled her work days, planned for the future, and so on.

She ran a half-marathon, then a full marathon, went back to school, got engaged. When the interview recorded in this book took place, four years later, Lisa had lost 60 pounds. She is described as lean and vibrant, with the toned legs of a runner, and looking at least 10 years younger than the photos in her file. She had no outstanding debts, didn’t drink, and hadn’t smoked in 4 years. She was in her 39th month at her job at a graphic design firm, had started a Master’s degree program, and had bought a home.

Lisa didn’t make a list of resolutions. She made one small change; and it transformed her life. I know this is possible. It works! How do I know? About 30 years ago I was a pack-a-day smoker. I had tried to quit a number of times before. But one year, like Lisa, I decided that I would l substitute jogging for smoking. It was a slow start! But I persisted. I did quit smoking. And the rest is history.

[1] Charles Duhigg (2012) The Power of Habit, prologue, published by Random House (In U.S., and Doubleday in Canada)