You have probably long given up on New Year resolutions in the knowledge that they don’t work. They don’t work because the old you does not metamorphosise on the stroke of midnight into the new you. The new you that is required to exert the necessary will power to give up smoking, eat healthier, exercise regularly, be more considerate etc
However, that does not mean that for the rest of the year we don’t constantly give ourselves instructions on what we should be doing in order to live a better, more successful, more satisfying life. Whether it is vowing to manage time better, achieve a better work-life balance, not answer emails at home or not look at the phone when with friends and family. The desire for self improvement is constant, and the failure levels are disappointingly high.
Why is this? It is not that that we are not convinced of the value of the behavioural change, and yet we find ourselves continuing to take on too much, abandoning activities which keep us balanced, looking at emails late at night and irresistibly drawn to that text that has just pinged in when we should be focussed on our child or partner.
The answer according to researchers Robert Kegan and Lisa Laskow Lahey, and the authors of ‘Immunity to Change’, is that our behaviours make absolute sense if we acknowledge that we have the ability to create perfect logical systems which make us immune to acting on the changes we say we want.
Take this all to common example:
- You are determined to leave work on time so that you can get in the exercise that you know helps you deal with the demands of your work.
- What you do instead, is stay at work until you are too tired to exercise and all you want is to relax when you get home.
This abandonment of a desired activity, only makes sense if you ask the question, “what am I secretly more committed to?”
Your answer could be:
- Getting the next promotion
- Ensuring X does not get the next promotion
- Having a friendly relationship with my boss
- Not missing out on anything
Once we admit our secret commitment(s) then the actions make absolute sense, and in fact to leave work on time, makes no sense.
Underpinning that commitment are assumptions that hold the commitment firmly in place. They are like two pieces of Velcro that attach themselves firmly to each other.
- The key decider on promotions is who is present most.
- The only thing that separates X and me are the hours we work
- My boss’s view of me is decided by the time I leave work
- I can only know what matters by being present after normal working hours.
While the assumptions sit inside our heads, they maintain an unchallengeable logic, but once we bring them into the open, their limitations become clear. They hold us firmly where we are, and allow for no other behavioural option. However, they are only assumptions, and we usually do not have unchallengeable data to confirm their truth. The power of an assumption is that it is an untested thought guiding our actions. It is only when we own it as an assumption that we have the possibility of choosing another assumption that offers different possibilities. For example:
- There are other qualities than the ability to work long hours that decide who does best.
- Exercising helps me be better resourced to deal with the demands of work.
- Being able to manage time well within the day can create a more positive impression than always working late.
- Not everything is worth knowing, and no one can ever know everything.
So, if you are not doing what your rational head tells you you need to do, then start by unearthing the commitments that are telling you to stay as you are. Once you own up to those commitments, find the assumptions which are driving them, and you then have the option of creating some new assumptions that will better support your aim.