When I want to make a change, whether personal or professional, I like to look for a “hero” in whose footsteps I can follow. I do my research (or look around in my own life) to find a person who already embodies the success I’m seeking. Once I’ve found a “hero,” I study their actions and their decisions, asking myself What did they do differently to make their success possible? Instead of spinning my wheels and staying the same, I try to learn from people who have already “made it.”
For the past year, I have been in the process of making many personal changes related to fitness and health, so I’ve been seeking out a lot of “hero” advice to help me along my journey. For example, Steve Prefontaine (who went by the nickname “Pre”) was an American middle- and long-distance runner who once held the U.S. record in seven different distance track events. He advised that running wasn’t just about using your legs effectively, but also your arms—a new strategy I’d never heard before. I also studied the work of acclaimed sports psychologist Bob Rotella, who has advised professional golfers, NBA superstars, and business executives alike on how to flourish under pressure and overcome challenges. Rotella, who even helped superstar Seal get over stage fright, suggests avoiding triggers that hold us back. Finally, my reading list is full of books and articles by fitness guru Jillian Michaels, author of How to Build an Exceptional Life and star of the TV show The Biggest Loser. According to Michaels, it’s best to weigh in on a scale only once a week in order to minimize anxiety and give the scale a chance to move.
However, even with all of this great advice at my disposal from top leaders in the fields of health and fitness, I was somehow still reluctant to change. Reading their advice was fun and inspiring, but actually taking their advice and applying it to my life meant lots of hard work. Following through with their expert opinions would mean sacrificing my pride and the way I’d always done things to be more accountable for my success and life.
Let’s face it: It was much easier to walk instead of run up that mile-long hill by my house every morning. It was a lot more fun to eat whatever I wanted to on the weekends, and I enjoyed my comfortable habit of weighing myself every day, looking for ounces of progress.
Deb Cheslow, an achievement expert and author of Unrealogical: Real People, Stories of Transformation, believes that our relationship to pain and pleasure explains why many people stay stuck in bad habits even when they have access to good advice and better options. “I don’t think it’s a matter of people dismissing expert advice and not even trying,” she writes, “but more of a subconscious unwillingness to hold themselves accountable to doing the hard work that real change requires. Human beings are change-seeking organisms with a strong desire to grow, succeed, and thrive. But we are also pleasure-seeking and pain-avoiding creatures. Most people will only seek to change their situation when the pain of remaining the same exceeds the level of pleasure (i.e. comfort) derived from maintaining the status quo.”
“Discipline,” she says, “is choosing between what you want now and what you want most.”
So, in order to make real progress, I had to be okay with setting aside all of my old habits in order to create room for new thought processes and beliefs to grow. Ellie Cobb, a Columbia-trained holistic psychologist, explains that, from a neuroscience perspective, “our brains form neural connections based on repeated exposure to a behavior, which in turn makes that behavior likely to be repeated.” Additionally, she says, “Research shows that new habits, lifestyle changes, and behaviors take repeated practice to experience positive benefits and even more practice to rewire the brain to make it a new routine or habit.” In other words, knowing good strategies for improving your life doesn’t matter at all if you never practice those strategies.
What’s the best way to practice new beliefs and stick to new patterns of thought and action? I asked the experts this question too, and they shared a few great tips that you and I can use to implement real change into our lives every day.
Here are their top three strategies for making life changes:
Be patient with yourself. Ellie Cobb told me, “the next time you get good advice and want to take it, be patient with yourself and allow time to practice. Science shows that it will take you repeated practice to make this a new part of your life, so simply smile at yourself every time you want to disregard the advice and remember that your brain is on your side. It just takes time. Being compassionate and patient as you practice allows for the process of change.”
Shift the balance. According to Deb Cheslow, the key to lasting success is to “Attach a strong, compelling WHY to the desired change” by discovering “ways to make the pain of remaining stuck greater than the pain required to make changes.” Ask yourself exactly what it would take to force change in your life and then use that as your motivation to get started today. You don’t want to wait until disaster strikes to make positive changes, so use those negative possibilities to motivate your actions today.
Focus on changing your mental habits. You may not be able to work toward your goal every minute of every day—we all have lives and jobs that demand our time and attention—but you can always be working on building a more positive, confident mindset. Sharon Cleere, a meditation and mindfulness specialist and author of Buddha Babies, says that “many professionals ask their clients to change their actions without changing their habits of the mind first,” which leads to burnout, failure, and disappointment. Instead, Cleere suggests that her clients focus on nurturing “positive emotions around the new habit” they’re trying to build, so that then they have “internal motivation to act in accordance on a regular basis.” Even better, developing this kind of mental strength, focus, and positivity will help you in all of your future endeavors as well.
Change isn’t easy, and for many of us who are trying to break out of habits we’ve had for years, it can sometimes feel impossible. I’ve learned a lot from listening to expert advice, and I’ve seen great gains in my own health and fitness because I’ve put their advice into practice. Consistency is key, as is remembering that frustration doesn’t equal failure. You have big goals, and that means big challenges, but with patience, endurance, and open-mindedness, there’s nothing you can’t accomplish.
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