Ready for change

Can we plan our lives anew? How to effectively set and achieve goals? Participants of the course organised by ICAS Poland learned about this

I’ll lose weight. I’ll exercise more. I’ll quit smoking. I’ll stop snacking on sweets and cut out fast food. I’ll save more. I’ll strive for a promotion at work or look for a better-paying job. I’ll devote more time to loved ones. I’ll learn to relax. I’ll try to get less nervous and stressed.

At the beginning of each year, most of us make similar declarations and believe that a fresh start will promote self-care and the realisation of ambitious plans. We look at the still unwritten calendar pages and imagine filling each month with promises and concrete successes. Unfortunately, on this fuel of optimism and determination, most of us don’t even make it to spring. According to research, over 70% of Poles make New Year’s resolutions, but every fourth person abandons them after just two weeks. One in ten respondents admits to not even starting to implement their plans. The same number of people, however, declares at the end of the year that they have fulfilled all their promises.

So what causes the initial enthusiasm to disappear after just a few weeks, or even days? Where do we lose focus on the goal? Do our resolutions have to have a short expiration date? When is the right time for change? Perhaps it’s easiest to answer the last of these questions: always. Regardless of whether it’s the beginning of the year, month, or week. After all, it’s not the choice of date, but a specific action plan that can guarantee success.

The course “Ready for change,” organized by ICAS Poland, aimed to make its participants aware that introducing any new elements into life is a process. It’s a long, winding, and bumpy road that needs to be travelled at the right pace and with complete equipment. If we sprint up the first hill, we’ll run out of energy on the subsequent inclines. As a result, we’ll veer off course (resignation), we’ll delay our departure (excuses), or we’ll fantasize about catching a miraculous hitchhiking opportunity (deception, most often deceiving ourselves).

Which “difficult” to choose?

Before embarking on a journey, it’s not enough to just pack and pick the right shoes. Above all, you need to set a direction that truly interests you. “I’ll start running because everyone at my job does some sort of sport. I don’t want to be left behind.” Without the inner desire to take care of your health and fitness, morning jogs will end after a few attempts, leaving us only with muscle soreness. This way, we’ll discourage ourselves and stay at home. Because, at no stage of making this decision was it our goal. Every change requires us to be convinced of it ourselves, which isn’t always easy or convenient.

“Maintaining good physical shape is difficult. Building close relationships is difficult. Maintaining financial discipline is difficult. However, let’s also consider what’s on the other side. When we don’t make these changes. It turns out that being out of shape is also difficult. Just like lacking friendships and love in life, and not adhering to financial discipline, which can ultimately lead to debts. So it all comes down to answering the question: which “difficult” to choose? Is it the one that means getting up early in the morning, going out in the cold, having sore muscles? Or is it the one that means inefficiency, health problems, and being out of breath when climbing stairs?” says psychologist and leader of the “Ready for change” course, Katarzyna Kowalska.

Don’t shoot blindly, focus on the target

Success in making changes largely depends on setting goals correctly. They provide the right direction, indicate priorities, give a sense of control, improve quality of life and give it meaning, motivate action, allow learning from mistakes, satisfy needs, shape personality, and bring satisfaction, without which achieving any resolutions seems almost impossible. The chosen goals must be well thought out and tailored to our personality. They cannot conflict with each other and should not stray too far from what is our starting point.

It’s difficult to reconcile the desire to take courses and the need to find additional work, if at the same time we want to spend more time with loved ones and develop our own passions and seek new interests. It will be equally challenging for us to run twenty kilometers a week (because our friend manages it), if so far we have only taken short walks to the nearby store. With frustration and probably relief, we will abandon the thought of losing weight if we drastically reduce our daily calorie intake from three thousand to one thousand, and we will suppress hunger with reproaches to ourselves for a flawed dietary plan.

It’s not about quantity, but quality. Not about speed, but precision. Imagine we are at a shooting range and blindly fire a series towards several targets. The likelihood of hitting the bullseye seems small. The risk of harming ourselves and others, however, is quite significant. Concentrating on one target, mastery, and consistency, even requiring several attempts, would certainly increase the chances of success.

Lift out of order, entrance via stairs only

Once the goals have been carefully considered, chosen, and tailored to our capabilities, there’s still the task of putting them down in writing. A contract with ourselves written on paper will encourage greater consistency in action and further motivate us. It will also allow better monitoring of each subsequent step. Because in pursuing our goals, neither grand gestures nor magical teleportation will help. We must ascend to each successive level of change independently. If we locate our goals on the tenth floor of a skyscraper, we must be aware that in such a building, the lift is not operational, and no one will carry us up on their shoulders so high. All that remains is the laborious climb up the stairs.

“We can make changes in small steps or giant leaps. The latter option is, of course, very tempting for most of us. We would like a change that would be spectacular. One that everyone would envy us for. We want solutions that would quickly help us deal with our problems. The method of small steps requires much greater patience, self-control, precision, and consistency. People who lack these qualities find it harder to make changes in their lives. It often ends in failure for them as well. It’s worth considering lowering the floor with our goals in such cases,” emphasizes Katarzyna Kowalska.

Woop yourself

Positive thinking helps in taking further steps on the road to success. Without it, it’s hard to get started. However, even optimism and determination in achieving goals won’t be enough when we encounter obstacles. Change is a dynamic process, not a chemical reaction that can be conducted in completely sterile conditions. Much depends on us, but we no longer have control over external factors. Therefore, it’s best to anticipate situations that may disrupt our progress when planning our goals. Helpful in this regard is the method proposed by Gabriele Oettingen called WOOP, which allows us to find many answers to the question “what if things don’t go as planned?”

The name itself comes from the first letters of the English words: wish, outcome, obstacle, and plan. The first two words are clear: they define our goal and the result we want to achieve through its accomplishment. The two subsequent words are crucial. Under the concept of an obstacle, all the difficulties we may encounter on the way to our goal are hidden, while plan determines ways to deal with such situations. Let’s assume our goal is running in the forest, and the outcome we want to achieve is an improvement in well-being. The obstacle could be bad weather or our poor physical condition. Thanks to prior planning, we already have a solution. If the weather is bad, I’ll run on the treadmill. If I complain about my fitness, I’ll shorten the distance. If I work late, instead of morning jogging, I’ll opt for an evening one the next day.

When using the WOOP method, one must therefore be more of a realist than an idealist. It’s worth knowing oneself and trying to anticipate obstacles that we sometimes, even subconsciously, put in our own way. Ideas may be noble and lofty, but their implementation often requires pure pragmatism and a rational approach to the issue. The same should be true for implementing changes in life.

Don’t get mad at the elephant

However, it sometimes happens that when planning our actions rationally, we overestimate the power of reason and underestimate the role of emotions. This principle is best illustrated by the metaphor of the rider, the elephant, and the path, described by Chip and Dan Heath in the book “Switch: How to Change Things When Change Is Hard.” In theory, the person sitting on the animal decides the direction and pace of the journey. However, when the elephant rebels or sees fruits in the bushes, then the rider cannot control the animal. The rider in this case is our brain, and the elephant is the emotions that accompany us.

“Our rider wants to go to the gym, but the elephant sees a comfortable sofa in a warm apartment and an interesting movie on TV. Our rider has to fill out a backlog report, but the elephant prefers to watch funny cat videos on the phone. The rider wanted to be on a diet, but the elephant became interested in the cheesecake brought to work by a colleague. We often want to approach the issue of change very rationally, and then we blame that poor elephant for all failures. But that’s not entirely fair, because after all, that elephant, which is hiding our emotions, provides us with energy and strength. It’s emotions that give us passion and motivation for actions. It’s emotions that carry us,” explains Katarzyna Kowalska.

We can force the timid, capricious, and temptation-prone elephant to obedience, but in the longer term, it will simply tire us out. Just like imposing too much self-discipline on ourselves.

Later-Man and Tomorrow-Girl 

However, we should not completely abandon the mentioned self-discipline, as it will certainly be helpful in overcoming the traps lurking on the path to change. One of these traps is procrastination, also known as laziness. The differences between these two concepts are significant. In procrastination, we want to act, and delaying tasks causes discomfort because we know that indulging ourselves is harmful to us. Laziness doesn’t evoke such guilt feelings and is based on one fundamental attitude: I don’t feel like it, and I have no intention of changing that.

In the process of implementing changes, postponing our resolutions and goals is not only quite common but also seems quite sensible. If we don’t feel like doing something today, we’ll surely do it tomorrow. In an often-irrational way, we believe in the undefined power of the future. We assume that our future “self” will handle all tasks and responsibilities. We are like Later-Man and Tomorrow-Girl, superheroes with miraculous powers who always have more time, energy, motivation, and skills than our current “self.” They fear nothing and anticipate no difficulties. “Today I won’t go to the gym, but next week, I’ll do a triple workout.” “I’ll postpone this Monday report. Tomorrow, I’ll do today’s, Tuesday’s, and even prepare something for Wednesday.”

“When we look at ourselves today and at ourselves in the future, completely different parts of the brain are at work. We perceive our current version more through current emotions. We look at the future with some distance, and at our future selves almost as if they were strangers. What can we do about it? Either apply the WOOP method and consider the obstacles our brain will generate, or try to answer the question: for what actions today will you be grateful to yourself tomorrow? Maybe thanks to this, even if we skip the gym, we’ll go for a walk. If we don’t complete the report, at least we’ll prepare the necessary data for tomorrow and create the document,” advises Katarzyna Kowalska.

Our brain as a refrigerator and boiler in one

The collision of emotions with logic is also evident in the case of temptations, which – just like procrastination – can also distract us and lead us away from the main goal. Surely everyone who has ever been on a diet has dreamed (even while awake) of a warm pizza with double cheese or chocolate melting in the mouth. In the case of temptations, current emotions take precedence over logic. We act and think on impulse. However, we can rationally plan a healthy diet day in advance, plan our menu, look for organic products, and healthy recipes. It’s a long-term, logical process.

So, how to weaken the power of temptation? Utilize logical principles that we follow when determining future goals. Activate the refrigerator mode in our brain, which will freeze our craving for pizza or doughnuts. Specialists call this “temptation chilling.” How to do it? Postpone our temptation for 5, 10, or 15 minutes and check if we still desire it. It’s also helpful during such a break to divert our attention (have a phone conversation, engage in work, drink water) and lower emotions (for example, by reading the ingredients of the tempting ice cream in the fridge).

However, just relying on the refrigerator isn’t enough, so it’s worth activating another device in the brain – the boiler, which will heat up the main goal to the right temperature. For example, telling our friends about our goal and its achievement, visualizing the result, summarizing our previous actions can serve this function. At this stage, we do everything to get closer to the main goal and further enhance it in our eyes.

Self-control or self-regulation? 

Complete resignation from temptations will not be a beneficial solution. Similarly, eliminating pleasures from life. Priceless balance can be achieved by regulating the temperature of our desires and goals: “I’ll have a snack bar, but only after completing a solid workout”, “I’ll spend fifteen minutes on social media, but first, I need to finish the project I’ve been working on since morning”. Such discipline, however, requires willpower. This seems to be a very important factor in implementing changes. Even more important is managing strong willpower, which in practice is associated with the struggle with oneself.

This unequal battle can be fought on two fronts: self-control and self-regulation. The former involves various prohibitions, orders, and compulsions. The latter encompasses the ability to make choices, seek compromises, and develop positive motivation.

“Self-control is usually based on a sense of guilt and severity towards oneself. Here, the goal is paramount. In contrast to self-regulation, where the most important thing is my ‘self’ supported by self-support and the pursuit of satisfaction. Self-control can be effective in the short term, but it quickly depletes our strength. In the long run, however, self-regulation is much more beneficial. It’s a bit like setting ourselves goals of avoidance and aspirations. Greater psychological comfort will ensure the implementation of assumptions that are not based on prohibitions. It’s easier for us to visualize and implement the principle of ‘eating more vegetables’ than the resolution ‘not to eat sweets’,” notes Katarzyna Kowalska.

Willpower also needs a charger

Setting and achieving goals require willpower, and it’s not a resource that easily regenerates in our bodies and exists in infinite quantities. Moreover, we are not endowed with it equally. Even genes influence the default level of willpower necessary for achieving goals and implementing changes. Therefore, it’s worth regularly “feeding” these resources. Both regular and healthy sleep, as well as eating, providing oneself with pleasure, entertainment, and positive emotions, serve as a charger in this case.

You can also treat willpower as an additional muscle, the volume of which can be increased with appropriate exercises. Therefore, it’s worth organizing a gym for strong willpower. Sometimes literally, as it has been scientifically proven that physical training strengthens our abilities to resist temptations or postpone tasks. Regular exercisers are less likely to reach for stimulants, “junk” food, or sweets.

Failure is just a glitch

In the process of implementing changes, it’s important to focus on goal-setting skills, managing gratification, and resisting temptations. However, one must not forget about failures, which can occur at any stage of introducing something new. Dealing with them and drawing valuable lessons from them is as important as ensuring continuous motivation and consistency in action. It’s important that setbacks don’t permanently close the doors to change or negate all the effort invested. Let’s treat failure like a glitch that needs fixing. Like a virus that infected our system and deleted data. We simply need to install the appropriate software and start everything anew.

At this moment, it’s crucial not to torment ourselves with statements like “I can’t”, “I’m not capable”, “I can’t do it”. Just by adding the word “yet” before each of these sentences, we can change our mindset and see the positives in what seems like a lost situation. Because implementing changes is not like driving on a highway, where we move in one direction at high speed. It’s a winding forest path, full of ups and downs, bumps and turns, for which it’s worth setting out with the right map. And such an inspiring, handy map for all those embarking on a journey towards improvement was precisely the “Ready for change” course.


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