UPDATE: With some time to reflect further on the graphic above and the essay below, I have a few clarifying thoughts on its purpose:
1) This model describes the conditions that support sustainable change.
2) The questions that accompany each of the model's components--inclination, motivation, and action--allow us to determine whether the conditions are right for change and to understand how we might influence those conditions.
3) And if we define sustainable change as "influencing ourselves," there's a clear parallel between this model and the Influence Pyramid--food for future thought. (Must be something about yellow triangles.)
How do we make change happen in our lives? What supports our efforts? And what gets in our way?
This post seeks to illustrate a universal topic--the process of change--using as a vehicle a very particular story about the role of exercise in my life. It's a work-in-progress on a theme, so I hope you'll bear with me if it feels rough in spots. I've written before about how I use Don't Break the Chain as a tool to help me exercise on a regular basis. It's an extremely simple website that allows you to create "chains" consisting of days on a calendar that you fill in after completing an activity on a given day. There's something compelling about the site's simplicity--you click on a day to fill it in, and that's all you can do. There's also the visceral impact of an increasingly color-filled calendar when you successfully keep a chain alive (and, conversely, the impact of a long stretch of blank, white days when you've failed to complete your chosen task.) Here's a (regrettably grainy) screenshot of my exercise calendar to date this year:
I was on a roll until March, when my wife and I both came down with a terrible cold, and between our recovery, helping Amy through her subsequent shoulder surgery, and an insanely busy Spring Quarter at Stanford, it took three months to really find my stride again. But I'm kicking ass in July--yay me.
Reflecting on this experience has made me think about how and why I've been able to stay active--or, more accurately, to return to a fulfilling level of activity, over and over again, even when daily life gets in my way. And that process led me to think at a more abstract level about the process of change.
I was an athlete in high school, and I stayed active throughout college, but once I began working full-time I found it difficult to exercise regularly on a sustainable basis. Throughout my 20s and 30s I'd work out daily for a few months, and then I'd stop and not do a damn thing for weeks on end. And then I'd start up again, and the cycle would repeat itself. I was generally pretty fit and could sustain this process physically, but it was psychologically draining. I wanted to change and to break this cycle but was perpetually unsuccessful.
But last year, after turning 40 in mid-2007, my body began telling me in no uncertain terms that being inactive for lengthy periods and then suddenly launching into a fitness regime was no longer an option. If I wanted to be active at all, I was going to have to get active and stay active, permanently. Just as importantly, this year I came to understand that physical activity is an essential element in my happiness; I can't be sustainably happy unless I'm sustainably active.
And so over the last two years I've suddenly found it possible to break this two-decade-long cycle and to make a sustainable commitment to my physical fitness. Have I been 100% successful? No, of course not--just look at some of those long white stretches in the calendar above. But also notice how quickly I got back in the saddle, so to speak. In the past, the cumulative effect of an illness, and caregiving for Amy, and a hectic period at work would have been months of inactivity. But this year the longest I've gone without exercising was 15 days.
So what changed? What factors contributed to my ability to make this change happen? I believe that our actions rest on a foundation of inclination and motivation, as shown in the graphic at the top of this post. Here's what I mean by those terms in the context of a proposed change:
- Am likely to change?
- Am I inclined or not to make this change?
- How does it align with my life and my preferences?
- Why might this process be easy or difficult for me?
- What are my goals?
- What motivates me to make this change?
- What optimal results do I expect?
- What minimal results will I accept?
- What steps will result in forward motion?
- What will encourage me to act?
- How do I move from reflection to action?
- And what will keep me moving ahead?
Here's a graphic representation:
This model certainly applies to the case of my newly discovered ability to exercise sustainably. In years past none of the actions I took led to lasting change because there was no foundation in place: I possessed neither the inclination nor the motivation to make that commitment.
But my changing (read: aging) body and intimations of mortality, as well as the realization that exercise isn't just enjoyable but is actually central to my happiness profoundly altered the context for this process. My actions now had a solid foundation to support them--and this is why a simple little tool like Don't Break the Chain has been so useful. The action of building a chain day by day and coloring in my calendar now builds upon an altered inclination to change and an enhanced motivation to change--so that action, and every other step I take to pursue this goal, has a much more profound impact than it would have had in the past.
I've had such success with changing my approach to exercise that I've recently decided to try changing my approach to sleep. I often read or write or just goof off late into the night, resulting in a fairly irregular sleep pattern. I've wanted to change this habit for years, but I've never been able to break it. But in the past few months I've felt the effects of insufficient sleep more acutely, and I've been hearing about a growing body of medical research that suggests that regular sleep is important for long-term physical and mental health. In other words, my inclination to change and my motivation to change have themselves changed--and I suspect that I'll be able to build on this foundation successfully going forward. Don't Break the Chain allows you to create multiple chains for different activities, and here's mine for a good night's sleep, which I started 2 days ago:
So far, so good.
(Here's a 4-slide PowerPoint file [57 KB] of the graphics above.)
Photo by quinn.anya. Yay Flickr and Creative Commons.