I Can’t (Read: Don’t Want To) Change

Have you ever tried to get rid of a bad habit, or change yourself for the better– quit something you enjoyed even though it was bad for you?

I tried to quit coffee a few years ago because I was drinking so much of it, and figured switching to tea might be an option. It didn’t last long. It wasn’t the addiction, really, but because I looked into my future and– get this– I didn’t like the person I’d be without coffee.

Weird right?

I’ve been drinking coffee for so long that I see it as an innate part of my personality. It’s something that I enjoy a lot and spend time and energy going out to find. It’s so ingrained, in fact, that I see myself as being less than whole if it were gone.

Now, imagine that I had heart problems– that I had to quit coffee entirely. This emotional attachment keeps me from making the right decision. Picture it a little like losing a significant other even though the relationship is clearly sour, or moving from your childhood home even though it doesn’t work for you anymore. You can’t imagine your life without this thing, so you keep it going even though it’s clearly doing damage. We do it all the time.

In reality, we are massively adaptable. Shocking as it sounds, I could lose a limb and be fine within a couple of months– even imagine that it was the best thing that ever happened to me. But here, in the present, we look at our lives and our habits as parts of ourselves, and we don’t want to change because we’d feel strangely incomplete.

When these massive changes do happen, however, we have no problem seeing them in a positive way. From here (the present), we look back and go “Thank God that happened in that way, or I wouldn’t have become the person I am now.” But at the time, we hated it. Seeing yourself from the future is a great way to fight this impulse; to be able to know that you’ll look back on this and recognize how valuable this difficult act was.

So the inevitable conclusion is that, no matter what happens, we’ll be pretty much ok. We can lose our jobs, change all of our habits, and even have a major, life-altering accident and be alright, and still be ourselves– assuming we can keep looking forward. As long as you think there are good things coming, everything will actually be fine.

So even if we don’t like the idea of change, we should probably do it anyway. Changing as an experiment and challenge can help you prove your strength to yourself, helping you become more confident, etc. Sometimes, it even makes sense to do it just because you can. But another great reason to do it is practice– going through something hard in order to build a habit of being able to do it when the time is right. If we’re used to our comforts all the time, and we suddenly have to go without, it’s much more difficult than if we’re used to having less.

So we’re coming up on New Year’s. A lot of us are going to make resolutions to change, but we won’t have our heart into it, or we’ll lose our resolve really quickly. How can we prevent that? Share your tips with me, I’d love to hear how you make it happen. Maybe this way we’ll have a resolution we actually keep.





10 responses to “I Can’t (Read: Don’t Want To) Change”

  1. Deborah Avatar

    Hi Julien. Been meaning to write. Finally inspired and have time… Changing when it is self-motivated [versus imposed by circumstances, other people, etc.] is really an act of creating. I’ve been fortunate to study with Robert Fritz over the past 12 years [creating and learning how to help others create may be even harder than you think]. He ‘discovered’ a force he calls structural tension. You can consciously build this force into your life – when you really want the outcome and know when you want it by [end state, not a problem to solve, or think you should…]and when you’re really in touch with reality [current state]. Surprisingly the second is often harder to be clear about. When you are the steps to move from here to there – and the ability to adjust as circumstances change – become obvious. There’s a level of awareness that I haven’t experienced working any other way. Check his stuff out. Dynamite. All the best for the new year Julien.

  2. Allison Kessler Avatar

    Julien, your article really nails a central challenge to today’s way of life, at work and at home. We have become generously spoiled with instant gratification and most of us have never had to do without. If we want a drink, we can, a smoke, of course, a product or service, why wait. Get it today and pay for it tomorrow.

    Where I have implemented my most important change, which is at the opposite side of the spectrum from your examples of giving up something that is clearly not doing you any good, is with exercise. The more I exercise, the more water I take in, the less coffee affects me negatively, and the happier I am. Unfortunately, it is incredibly easy to get out of a work-out routine, and very difficult to resume it.

    So, my solution is to take away the self-imposed feelings of guilt and punishment. It doesn’t matter that I got out of routine again. Start again and start now. Once you realize it’s been a few days (ahhhh, a few weeks) since your last workout, make it your top priority to get a work out in.

    I believe that exercise and getting outdoors is THE KEY to being able to handle the change, any change, that you are talking about above. If you are physically healthy, you will be more equipped mentally and emotionally to handle whatever change you need to deal with.

  3. Mark Dykeman Avatar

    Steve Pavlina talks about 30 day trials for building new habits, which is similar to another “rule” that says that it takes 21 days to establish a new habit.

    I’ve actually quit caffeine twice this year (mine was always through soda pop, not coffee). The first time I used to keep a daily track of “not drinking” Diet Pepsi and it lasted about four months. Two months ago I quit again and so far, so good, although certain foods will always tempt me into drinking Diet Pepsi again, just like some people associate drinking and smoking.

    All I can really suggest is 30 day trials, tracking progress, and keeping the end goal in sight.

  4. Daniel Haran Avatar

    I’ve also come to the conclusion that resolutions are a waste of time. Instead, I have goals that are set and reviewed twice a year, in May (birthday) and December (Xmas -> NY is slow).

    Goals aren’t “doing X every day”, cause those are a recipe for disaster. They’re clear objectives that don’t depend on anyone else. This year (2009) I wanted to be able to make chocolate:
    1) based on a replicable recipe that
    2) I could give with pride,
    3) in a nice package.

    Very specific, and only depends on me. I don’t actually care if a specific person likes my chocolate or not, I’m giving away chocolate *I* like. It’s not perfect, since I fucked up on #3 – so I just now ordered better moulds and plastic casings.

    Habits are a different beast. Chocolate used to be a daily addiction. Rather than fight it, I chose to delve deeper and learn to appreciate it more – especially higher quality bars. I still eat chocolate, but it’s not daily or as reflexive.

    It’s an expensive way to do it, and I’ve seen friends do the same with coffee.

  5. Colleen Wainwright Avatar

    I gave up on resolutions a ways back in favor of goals, and particularly heart-centered ones. I *still* don’t hit all of them, and usually I find it’s b/c I’m either not being honest or can’t be honest (i.e., I don’t have the vision or clarity. And this, after hundreds upon hundreds of person-hours in shrinkage, thoughtful self-reflection, etc.)

    What I finally realized about resolving to not do “bad” things (smoke, drink too much coffee/alcohol, consume too much talk radio/TV, etc.) was that I maintained my bad habits until I had a compelling reason to stop…and then I stopped. (I know: “weird, right?”)

    So in the instance of smoking, I felt that rumble coming on that was the first sign of bronchitis, which I’d been through twice before (yes, TWICE), and threw my half-full pack in the garbage. Done. Not without pain, but done. Ditto the physical neglect & coffee consumption: I got Crohn’s and bam! It was suddenly more important to take care of myself than to not.

    I used to beat myself up for backsliding–okay, I still do–but now, I look at it as, “Oh, sh*t; not ready YET, I guess.” And move on. (Painfully, but still.)

    So to answer your original question, I go through the process of finding what I believe are the most heart-centered goals, then draw them up, then see what happens. (I’ve been using Jinny Ditzler’s very detailed Best Year Yet process for this for a while now.)

    What’s interesting is that there’s usually some negotiation a few months in, and I’ve NEVER hit all the goals, but I always find myself moving forward in the direction of my big, main, squishy goal (“To be a joyful conduit of truth, beauty and love”). On some level, it’s working, in other words.

    But for the fine-grained, more “masculine” approach to goal-setting/accomplishing, I’d look into Chris Guillebeau’s methodology. That boy is an accomplishment MACHINE, and still someone I thoroughly enjoy hanging out with. (The two states do not usually exist in tandem.)

  6. Melissa Dutmers Avatar

    You are a wise man. “So the inevitable conclusion is that, no matter what happens, we’ll be pretty much ok.” This is so true and we often forget-especially when we’re “in it.” As far as your question about how we can prevent losing our resolve, my plan is focused, repeated attention. It’s worked for monks.

  7. Mel Avatar

    Good timing on the post J. I actually had a thought about this very thing today — what I would want to change most this year. Last year, I wanted to stop biting my nails (I’d had that horrible habit since I was maybe 12 years old). That was a success…took until August. This year, I decided I wanted to be punctual. I’m never punctual, ok, rarely. So that’s the plan. My motivation for doing that is that I don’t like that my being late to an appointment/meetup/etc shows that I have a lack of consideration for the other person’s time. I don’t like that at all.

  8. Nick Desbarats Avatar

    Do I hear echoes of “The Brain that Changes Itself” in this post? Fantastic book if you haven’t read it.

    I agree with the “seek out change often” advice, though the natural next question is often ignored, i.e., if forcing the brain to adapt to new circumstances keeps us “psychologically limber”, why don’t we all seek out change all the time?

    I suspect that the answer has to do with “mental bandwidth”. Adapting to change requires a lot of energy to re-wire the brain, and if you do it too often, you burn out. The “brain as a muscle” analogy is valid here… Keep it challenged/worked out, but don’t overdo it -the trick is to know when you’re engaged in a constructive workout/change, and when you’re going too far.

    After all, “I didn’t think I could do it, but I managed to” stories are everywhere, but it’s because no-one does motivational speeches about ending in failure and nervous breakdowns… Hollywood is bursting with people who “went for it and gave it their all” and who are now depressed, bitter waiters.

    I don’t want to be a downer here, and I say these things as someone who takes more risks than most and has exceeded their own expectations on a number of occasions. I just think that the “just do it” mantra is often bad advice, and should be replaced with the something more nuanced:

    1) Identify activities that expand your baseline limits and capacity to adapt (like exercise, getting enough sleep, etc. as others mention above), and do them often.

    2) Every once in a while, do something at which you might fail. This is the key -to pick something where the real possibility of failure exists, but at which you stand some chance of succeeding. Find out everything you can about the challenge beforehand, and make sure you have the mental reserves to deal with a failure and move on. Then do it.

    3) Understand the role of randomness in the world. If you fail, try to recognize that external factors play more of a role than most people realize, so don’t beat yourself up too much (see “The Drunkard’s Walk” by Leonard Mlodinow for more on this).

    Not very pithy, but more helpful, I think.

  9. Joseph Engel Avatar

    The difference between humans and animals is that humans have to will adaptation, animals do it automatically.

  10. Tamsen Avatar

    We make this a lot harder than it is. When you want to make a change, ask yourself, “Is this a change I’m willing to make *for the rest of my life?*”

    If yes, proceed. If no, adjust the level of change. We can’t go from 0 to 60 without getting through 10, 20, 30, 40, etc. Just like we can’t go from doing something to doing nothing overnight–unless some major external force makes you.

    If you drink six cups of coffee a day, you won’t get to no cups without going to five cups first. Would you be willing to maintain one fewer cups a day forever? Great, then do it. After a while, you may find yourself doing one fewer than that, then one fewer, then one fewer. You may never be willing to eliminate it entirely, but you’re brain is in a much better place to evaluate that decision once you’re already in the pattern of managing with much less.

    The same is true when you’re trying to add in a new, perhaps healthier habit. You can’t go from no exercise to seven days a week overnight, sustainably. Just can’t. Sorry. You might be able to introduce one day. Or a new route to work that makes you walk 10 minutes longer…but you have to be willing to do it, and the only true evaluator of its sustainability is if you’re WILLING to do it…for the rest of your life. Not WANT to, not NEED to, but WILLING to.

    That means a lot of very, very small changes rather than one big one. But lots of little changes are much more likely to stick….

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