Thursday, April 24, 2008

Making Changes That Last - Part 2

In last month’s posting, I talked about the Transtheoretical Model of Change and how to work with the first stage, known as Pre-Contemplation. This month’s posting deals with Stage 2: “Contemplation.”

Working with Stage 2: Contemplation or “You know, I’ve been thinking about making a change.”

One definition of contemplation is full or deep consideration; reflection. This is often the place where most people get in trouble when it comes to making changes that last. It is one of the crucial stages in the change cycle, yet it is often given the least amount of attention, because most of us don’t know this stage exists, nor how to make the most of it. We think the process of change is to go straight from “I think I’ll make a change” to “Look at how I’m changing.” This rarely works, yet we can’t figure out why.

For instance, on New Year’s Eve, caught up in the joie de vivre of the day, we might promise, “I’m going to stop lollygagging in front of the TV when I get home from work and run five miles a day,” You go to bed with the best of intentions, yet when the alarm clock rings at 6:00 a.m. the next morning, do you jump out of bed and actually go run that five miles? Do you run that five miles when you come home from work? Perhaps, but experience tells us that most of us don’t make it past the first day, let alone the first week or a lifetime.

Approaching change this way is like building a house without a plan. Can you imagine saying, “Hey honey, I’m going to build a house tomorrow,” and then just jumping right into action? You’d never try to do something so ludicrous, yet this is what most of us do when we decide to make changes.

So how do you navigate this most crucial of stages? There are two things you can do that can ensure the most success in making the changes you want.

Ask Questions: Start asking all kinds of questions. Let’s say you want to spend more time with your family. Ask yourself the how, what, where, when and who of your goal. How do you want to set up this time with your family? How much time do you want to spend with them? Who in your family do you want to spend this time with? What do you need to rearrange or give-up or do less of in your schedule to make time for your family? What do you want to do with them once you have this extra time? When and how often would you like this time with your family to happen? Get specific. Get detailed. Use your imagination. Write it down. Tell your family. Ask for their ideas. Get open and get creative. Stay open to new possibilities and ideas that come to you. My experience is that once we begin to use our imaginations to create the “reality” in our heads, the physical reality isn’t far behind.

Another important question to ask is “What do I think making this change will get me?” Put another way, “If I make this change, then…” Make a list of all the things you think you’ll get, feel, and be once you make this change. “If I spend more time with my family, then: I’ll get a family that loves each other more, I’ll feel a sense of community and belonging, I’ll have more joy in my life, I’ll be a better parent, I’ll be doing the right thing, etc.” Asking these questions helps you clarify your bottom line. It also shows you which changes are ones that come from you and ones that come from others or society. If your answers to “What will it mean if I spend more time with my family?” are things like: more respect from my peers, I’m a good parent, or a promotion at work, then perhaps your goal is not truly one that you really want, but rather one you think you should want. Changes we make because it’s something we should do are rarely successful. Think “weight loss” and you have a good idea of what I mean.

Question Your Thoughts: While you’re having fun envisioning the how, what, where, when and who of your goal, begin to notice any tension or anxiety that arises in you. When that happens, take a moment and look at the thoughts you’re thinking. That tension you feel is a signal that you are having stressful thoughts about your goal. Let’s say you think, “I want to find an extra hour each day to spend time with my family,” and you notice that your shoulders have just tensed up and there is a sinking feeling in your stomach. Become present to the underlying thoughts you’re thinking as you imagine this time with your family. Maybe the thought is, “They won’t want to spend time with me,” or “My partner will hate this plan,” or “I don’t have an extra hour to give.” These stressful beliefs are barriers. The way to get through them is to question the truth of them. “My family won’t want to spend time with me.” Is that true? Can you absolutely know that’s true? How do you react when you believe that thought? What would you be able to do, feel, or be if you didn’t have that thought? Then think of examples that put the lie to the thought. When has your family wanted to spend time with you? Are there examples of when you haven’t wanted to spend time with your family? When have you yourself not wanted to spend time with you? By questioning the validity of these stressful beliefs, we allow the mind to get clear. We clear the path of obstacles that would stop us from achieving our goal. Often, simply by questioning our stressful beliefs, we find that the change we wanted to make for ourselves is being made for us. Our world shifts, and we didn’t do anything to make it happen.

The contemplation stage is simply and powerfully about that—contemplation. Take this valuable time to reflect, consider this change you want to make deeply and fully. Give yourself the gift of inhabiting the world you imagine this change will bring. It will make taking action toward the change as natural as taking your next breath.

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