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Baby steps or big changes – about self control and habit

December 12, 2011

in Spiritual Growth

When I was 21 I decided I needed to work on my social skills. Instead of getting a hobby or something I quit university and decided to get a job. My parents weren’t amused and the result was that I went for a community college nursing class, which I was kicked out of within a few months (I wasn’t very good at washing elderly people and really only wanted to talk to them). Thankfully I had by then started tutoring math, which I was good at, so I went to teachers college. After a few years, having passed (almost) every test with flying colors I went on to teach at middle school after middle school – getting fired again and again, because dealing with teenagers took way more social skills than I had.

The lesson? Forcing yourself into something you’re not fit for will NOT work. On the other hand, I did learn a LOT. My social skills really are way better now than they were back then and forcing myself to face class after class of about 25 teenagers hour after hour for a few years definitely had a lot to do with that.

Looking back I think I was really asking too much of myself. I’m basically an introvert – even though few people will be able to spot that these days. Five years after my last teaching job it feels like the stress caused by forcing myself into that situation is finally out of my system.

I would NEVER recommend that people do what I did. Small steps are way more likely to be manageable and are less risky. I could have gone into IT, worked for a larger salary and learned decent social skills in a business environment. I might have stayed a bit more nervous in front of crowds if I’d done that, than I am now, but that’s just about the only advantage I see to the route I took.

The same goes for things like losing weight, starting an exercise regimen etc. Find a way to change your habits in a healthy direction one step at a time. If you do that, chances of having to go back a step (or all the way) and being discouraged are way less.

A couple I know are trying to prepare themselves for the Buddhist lay vows. Like most well-educated successful people, alcohol was part of their routine. In trying to cut back on their alcohol consumption they’ve already experienced several setbacks. Their main challenge is social situations where they’re used to drinking and serving alcohol. A while ago they proudly announced that they’re now down to one glass of wine a week.

Because they’re doing this as a couple they can use each other as checks. They can change their own home culture and face up to issues together as well. This makes it easier to change fundamental habits like that. Still, because habit is so strong a part of our everyday life it’s no surprise that they had to try again and again.

It sounds like such a small change: not drinking any more alcohol… at least, to me, no alcohol for almost 20 years, it doesn’t sound like a big deal. However, because of all the social trappings it’s a big habit to break.

Part of the issue is will power. The end of the year is coming up and goal setting and good intentions with it. We all know how unlikely it is that people actually keep their good intentions and reach all their goals. We’d like to ignore those stats when it comes to our own goals though.

The reason it often doesn’t work out is because it takes will power to overcome ingrained habits. As long as the new behavior isn’t a habit yet, the only way to stick to it is by having will power each time we stay away from those sweets, avoid that drink or go jogging first thing in the morning.

Unfortunately, will power is a limited psychological resource. If it takes will power to stay away from cigarettes there will be less will power left to also stay away from fast food. This explains why people gain weight after they quit smoking.

The good news is that once a new behavior is a habit, you can start working on another new behavior in your self-development plan.
More good news: will power CAN be trained, however while you’re training, do expect other aspects of your life to work a bit less well.

Some researchers even believe that one reason poor people stay poor is that it takes them so much energy to just get the cheapest groceries in the store, that they don’t have any left to better themselves…

There is one advantage to big changes though: big changes bring a change in context with them. That’s why people need rehab or go on retreat: a new context brings new behaviors with it as a matter of course. However integrating those new behaviors into your home life is a lot harder: old habits, old triggers (like the bar where you always meet your drinking buddies)…
The reason I’m not afraid of speaking in front of groups any more is that I was forced to face them hour after hour, day after day, week after week. It worked to change my circumstances drastically and since I kept at it long enough, it’s a skill I have at my disposal for the rest of my life. However, there is always a cost.


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