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Don't Let Your Dreams Be a Clothes Tree
November 30, 2012
Editorial By Joel F. Wade
Have you ever tried to start an exercise program on your own? The world is full of home exercise equipment displayed as modern art forms like Duchamp's famous and ridiculous "sculpture," Fountain, which is just a urinal turned in a different orientation. Today we have masterpieces such as a treadmill transformed into "Clothes Tree," racks of dumbbells as "End Table" and rowing machine as "Hurdle."
The abundance of such a range of home art displays is not, sad to say, a phenomenon of mass creative genius. It is a function of the difficulty of focusing one's will consistently in multiple directions.
It takes willpower to decide to establish a new habit, and without some kind of support for this new habit – in the form of a clearly defined commitment, some kind of accountability and incorporation into a daily routine – the dynamic potential of a new, positive habit can become stuck in the regret of an unrealized vision.
There are also certainly many home gyms that are used consistently and effectively. There are people who do establish new habits of regular exercise that they stick to on their own. What is the difference?
It's the same difference with any successfully established positive habit: Practice.
Once you decide on a new habit you want to establish, you determine the first action you need to take, you commit to taking that action and to establishing the new habit, and you are on your way. If you can build on this and maintain it over time, at some point the habit will become established and thereafter much less willpower is needed to maintain it.
But getting there is the tricky part.
This is where coaching comes in. You may want to establish an exercise program, or strengthen the habits that can counter depression, or to create new neural pathways that remove obsessive thoughts and compulsive behavior, or to rein in your distractibility. You may want to learn and strengthen your relationship skills or create new habits for better parenting. You may have the need to retrain yourself for more effective work.
Regardless of the particular goal you would like to attain, the process of establishing the new habits you need can be very difficult to maintain on your own.
This is not a weakness. It is not some flaw in your self-discipline. It is a fact of human existence.
We are creatures of habit. We establish our life habits, for better or worse, and whether or not they are effective those habits continue to guide our actions. This is important because if we could not develop these automatic habits, we could not function. There is too much going on and too many things to respond to for us to have to think about each one of them with total conscious thought every single time.
So we create neural pathways in our brain that lead our behavior in regular patterns that form the foundation of our habits – each of which at one time or another seemed like the right thing to do.
The downside of this is that we may have established some of these habits as children in response to troubling circumstances, or on the basis of serious misunderstandings of what was going on. We also may have established them as young adults when we may have thought we knew what we were doing, but were mistaken.
We then end up with habits that are at best ineffective, at worst harmful or dangerous.
The upside is that we have the ability to retrain our brains, and to establish new, better habits.
But this is a big job. You can't just snap your fingers and make it so. To establish a new habit takes willpower, which takes energy and precious focus of our conscious mind. We don't have an unlimited capacity for this; you can't change everything all at once, and you can't change anything if you're not prepared to do what it takes to commit to that change.
What people who change their habits effectively do is to arrange things so that they do not have to use their willpower continually. They arrange their schedules, their circumstances and their influences so that establishing and maintaining the new habit is easy to do. They do not place obstacles or temptations in their way, and they enlist support from others to do this.
As a life coach, this is my role. People hire me to, among other things, help them to establish new life habits. I listen carefully to what a client is looking for in life, and we figure out what needs to be done to get there. This involves teaching skills at times; at other times it involves helping to design the external supports for the new habits. Sometimes the accountability I provide is the most important thing – knowing that you will be reporting to me reminds you of the tasks involved and makes it easier to get yourself to do them.
I began with the example of physical exercise because it is a great example of the many elements that go into establishing a new habit. But the same dynamics apply to most anything you want to achieve.
A great marriage is based on great habits; if you want a great marriage, there are principles involved – a deep commitment and devotion to one another, a profound sense of being for one another, of being allies with each other and a willingness to stay conscious and aware of one another's experience.
But this all is theoretical unless you are also consistently acting from these principles; and establishing those actions is no different in general than establishing an exercise routine.
Success in your work also requires fundamental principles – a commitment to excellence, an understanding that effective work requires the creation of value, a willingness to put in the mental effort and the hours to achieve your goals – but without acting from these principles consistently, you will not achieve what you set out to achieve.
Our capacity to form and establish new habits is one of the wondrous capacities that we have available to us as human beings. It is what allows us to "adapt, improvise and overcome" our challenges; it is what makes it possible to confront and overcome problems, rather than passively suffering with them.
TodayI want to encourage you to think about your personal examples of unintentional modern art – what is your metaphorical equivalent to the treadmill as clothes tree? What unrealized goals do you have gathering dust in your gallery of potential?
You can do something about those, and turn potential regrets into something you can be proud of. But it takes some doing, and it sometimes takes some help.