There are so many little things we’d all like to change. So many goals and objectives we’re eager to achieve. But one thing I’ve found in my own life is that it pays to look at the big picture first. Unless you have confidence that you’re essentially on the right track — that you’re living a life you feel excited about and invested in — the little details will seem impossible to put right. Moreover, until you address those deeper problems, fiddling with all the little things probably won’t have much impact.
So the first question is this:
Does it seem like your life is calling for a complete reinvention or just a little readjustment?
If you sense you’re facing major change but feel ill-equipped for the reinvention process, don’t settle by plugging a smaller, token resolution in its place. Instead, enlist a coach or adviser to help you with the big picture. Follow the suggestions of the experts in “Action Plan 2004: Resolutions Reconsidered”, and take time to do some soul searching. Start by sorting out the components of your ideal life, then start building the benchmarks, strategies and skills for achieving it.
Not every life change requires a total reinvention, of course. It may be that you simply need to bring a certain part of your life back into alignment with your other goals and values. Perhaps you have a self-sabotaging pattern in one area that destabilizes or blunts you in others. Perhaps you’re lacking a skill or ability that could make the rest of your life much easier and more enjoyable. If so, again, look at your personal toolbox and see if you have the tools to address this issue alone or if you’d do better with some guidance and support.
One of the most important things to consider is whether a given problem is the result of a habit or of a patterned behavior. Habits are usually simple actions (like wolfing down food, throwing your clothes on the floor or interrupting) that you repeat over and over again without thinking much about them. Given two to three weeks of focused attention, you can effectively break most habits (or create new ones) simply by forcing yourself through a new set of actions, introducing reminders, new stimuli, etc.
Patterned behaviors are more complex. As a rule, these automatic reactions are ingrained in us early, and over a long period of time, as the result of repeated childhood emotional experiences. And generally, they’re deeply unconscious. Some examples of patterned behaviors include: becoming self-destructive when criticized, flying off the handle when frustrated or shutting down when afraid. Certain habits — especially stress-related ones — can be linked to patterned behaviors, but simply changing a habit generally won’t eliminate the deeper pattern.
Because patterned behaviors are hardwired modes of relating to our environment and other people, they can’t really be “eliminated.” However, by learning to manage them effectively, we can dramatically change their impact. Generally, addressing a patterned behavior involves identifying the circumstances that set it off, knowing the warning signs that precede the behavior and learning constructive techniques for modifying our reactions before they swell out of control. This can require a great deal of patience and self-examination, but the payoffs can be life changing.
As natural as it is to want instant cures and solutions for all our problems, the fact is, some bigger changes take more time and effort than others. So this year, try not to be too hard on yourself — but don’t lose track of your biggest priorities, either. Give yourself credit for what you’ve already accomplished and have fun with the changes you choose!
As I look over this issue of Experience Life, one of the things I like best is the variety of innovative approaches it offers for overcoming old patterns and building new skills. I hope you’ll find the magazine helpful as you develop your own action plan for 2004!