One popular characterization of insanity describes it as “doing the same thing over and over, expecting to get a different result.” And at no time of the year is that particular brand of insanity more evident than right now — the dreaded resolutions season.
Every January, there’s a lot of talk about the right and wrong ways to go about making change. Techniques and strategies abound (another serving of S.M.A.R.T. goals, anyone?), but most of them share a common underlying assumption: That changing your life is an act of will.
We Americans love the idea of willpower. It’s forceful, bold, intrepid. It reeks of individual determination, and it suggests just enough stalwart endurance to satisfy our stoic sensibilities.
The will speaks in a commanding voice:
Go forth! Make it so! And there’s some kick-start value in that. But I would argue that the real key to creating positive change over time is not so much will as it is willingness.
Unlike the will, which is all the rage this time of year, willingness doesn’t get a lot of airtime in our culture. It comes across as too passive, perhaps, too cooperative, too eager to please, too… feminine. But I’d argue that when it comes to shifting personal behavior and establishing new habits, willingness is actually a much better and more reliable partner.
The problem with the will is that it’s one hard-driving taskmaster — but it tends to cement itself to a static idea of success and, thus, to constant reminders of the potential for failure.
The will tends to think it has all the answers and it doesn’t relish asking for directions.
Willingness, on the other hand, is full of open-minded inquiries, like:
How might I go about getting started on this project? What would happen if I tried this? What would be most helpful now?
Where the will never says die, willingness is continually reborn — and it gets smarter and stronger each time around.
That’s why, this year, as my first official Revolutionary Act (a series of convention-busting experiments in changing my life for the better, and the basis for this blog), I’m putting willingness in charge of my new year’s resolutions. Currently, these include: 1) being on time more often; 2) getting outside daily; and 3) never sitting for more than two hours at a stretch. (For a busy magazine editor, all three are tougher than they sound.)
Effectively, my revolutionary shift here is asking, “What I’m willing to do differently in the service of these goals?” — rather than insisting, “I am going to do these things, no matter what it takes.”
I’m also cultivating my willingness to notice when I do and don’t succeed in these endeavors, and to pay attention to how I do or do not go about accomplishing them on a day-to-day basis. Because as Zen teacher Cheri Huber likes to remind us: “How you do anything is how you do everything.”
The great thing about seeing my resolutions as an experiment in willingness is that even if I “fail” at something on any given day, I still “succeed” in learning something valuable that empowers me to succeed the next day.
One thing I’ve already noticed, for example, is that my tendency toward chronic lateness (15 minutes, notoriously) has a lot to do with my believing I should/must/need to always do “just one more thing” before I leave the house.
Am I willing to change that? Yes, and: I’m also aware that it yanks at a stubborn, semi-conscious belief I hold about my value coming from what I accomplish, rather than who I am.
That’s a belief worth examining more closely, because it’s probably at the core of some other self-sabotaging tendencies, too. (For deeper insights on the value of challenging limiting beliefs, check out the terrific book, Immunity to Change [Harvard Business School Press, Feb. 2009] by Robert Kegan, Ph.D., and Lisa Lahey, Ph.D.)
So, am I willing to challenge that belief about my value being tied to my frenzied (and often counterproductive) productivity? Yes.
Does the idea of moving beyond my chronic lateness become more energizing and potentially powerful when I think of it in this context? And does it make me more willing to experiment with not doing one more thing? Yes, indeed! Thank you, willingness.
I am choosing to engage willingness because, in my experience, my will has not always been my best ally in creating positive change. In fact, leaning too heavily on my will often brings out the most negative and self-critical in me. And research suggests that this is true for many of us (for more on that, read this fascinating article from Scientific American on “The Willpower Paradox.”
It turns out that the will talks a tough game, but it hates losing — so much so that it is prone to walking away in a huff just as things are getting interesting. Willingness, meanwhile, sees every lost round as an opportunity to sharpen skills, strategy and awareness.
Willingness, in short, is all about learning and growing. And that’s why I’m making it the centerpiece of my Revolutionary Acts project, which is all about experiments in creating a healthier, happier, more satisfying life by doing things a little (or a lot) differently. Differently than we’ve been taught. Differently than we’ve been told. Differently than “that’s just the way things are done.”
Many of my experiments will involve challenging the dominant norms, patterns and assumptions of our society. Others will involve challenging my own comfort zones and beliefs.
I’ll be sharing my experiences in this blog and also in my regular column at Experience Life, the healthy-living magazine I’ve been editing for the past decade.
My goal with this blog, as with the magazine, is to share insights and resources that can help more of us make the most of our time and energy, enhance our well-being, and increase our satisfaction in living. Because I believe that for us to address the biggest challenges we are facing — individually and collectively — we are going to need to be at our strongest, most energized and resilient best.
I hope you’ll share your own revolutionary experiences — of challenging limiting norms and assumptions, of rejecting stale conventions, and of reinventing yourself and your life however you see fit.
Which reminds me: If you’re working on any healthy-living goals this year, you might enjoy visiting www.RevolutionaryAct.com, a site powered by Experience Life and stocked with wisdom from some of our favorite experts. You’ll find a variety of Revolutionary Resources there, including my “Manifesto for Thriving in a Mixed Up World” and “101 Revolutionary Ways to Be Healthy.”
Here’s to an all-new 2011! And may we all summon the willingness to make it great.