Have you already failed at that New Year’s resolution? Many of us approach the New Year with a commitment to change something in our lives. What is it that you want to change? Do you want to get in shape, lose weight, eat better, or exercise more? Do you want to improve your relationships, communicate better with your partner, parent your children more effectively, or make some new friends? Do you want to improve your job performance or even get a new job? Do you want to manage your time or money better?
We have hope that this time will be different. We really will stick with that goal, plan, and resolution. Yet in short order, we find ourselves doing that same thing that we vowed we would change. Maybe the problem is not your willpower, your commitment, or your desire. Most likely, the difficulty in sticking with your resolution has more to do with the process — the way you are going about it.
Even the best goal, and the most sincere desire, will not be enough to bring about change if the process is flawed. An effective model for change is called the VIM model. This acronym stands for Vision, Intention, and Means. Understanding the three parts and crafting a process that adequately incorporates all of them is the key to success.
To understand vision, you have to ask yourself a question: “What do I want to change?” This seems like an obvious question, but a lack of clarity around this is the reason many plans for change do not succeed.
So what do you want to change? Most of the time our first answer to this is either too vague or too broad. We have to be specific in goal setting. “I want to get in better shape” is too ambiguous. “I want to lose 20 pounds by exercising three times a week and making this change to my diet” is more specific. “I want a better relationship with my children” might become, “I want to do one connecting and fun activity with my children each day, and I want to stop lecturing them.”
Goals should be specific, measurable, and incremental (several small goals to get to a larger one). Also, goals need to focus on what you have control over versus what is not in your control. For example, you do not have control over developing a better relationship, getting a new job, or getting healthy. You can control communicating more clearly and managing your anger in your relationship. You can control applying for jobs and improving your interviewing skills. You can control your food choices, exercise, and sleep schedules. When you set measurable goals for the things you can control, the larger goal or desire has a much greater chance of success. In other words, focus on what is within your control.
The second part of the change process involves intention. Ask yourself the question: “When it comes to my vision, why do I want to make the change?” Think of motivation here. Some motivations are not sufficient to sustain change over the long haul. You need a deep, compelling motivation to stick with a long-term change process. Often we approach a goal or a vision because we do not like the negative consequences of staying where we are.
Many types of negative consequences might motivate you to change. Maybe you had a negative review at work, or you’ve lost a relationship. Other consequences include debt, a legal problem, tension in a relationship, or some health problem. Any of these difficult circumstances can be a motivation to get started toward a change but are often not enough motivation to stick with it.
One of the more common “lesser motivations” is to please others. Maybe you want to change because someone else wants you to. Or, maybe you want to change because it is what you think that you have to do to get others to like you or approve of you. You might also want to change to improve your status, to achieve material prosperity, or to get more “likes” in the social media world. (All of these involve comparing yourself to others.) While all of these motivations may bring some change, typically you need a more compelling vision for lasting change.
A more compelling motivation or vision is internally motivated. You want to change because you want to be better or different in some way. The change primarily revolves around what you think of yourself, the kind of person you want to be, or the principles that you want to live by. What others think or want does not provide compelling motivation. What you think about and want for your life is at the core. This issue takes some deeper thought. You have to ask, “What kind of person do I want to be, or what life principles do I want to live by?” Asking these questions will help you to have a vision that makes long-term change more possible.
The third part of our VIM model is means. Means has to do with a couple of factors. First, it involves the plan to change. Second, it involves the resources available to us for making the change. The old saying that a “failure to plan is a plan to fail” is true.
Planning doesn’t have to be complicated, in fact the simpler the better. But it does have to be realistic and thought out. A competent plan will have a set of structured steps. These steps are in some logical order that build upon each other. To assist you, write down the plan with the goal and post it in places where you will see it.
Part of the planning process will involve creating some space in your life and blocking out times for working on the plan. Being realistic is important. If you block out 5 to 6 a.m. to exercise three times a week but stay up late and are not a morning person, you likely will not succeed. You may need to find time later in the day. “Finding or making” time is really a myth. We all have the same 24 hours. The issue is budgeting time. To add your plan into your schedule, you may have to take something out. This gets back to vision and intention. Is your goal for change important enough that you will take something out of your life, temporarily or permanently, in order to accomplish it?
Lastly, your plan needs to include proven methods. We live in an age with an abundance of information available to us on almost any topic. Creating a successful plan will involve some research into what means others have used to accomplish the same goal. Sometimes the best method is not the easiest method. This again connects to your motivation. Is your goal important enough; are you pursuing it from a deeper motivation that will help you to do what it takes to get there?
The second part of means involves having the external and internal resources necessary for achieving your goal. External resources involve aspects like money, equipment, experts/professionals, support people, and outside sources of knowledge. Is your goal important enough that you will obtain the necessary resources?
I have observed that people are more successful in pursuing goals and making changes when they have the support of others. Are you willing to look outside of yourself for help in achieving your goal? You can ask for help in your own social network of family and friends. This is often called your “community.” It consists of those people in your life who know you, who believe in you, and who care about you and support you. Sharing your goals and involving your community in your change process brings support and accountability. When you try to make a change with the support of your community, you are more likely to succeed.
In the 12-step fellowship programs, such as Alcoholics Anonymous, involving a “higher power” is crucial to making a change in addition to having a community. If you are a spiritual person, including God in your change process will be invaluable.
Individuals or organizations who have a specific expertise in the area you want to change may be helpful as an additional external resource. If getting in better physical shape is your goal, you could involve a trainer, coach, physician, or nutritionist. If your goal is to change behaviors, thought processes, emotions, or relationships, obtaining the services of a counselor or therapist can provide the help you need.
While external resources can help us to make changes, internal resources are also important to all of us. The area of mindfulness, which is simply awareness, provides a key internal resource. It involves being present in the moment with yourself and being aware of all aspects of yourself, including physical, emotional, thoughtful, and spiritual.
Most of us go through the day not fully aware of what we are thinking, feeling, choosing, or experiencing physically. Greater awareness in these areas will be crucial to change. You cannot change that of which you are not aware.
The difference between evaluation and judgment is a key idea in the area of mindfulness. Sometimes we use these words interchangeably, but they really have two different meanings.
Once you are aware of what is happening, you can then either evaluate it or judge it. When you evaluate it, you are asking yourself a question such as, “Is this what I want to be doing now?” Or, “Is this thought, feeling, or action consistent with my goal?” Judgment moves past evaluation into criticism. It sounds like:
“I’m doing it again. I’ll never change.”
“I’m weak or lazy; I’ll never get this.”
“Why can others change, but I can’t?”
Learning to hold a non-judgmental view of self is crucial to change. You need to evaluate whether you are on track in making your changes, but criticizing, labeling, or shaming yourself will only lead to further discouragement and loss of hope. What helps here is the realization that you live in the moment and the present moment is the only thing you can do anything about. You can’t change yesterday, and tomorrow is not here yet.
I would like to conclude with four mindfulness steps that will help in any change you want to make.
1) Pause and notice. Pause for a moment and take a couple of deep breaths. Notice what you are doing, thinking, and feeling. Are you doing what you want to be doing?
2) Practice. If you are off track, you can get back on track. Change occurs by practicing over and over the steps toward your goal.
3) Engage compassion versus judgment. Be gentle with yourself. You are trying, and you are engaged. Avoid judging yourself for any struggles.
4) Realize that old patterns are stronger than new ones. It takes significant time to replace an old behavior with a new one. Some experts say actions become habits after at least 21 days.
Remember the old saying: “If it were easy, everyone would be doing it.” Living healthily and developing new habits or practices takes work. Yet, it is possible with a positive and structured approach. With these ideas in mind, give it a go. You are worth it!
Dr. Thomas Barbian is the executive director for the Christian Counseling Center of First Presbyterian Church in Columbia. He received his doctorate in clinical psychology from the Cambridge Graduate School of Psychology and Counseling in Los Angeles. He also holds a master’s degree in marriage, family, and child counseling and a bachelor’s degree in biblical studies.