By Katy Butler
WHEN THERAPEUTIC RAPPORT, INSIGHT, and coaching in interpersonal skills fail to produce desired changes for clients, it may be time to tune into the wisdom of the temple and the tennis court. Simple practices, addressing behavioral factors often taken for granted, can help translate vague aspirations into a life worth living. The following techniques of effective change, drawn from The Power of Full Engagement by Jim Loehr and Tony Schwartz, can help harness some powerful shapers of human behavior outside conscious awareness.
1. Maintain a Base Level of Physical Energy
A couple eager to better communicate may get blown off course by fatigue, irritability, lack of patience, and difficulty concentrating–all conditions strongly influenced by physical state. “If you’re physically exhausted and you’re eating terribly, that’s going to affect your ability to communicate effectively,” says Schwartz. “If therapists pretend that these factors exist separate from one another, they’re missing the point.”
Ask clients about daily schedules: how do they eat, sleep, and exercise? Too much caffeine, alcohol, white flour, or sugar can affect mood and fatigue levels, sabotaging the best clinical work. The same holds true for too little water, rest, healthy food, quiet time, exercise, or sleep.
To maximize the physical energy available for change, Schwartz and Loehr recommend “actually doing all the healthy things you know you ought to do.”
– Eat a good breakfast. It signals the body that it needn’t slow metabolism to conserve energy. Hungry people are often passive, distracted, or tense.
– Eat a balanced diet. Drastically reduce or eliminate sugars and refined (white) starches. Both cause energy-depleting spikes in blood-glucose levels and contribute to light-headedness, mood swings, irritability, and impatience.
– Drink lots of water. Most people live in a chronic state of dehydration.
– Go to bed early and get up early.
– Get exercise, both aerobic and weight bearing: they increase strength, vitality, and self-confidence, improve sleep and posture, and can lessen depression.
2. Use Your Natural Oscillation
Chronobiologists have found that the body’s hormone, glucose, and blood-pressure levels naturally drop every 90 minutes or so, which may explain why siestas and rest periods are built into traditional cultures and labor codes. Pushing relentlessly creates exhaustion, lowers productivity, and contributes to passivity, distraction, and reactivity. It can sabotage the most sincere desire to change.
Alternate exertion with rest in 90-minute to 2-hour cycles. You can shift activities, take a mid-morning break, or just “eat something, hydrate, move physically, change channels mentally, or change channels emotionally” for 10 minutes.
Examine the cultural imperatives that make mini-breaks “impossible.” When clients attune themselves to their natural stress-rest cycles, their capacity for focus, patience, and effort improve–and so does work performance, even when working hours drop. The key is learning to manage energy, rather than expend time.
3. Connect with Your Deepest Values
Articulate the deeper values that fuel your life. After basic physical energy, this is most powerful fuel for sustaining change. Take a moment, let go of immediate pressures, and write down:
– What you’re like when you’re at your best
– Three qualities you admire in someone you deeply respect
– The sentence you’d like on your tombstone
– Your top five values, drawn from a list that includes family, respect, kindness, integrity, health, creativity, safety, beauty, order, community, excellence, generosity, and financial security.
4. Harness the Power of Ritual
Living out one’s values often requires behavior change. Embed these changes as “positive rituals,” so that new behaviors can become as automatic as brushing your teeth. Behavioral and addiction research has found that the following actions dramatically improve the chances of sticking with any change:
– Translate intended changes into precise, concrete, achievable, and realistic actions. (“I’ll go walking at 5 p.m. for 45 minutes every Monday,” rather than “I’m going to get more exercise.”)
– Create an environment that supports change. Buy walking shoes and workout clothes. Clean out junk food from the house. Buy an insulated lunch bag. Get agreement from family or roommates.
– Create accountability and feedback by recording actions in a daily diary or checking in via phone with a friend.
– Don’t change too much at once. The first two weeks are the hardest. A two-year study by John Norcross of the University of Scranton of 200 people who made New Year’s resolutions found that 34 percent broke their resolutions within the first two weeks. After that, the failure rate slowed.
– Focus on one change at a time. It takes 30 to 90 days to make a new habit automatic. In Norcross’s study, 75 percent of those who hung on for a month were still keeping their resolutions five months later.
– Get social support, like an exercise buddy, class, psychoeducation group, religious institution, or self-help group. In Norcross’s study, those most likely to persist with a New Year’s resolution beyond the first six months were those with social support.
– Expect relapse. Persisting in change is so difficult that addiction specialists consider relapse part of the process. In the Norcross study, those who succeeded in keeping their New Year’s resolutions reported an average of 14 “slips” over two years.
5. Think Like An Athlete
Change isn’t a one-shot deal: it’s a form of training and cultivation that never ends. “The same investment of energy that builds a physical muscle also builds the emotional, spiritual, and mental muscles that individuals require to live productive and happy lives,” says Schwartz. “It’s no different from practicing the piano. If you don’t keep training, you slip back.”
©2003 Katy Butler. All Rights Reserved. Not to be reprinted without permission.