With the New Year fast approaching, many of us think about what in our lives we would like to change for the better.
For many of us, New Year's Resolutions are pretty typical, but after the holidays are over, fear of an expanding waistline often leads us to dedicate ourselves to becoming healthier. A recent study revealed that while 45 percent of Americans make a New Year's resolution, only 8 percent are successful.
However, Holly Alastra, writing for the Helena, Mont., Independent Record, notes that making a resolution is the first step in changing, just don't expect it to happen overnight.
"When it comes to making lasting change, the tortoise often wins," writes Alastra. "Before making a resolution, think about what barriers may get in the way of your success, how you will get around those barriers, and what will motivate you to stick with it come February when most people start to give up."
Alastra notes that change that lasts a lifetime generally proceeds through seven stages: Precontemplation; contemplation; preparation; action; maintenance; often back to relapse during the action or maintenance stage; and onto transcendence.
For most of us, thinking about change and springing into action isn't the hardest part; it's maintaining our balance on our way to achieving lasting change.
"Resist relapse by reminding yourself of the benefits of your new behavior, the progress you have made, and your commitment to a better life," notes Alastra.
But she takes pain to assert that people often relapse, so don't give up on yourself.
"If you relapse once, twice, 20 or 40 times, don't view yourself as a failure. Rather, become gently curious about the triggers that led to the return of old habits and continue to develop alternative coping mechanisms."
If you stick with it long enough, eventually you "transcend" your previous self.
"You have been in maintenance for at least a couple of years and have now taken on a new identity," she writes. "At this stage, returning to your former behavior would seem bizarre and out-of-character -- not in line with the healthier person you have become."
Most importantly, be honest with yourself about what changes you are capable of.
"It's OK if you are not yet ready to make drastic changes, or any changes for that matter," writes Alastra, who recommends starting out with baby steps.
"Expect to fall down. Know that setbacks are normal and not a personal failing. Learn from your mistakes."
It's also important to be cognizant of self-defeating attitudes that sabotage our well-laid plans, notes Alastra.
"Challenge any conscious or subconscious beliefs that you can't change -- that you always fail."
Tomas Chamorro-Premuzic, writing for the Harvard Business Review, noted that most of us overestimate our capacity for change, biting off more than we can chew, so to speak.
"In theory everyone can change, but in practice most people don't," except, he noted.
Chamorro-Premuzic, an international authority in personality profiling and psychometric testing, isn't as interested in physical changes we consciously make to our bodies, but more so radical change to our lifestyles.
"Can someone transition from being a self-centered narcissist to being a caring and giving soul? Or from being exceptionally smart to being incredibly stupid?"
For some people, it does appear so.
For instance, notes Chamorro-Premuzic, Bill Gates went from a nerd to an entrepreneur to an empire builder to perhaps the most charitable person no Earth. Nelson Mandela started as "an arrogant, aggressive, and antisocial youth before inspiring everyone with his path of nonviolent resistance."
These might be exceptions from the rule, wrote Chamorro-Premuzic. For most people categorical changes in character are unusual.
"Even when our patterns of change are unique, they are predictable: We simply become a more exaggerated version of ourselves."
Chamorro-Premuzic notes that as people get older, they tend to interpret events according to their own personal biases, creating a feedback loop.
"Second, we gravitate towards environments that are congruent with our own default attitudes and values. Hedonists seek pleasure and fun-loving people, which, in turn, makes them even more hedonistic. Aggressive people crave conflict and combat, which only augments their aggression. Altruists hang out with caring people and spend time helping others, which enhances their empathy and reinforces their selflessness."
Finally, our reputation does truly precede us, he wrote.
Inaccurate intuitive evaluations we make about others often morph into reality, notes Chamorro-Premuzic.
"As a consequence, deliberate attempts to change are far less effective than we like to think, which is why most New Year's resolutions are never accomplished," he writes.
Ironically, writes Chamorro-Premuzic, "Neurotic, introverted and insecure people are more likely to change, whereas highly adjusted and resilient individuals are less changeable. Likewise, optimism breeds over-confidence and hinders change by perpetuating false hopes and unrealistic expectations."
If you really want to change, he writes, there is a fairly straightforward method, though it can be tricky to implement.
First, writes Chamorro-Premuzic, is building self-awareness, but that involves something many of us avoid at all costs: Obtaining and believing honest and critical feedback from others.
Following that often painful step, we must develop a realistic strategy that focuses on attainable goals, such as changing a few specific behaviors rather than substantial aspects of our personality, writes Chamorro-Premuzic.
But that's not all; now you have to dedicate the time, energy and effort to making real change.
"In short, change requires self-critical insight, humble goals, and indefatigable persistence," notes Chamorro-Premuzic. "It means going against our nature and demands extraordinary levels of willpower."
So while there are recognizable paths to change, they are not always easy or smooth. Expect bumps in the road, expect to fall down and skin a knee, expect disappointment, but, all the experts say, don't give up! Keep in mind the endpoint and remind yourself that you are only human. Hardly anyone who aims high doesn't crash hard on the way up. The mark of character is how you brush yourself off and jump back into the fight.