I am very interested in how people make significant changes in their lives. There is no doubt that we all WANT to make certain changes, whether losing a few pounds, working out more often, implementing a healthier diet, launching a new business venture or resuming those creative projects we used to love and enjoy…So, while there are few differences between us in our desire to improve the quality of our lives, there does seem to be significant differences in the level of success enjoyed by different people in actually making and sustaining these desired changes. The question is why?
Given how complex human beings truly are, I am sure that there are many reasons as to why this would be the case. But I want to consider one reason in particular – what I will call “absolute determination.” We have all made decisions to change something in our lives while we were highly motivated (i.e., that is, very emotionally engaged). Unfortunately, as the emotion of the moment fades, so does our determination. We find numerous reasons why the decision could be justifiably discarded. Followed, of course, by the familiar guilt over what we perhaps come to view as yet another failure.
Both the beauty and the beast of humans’ amazing cognitive adaptability is that we are in many ways programmed for efficiency, which is on the one hand a marvelous thing. This efficiency shows up in our habits, routines, even in the ways in which we parse incoming information into categories so that cognitive processing is minimized and our mental capacities are freed up to be engaged elsewhere. For example, we learn to ride a bike and then seldom actually attend to the amazing ability to propel ourselves through space…we just do it.
The downside, however, is that our way of being in the world can become overly routinized and cross the line into rigidity. Yet humans are much more successful when we retain the flexibility to adapt to changing environments, both internal and external, because the only thing for certain in this life is that nothing is certain…circumstances are always in a state of flux, the world is always in a state of flux…and we are never guaranteed the next breath, much less tomorrow. Thus, making changes to better adapt to our present moment (not the world as we knew it in childhood or 10 years ago or yesterday…or the world as we wished it would be) is incredibly important. Yet, so many folks find change to be very, very difficult.
The reality, however, is that change can actually be fairly predictable, even if not easy, when we move into a state of absolute determination. Absolute determination brooks no wavering in our decision to make a change. And it is this mysterious interplay between the rigidity of an unwavering decision and the flexibility that drives a willingness to trade the current unacceptable state for another more beneficial one. And this is indeed the bloody battle that must be fought and won on a daily basis if change is to occur, because there will always be a reason – often good ones, sound ones – to quit and go back to our former, more familiar self.
The interesting thing is that this imperceptibly small “wavering” that occurs between the state of absolute determination and the state of considering any other alternative is in mental geography akin to the the span of the Grand Canyon. It is an enormous shift. Consider, for example, that you have run bath water and plugged the drain to retain the water. The drain is in one state: sealed. No water is escaping and this allows you to enjoy your bath. You could say, “But I’ll just unplug it a little bit. Only a small amount of water will escape.” While the water loss may initially be minimal, the reality is that you just significantly changed states from “completely sealed” to “unsealed.” And this is the Grand Canyon of differences. Further, to move from the “only a little unsealed” condition to “a lot unsealed” or “totally unsealed” is simply a matter of degrees, because they all share the same state of being unsealed.
The key here is to understand that the absence of behavior (e.g., no eating, drinking, viewing porn) is a very different state from engaging in the behavior, regardless of whether you are engaging to a smaller or larger degree. So, with eating, for example, if we think, “I’ll just eat a little,” this actually opens the door for eating a lot because we’ve moved from abstinence to engagement. Similarly, to consider that we might not stay the course (whatever that may be), has moved us an enormous distance from absolute determination into a state of indecision and this is indeed where the battle, no – the war, actually, is routinely lost.
The bottom line: In absolute determination, there are only two states: doing and not doing. And there really is nothing else in between but excuses.