Sustainable Self-Development

How do we continue to grow without burning out?

In the self-help game, how are we to make sustainable change? There is a reason that New Year’s Resolutions often fail. We go all in, gung-ho, committed to the change until we burn out and revert to the easier, pre-established patterns and pathways. It’s the same idea with crash diets. It’s the reason the people selling us get-rich-quick schemes make sure much money. Sometimes we invest in the ourselves under the illusion that sudden, large-scale change is sustainable. 

So why is it so hard to change all of the things in our lives that we want to change at one time? Why isn’t desire and motivation enough? Surely after a few weeks we should have new habits set, right? Almost. While it is true that consistency over time helps to establish new habits, more goes into unwriting the old habits than simply doing something different. It is estimated that approximately 40% of our daily decisions are made exclusively out of habit. What’s more, every time we do the same thing in the same way over again, we are reinforcing that neurological pathway. So it may not be very hard to do something different that we haven’t been doing for very long, it is much more difficult to challenge the habits that have been reinforced over a lifetime. 

We have so many neurological shortcuts from stimulus to reaction for those lifetime habits that we aren’t simply unwriting one pathway when we attempt change, we have to change many. Consider the stories you tell yourself. We all have our personal narratives that often distort our perceptions of our experiences, for good or bad. The deepest, most ingrained, most emotionally connected personal beliefs  often have some variation of “I’’m not good enough.” So imagine how many different experiences can reinforce that idea over time, if we let them.

When it comes to creating change in our life, it is easy to be initially motivated because we can easily envision the desired outcomes. It is much harder to imagine the steps required to get there, particularly in the day to day grind. These are the mundane and monotonous, often unpleasant decisions, that have to be made over and over and over again in order to reinforce the newly established pathway. Let’s take losing weight, as an example. We are forced to consider everything we eat, needing to make difficult decisions throughout the day every day. We fight the neurological impulses to indulge not only because of the instant gratification we get from the food itself, which incites the reward pathways in our brains,  but also because this is what we always do. Which means the path of least resistance, the requiring less effort, is the one we are trying to move away from. And it is exhausting to make that decision over and over again. We have a finite amount of discipline we can harness each day, and, like a muscle, that begins to fatigue. So when we have to be repeatedly disciplined and make the harder choices, all day long, day after day, that fatigue can magnify. 

And that is just for one change. Imagine adding something else on top of that. Now we are adding a whole new set of decisions and variables to our days, compounding our decision fatigue. The greater the change we try to make, the more energy is required to achieve it. 

So how do we create sustainable change in our lives? How do we continue to grow and develop without relegating ourselves to our old patterns? Start small, and add on. Rather than changing all of the eating patterns, tackle one. Rather than changing how we approach relationships, or money, or success, just take on one aspect of it at a time. Once it requires less energy to make the healthier decision, then we can add something else. But we must continuously be in check with our energy stores, and learn when we need to back off, if we are to maintain positive growth. Otherwise we run the risk of not succeeding, or worse, believing we are incapable of success. Which only reinforces the “I’m not good enough” narrative. 

Lauren Fuqua