The Art of the Fresh Start

September! All over the UK children are going back to school, neatly dressed in recently-bought uniform and clutching bags filled with new stationary. Some are optimistic, others are resentful of this return to daily learning.

Parents are heaving huge sighs of relief and re-gaining control of their homes, computers and TV remotes. Full-time Mums are plotting a little oasis of ‘me-time’ at the same time as tackling overdue household chores.

As we head back to work and discover that all the desks are occupied again, many of us are also filled with the echoes of a new term and the shift of the seasons. It’s interesting that this time offers both the sense of ‘getting back to normal’ and also of a ‘fresh start’. 

However, there’s no point in getting back to normal if ‘normal’ is a disaster and even less point in making a fresh start if what you’re doing is working well. The real opportunity is to distinguish between the areas that are working and those that are not and to have different approaches.

Overall, it makes sense to get back to doing the activities which have been successful for you and to make a fresh start in areas where you haven’t achieved as much. 

As a teenager, I found homework to be a real bore. I always did it, but usually I’d do it the evening before it had to be handed in. One September, I decided to change that. I came home from school after the first day of the new term and immediately sat down and completed the homework I’d been given that day. I felt good. I was impressed with myself (a rare experience in those days) and resolved to do the same the next day. The next day I came home, did the homework I’d been given and marvelled at this new me.

I don’t remember for how many days this continued. What I do remember VERY clearly is the day I came home from school and looked at my homework, looked at the timetable for the following day realised that I had already done all the homework that had to be handed in the next day. I could have an evening off. So I did.

And thereafter I went back to doing my homework the night before it had to be handed in.

So, nice experiment, good feelings for a few days, but nothing really changed. That’s not much of a ‘fresh start’ is it?

Maybe you’ve experienced something similar. You decide to start running in the morning before you go to work. Or to use your commute time to delve into those industry journals to which you faithfully subscribe to but never actually read. Or to keep your inbox clear with no more than 20 messages in it at the end of the day. Or whatever.

The likely result of these noble resolutions is this: You ‘try’ to adopt the new behaviour. You do it for a few days and feel proud of yourself. You grit your teeth and do it for a few more days, summoning up all the willpower you can muster. You overrule yourself when you feel drawn to the old habit and keep going until finally, exhausted with the effort of doing this new activity and of being a different person, you revert to the familiar.

After a few attempts you become accustomed to this pattern, conclude that ‘you can’t change who you are’ and settle into a comfortable cynicism about personal development and change. 

Have you ever wondered what’s really going in here? 

Your behaviour is the result of a variety of factors that are often outside of conscious awareness:

Beliefs and Values

Your beliefs and values are very powerful in driving behaviour from the unconscious level. Everything that you do will be driven by one or more of your values. Or to put it another way, everything we do is aimed at getting more of what’s important to us. So, if you value achievement you might be very motivated to complete everything on your daily plan. If you value your health and well-being you might be very keen to leave work at a sensible time. Sometimes these two will conflict and leave you unsure what to do. However, because this all going on outside of conscious awareness, you might simply feel stressed, anxious or de-motivated without really understanding why.

Goals

If you have a particular goal that is important, your behaviour will naturally tend to the opportunities to move closer to the goal. Unless there’s something blocking the way. 

Personal baggage

‘Personal baggage’ is the weight of bad experience that drags you down and stops you getting where you want to go. It includes negative beliefs, fears, phobias, cynicism and lies. If you keep telling yourself you can’t change, you won’t. If you think you’re no good at something you won’t start doing it. If you feel safer deriding an activity than doing it, you keep avoiding it. The important thing to understand about personal baggage is that it’s not the truth. It’s just a way of looking at the world in the light of your experience. If you hadn’t had that particular experience the world would look different – and still can.

Habit

A habit is a pattern of behaviour that a person uses over and over again. Why? Because it works. All the things you’re really good at you can do without thinking about. You’ve done them so many times you can ‘do it with your eyes closed’ or ‘do it in your sleep’. So once the first step in the pattern happens, the rest follow on automatically. Without conscious thought. This is a good thing when the habit results in productive, constructive behaviour, such as planning the next day before you finish work for the day or brushing your teeth before you get into bed. 

It’s not such a good thing when it results in procrastination or destructive behaviour such as checking your email every two minutes or being late for every meeting.

The reason we have habits that are not productive, is that the habit worked at some point in the past, but changes in circumstances mean that it no longer works. Nonetheless, the behaviour persists.

Yes, you can choose your behaviour, but a huge proportion of what you do in a day, you do without thinking about it. It’s all happening below consciousness.

Habits are the way we deal with recurring situations.  We do the same thing everything time, without consciously deciding what to do. That frees up mental space for new experiences and decisions to be made. The thing about habits, is that you can be half-way doing something you’d planned to NOT do, before you realise what’s happening. You’re on auto-pilot and simply doing what you usually do in the situation. The situation becomes a trigger for a particular pattern of behaviour, such as ‘I’d given up coffee until I met my friend in the local coffee shop and before I realised what I was doing I’d ordered my usual cappuccino and starting drinking it’. 

State

Your state – the way you feel – will also affect your behaviour. All beliefs are state-dependent. So, if you’re tired and have a headache, you may think that certain activities are beyond you, whereas if you’re well-rested and full of energy you might think you can do anything. Neither is necessarily true, but they will feel like reality at the time.

 

With all these different factors impacting your behaviour; if you find it hard to do a specific task or activity it might be worth taking some time to explore the situation in more detail. 

If you feel no motivation to do the task, that’s usually because there is no clear connection with any of your values. Ask yourself what’s important about the task, what are the consequences or doing it or not doing it. Is it part of a bigger picture?

If you find yourself exerting a lot of ‘willpower’ to get something done, what that really means is that you’re fighting with yourself. On one level you want to do it, but there’s also a drive to NOT do it. It’s easy to just dismiss it as ‘I’m lazy’ but if you keep bludgeoning that aspect of yourself into submission and forcing yourself to do something you don’t feel motivated about, at some point there will be payback. It might simply be breaking the new habit (like me and my homework) but it could be more dramatic. Sometimes this kind of internal conflict leads to physical symptoms and emotional stress.

Here’s how to incorporate a new behaviour in to your day-to-day activity. As already mentioned, if you have a clear path from A to B, you have enough unconscious processes to naturally take the path and follow it to the end. But it must be clear.

If A is the starting place, making it clear involves being honest with yourself about the current state of play. Maybe the reason you haven’t enrolled in that course for your professional qualifications isn’t that you haven’t got around to completing the application. It’s actually that you’re intimidated by the amount of study involved. Admit that, and the next step is rather different.

If B is the end point, the goal, it also needs to be clear and it must align with your values in some way. Otherwise it will seem pointless and there will be no motivation. This is where the NLP ‘well-formed outcome’ pattern comes into its own. By working through a structured process that considers the big picture and the factors that might be holding you back, this process clears the way in your mind for the new behaviour.

Sometimes it highlights a bit of personal baggage that’s getting in the way, often it simply raises awareness of all the relevant aspects and enables you to choose the best route from A to B.

Sometimes it highlights the need to learn a new skill or discover some new information. For example, someone who was habitually late but wanted to start being punctual discovered that he had never developed the skill of planning his time and therefore often overloaded his day and couldn’t possibly keep his commitments. 

The ‘bottom line’ is, when we decide to do something new or different, that’s rarely all it takes. By considering the full range of factors that influence what we do in a particular situation we gain more choice and control. That’s worth spending a little thinking time and mental energy to achieve.

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