Wednesday, January 03, 2020

Small Things Matter More Than You Think

It’s the Simple, Insignificant Decisions that Prevent Change

Every day is made up of thousands of small choices. We feel they don’t count for much, and it’s true that each one is insignificant in itself. But small decisions are often the key to acting on the bigger choices you want to make about your life.

At this time of year, tens of thousands of smokers decide to quit. Other people decide to lose weight, go on a healthy diet, take more exercise, or make one or more of hundreds of similar good resolutions. Some make it happen; many don’t. Even if we assume that not all of their decisions were serious, the question still remains: “Why do so many good and genuine resolutions for change fail so quickly?” It’s easiest to explain by working through an example.

Let’s suppose that our smoker determined to quit is faced with a simple, insignificant choice. It’s a time of the day when he or she almost always had a cigarette. A friend holds out a packet and offers one of the former smoker’s usual brand. “Go on,” the friend says. “You know just one won’t matter. You can give up after this.”

No single choice to smoke or not to smoke is of any great weight. That’s what makes it so very easy to give in and decide that this one time won’t matter.
Logically, what the friend says is true. Smoking one “last” cigarette is such an insignificant act in itself that it will have virtually no effect on health or, supposedly, the resolution to quit. The trouble is that the same holds true for every cigarette smoked. No single choice to smoke or not to smoke is of any great weight. That’s what makes it so very easy to give in and decide that this one time won’t matter. Your resolution isn’t affected. You are still determined to give up—only not right now.

Recovering alcoholics understand that even a single glass of alcohol will set them right back into addiction. Why should this be? It may be physiological effects with alcohol, but the same doesn’t hold true with a decision to quit getting so stressed about minor issues, for example. There’s no addictive quality about stress, so far as I know. You may be used to it, but giving it up doesn’t cause you to face “cold turkey” or massive physical symptoms.

What is happening, I believe, is a mismatch between the sudden, dramatic, and global nature of the resolution itself, and the gradual, barely significant actions needed to turn it into successful action. To decide to quit smoking, or give up overeating, or cut back on stress, or work for a better work/life balance is a clear-cut and obvious choice. It’s made today for an indefinite period ahead. It’s big, visible, and carries strong emotions.

Old habits take over, as they always do when your attention is elsewhere. Before you fully realize it, you’ve gone back on your resolution.
In total contrast, each decision to refuse a cigarette, choose a salad over a cheeseburger and fries, or go home on time instead of working late again, is so minor in itself it almost passes unnoticed. Indeed, most such decisions occur when your mind is occupied with something else. Old habits take over, as they always do when your attention is elsewhere. Before you fully realize it, you’ve gone back on your resolution.

“It won’t matter, just this once,“ you tell yourself. And it won’t, in itself. But what is true of this instance will be true of the next, and the next, until you give up in disgust at your own weakness.

Is there an antidote to the mismatch between sudden, large-scale resolution and gradual, small-scale surrender to the past? I believe there is.

My father smoked more than a pack of cigarettes each day. Suddenly, he stopped and never smoked one again. No nicotine patch, no gum, no support group, no carefully crafted program. And cigarettes were still always within his reach, because my mother went on smoking until she died from lung cancer.

What did he do?

I think that all successful programs of personal change have the same element at their center: a clear redefinition of personal identity. In 24 hours, my father went from defining himself as a smoker to defining himself as a non-smoker. He was never someone trying to kick the habit.

. . . all successful programs of personal change have the same element at their center: a clear redefinition of personal identity.
As a non-smoker, he naturally refused cigarettes and ignored the packs in his wife’s purse. Whatever cravings he felt no longer related to his inner identity. He was a non-smoker and stayed that way until his death more than 30 years later.

Many of you who are reading this post are, I guess, interested in achieving a better work/life balance. You want to slow down, lose some of your stress and anxiety, and create a more civilized working atmosphere. Like most of us, at one time or another, you’ve found yourself addicted to haste, overwork, and continual tension.

My suggestion to all of you is never to define yourselves as people trying to achieve a better, more satisfying working patten. Never see yourselves in progress from the past to your desired future. There are too may daily pressures and demands to give up on your resolution: macho bosses, sudden panics over some project, not-so-subtle hints that failing to pitch in on this one occasion will be seen as evidence of poor commitment—like a former smoker surrounded by the sight or offer of innumerable cigarettes. ”I don’t smoke“ is the only response that works, not “I’m, trying to give them up,“ which already includes the possibility that you’ll try and then fail.

”Sorry. It's really important to me to set aside enough time to be with my family“ or “I'll gladly help out some other time, but now I need to have a break for the sake of my health" are the only effective answers to excessive work pressures. Might your short-term career suffer? Sure. But a person who maintains a healthy work/life balance as part of who they are will simply leave an uncivilized organization to find a better job elsewhere. It isn’t so much what that person does, it’s who he or she is.

In the end, you’re either a person in control of your life or you’re not; a wage-slave or a person with a job that fits your chosen lifestyle; a responsible adult or a whining child. Who you are will be shown not in those grandiose New Year’s resolutions, but in a thousand tiny, almost insignificant choices over the weeks and months ahead.

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Ian Davidson said...

What a wonderful post, I enjoyed reading it tremendously. Good luck with your 2007 resolutions!


12:19 PM  
Carmine Coyote said...

Thanks, Ian. I'm glad you liked it.

Keep reading, my friend.

12:28 PM  
Tamar said...

This is such a great post! I was reading it and thinking of quite a few people I am going to send it to (unfortunately, not my smoking parents - they're past help, but others dear to my heart who would benefit from reading it...) :-)
Thanks for your insight!

1:31 PM  
Bill Quinn said...

Super article. As a repetitive dieter I see the value in redefining myself as a long term remedy. I don't know why this hasn't occurred to me before as for many years I bit my finger nails. I tried to stop, unsuccessfully until that is I took up learning to play the guitar. As a classical guitarist I needed nails to pluck the strings and bingo, I stopped biting there and them!

1:42 PM  
matthew said...

I've found the Yoda-esque "no such thing as trying" to be a bit hard to swallow in the past, but this was a very effective explanation of it. Nice post!

1:58 PM  
Carmine Coyote said...

Thanks so much, Tamar.

I'm glad you found it useful.

Keep reading, my friend.

3:15 PM  
Carmine Coyote said...

Thanks for your comments, Bill and Matthew.

You are so right, Bill, that making a change is much easier once you have a strong reason that redefines who you are. Great example about playing the guitar.

I'm glad you both found this post helpful.

Keep reading, my friends.

9:20 AM  
Allen Holman said...

I love this mindset change.

I think that many people are so scared that they can't accomplish anything themselves, that they are counting on others to help them when they say "I'm trying to..."

They've allowed themselves the possibility because they are not sure internally that this is what they really want. Making the decision like your father did, and removing the possibility of failure is available to everyone.

Great post, thank you!

8:03 AM  
Carmine Coyote said...

Thanks for your comment, Allen.

I'm glad that you liked the post.

Keep reading, my friend.

11:03 AM  
Rebecca said...

This is incredible. I have a habit to apply your smoking analogy to. RIGHT... NOW! Thanks so much.

1:06 PM  
Carmine Coyote said...

Thanks for your comment, Rebecca.

I'm glad you found this useful.

Keep reading, my friend.

1:50 PM  

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