Can You Create Changes That Last?

07/22/2015 11:08 pm ET Updated Jul 22, 2016

When it comes to creating the changes you really want to make in your work or in you life, do ever find you have difficulty making this last? You start off excited, motivated and with the best intentions. You might even manage to start changing the way you think, feel and act for a few weeks. But far too quickly, this "honeymoon effect" of creating change seems to wear off and you're left feeling disappointed and back to where you started.

"Unfortunately most change efforts whether individual or organizational don't last," explained Tal Ben Shahar, a renowned author and lecturer, when I recently interviewed him at the World Congress of Positive Psychology. "And the reason it doesn't is because of our habits."

"Hundreds of years ago the British poet John Dryden wrote 'We first make our habits, and then our habits make us,'" said Tal. "If we cultivate our habit, whether a good one or a bad one, it sticks. Trying to create counter-habits that enable us to change is then very difficult to do."

Let's be honest, I think we've all tried at one time or another to change a habit and found it's not an easy thing to do. Yet I have to confess almost every successful change I've created in my life has all come down to understanding what it takes to effectively introduce and adjust the habits researchers estimate consume up to 40% of our days.

Given it's very difficult, if not impossible, to go beyond the honeymoon effect and create lasting change in our lives other than by introducing habits, Tal recommends trying the four following steps:

  • Start with less rather than more - Given that your willpower and self-discipline is a limited resource, if you spread it too thin among many different goals and objectives, you end up doing nothing. The key is to really focus on one or two new habits at a time and then to persist there until they become second nature.
  • Make it meaningful - Don't try and start a habit just because it would be nice to have, instead make sure you have a deep yearning to create this change in your life. Professor William Damon at Stanford University has found that when we find something personally interesting and it's meaningful to the world beyond ourselves, we're able to connect passion with action that provides a sense of purpose and energy that prevents burnout and promotes resiliency.
  • Build on success - More and more research is showing that to bring about lasting change you need to focus on success stories. Whether it's your personal success stories, or someone else's, appreciate them, learn from them and then try to do more of them. For example, Tal explained that what has helped him introduce a meditation practice into his life was looking at the best meditators and people who have successfully introduced a meditation habit and then learning from them. Actually, studying and researching what has worked for them and then applying it in his life.
  • Seek support - One study found people who make New Year's resolutions are much more likely to persevere for two years, and even for six years, if they have social support. So ask someone to be your accountability buddy. This might be someone you can go to the gym with on a regular basis or simply remind you what you have committed to doing. You can also use technology to support your habit by setting diary alarms to remind you or using apps like Streaks to reward your efforts.

"Habits like going to the gym, meditation or a weekly date night with my wife are an important part of my mental and emotional hygiene," explained Tal.

When it comes to creating the kind of lasting change you're craving at work or in your life is there a habit you'd like to start with?