Having a vision for the future: What is your stretch goal?

When I work with individuals, we always start with the small habits that can be easily implemented. I was not an easy convert to this process when I first learned of starting with a “tiny habit” through BJ Fogg’s research. In my mind, it seemed like the tiny habit would be too small and uninspired to keep someone motivated. One of the standard examples used when describing the tiny habit process, is that a person should develop the habit of flossing by flossing just one tooth. That practice will then develop into a habit where you are flossing all your teeth daily. The skepticism I had was that a person would often choose to not practice the simple habit, such as flossing the single tooth, because it alone has no value.

The research continues to show that starting small is the best way to develop new and healthy behaviors. I have enough experience at this point that I am convinced that if you truly desire to have long lasting change, this is the approach you should take. This is the entire reason for the instructions in the article, “Knowing is not doing”.

This fact does not mean that there is no value in understanding what the final outcome looks like. This end goal is defined differently in different situations. In the book, “Smarter, Faster, Better” by Charles Duhigg, he calls it your stretch goal. When I talk to individuals, I like to use the term ‘vision’. I like using that term because it gives me a feeling of inspiration. This is also the outcome that many people have in mind when they start a new program to become happier and healthier.

One lesson I took away from Duhigg’s book is that when you set your stretch goal, you should define something that seems a little unrealistic today. This advice is a little nuanced because there is a fine line between something that is unrealistic today and something that is completely impossible. The reward that comes with setting stretch goals that feel slightly out of reach, is that when you successfully implement the daily habits and practices, they will gradually make what once seemed unrealistic a very real possibility.

Here are some examples of stretch goals related to being happier and healthier, along with one daily habit that could be the first step to making the vision come true:

Stretch goal:  To be 50 pounds lighter.
Daily habit: Put on walking shoes and walk around the block.

Stretch goal: To manage work stress better.
Daily habit: Set a pomodoro timer and walk for 1 minute each cycle.

Stretch goal: To run a 5k with family at Thanksgiving.
Daily habit: Put on running clothes, run to end of block.

Stretch goal: To get out of chair without knee pain or support.
Daily habit: Set alarm on phone, do 5 body squats to comfortable depth each time it goes off.

Stretch goal: To have less frustration and more positive mindset.
Daily habit: Set alarm for 3pm each day, when alarm goes off acknowledge 1 thing you are grateful for that day.

When you are working hard to develop a new lifestyle, it is important to be committed to the daily process. However, to remain inspired and achieve outcomes that seem unrealistic today, it is valuable to have a vision for what the future looks like.

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What is your story? Sabotaging thoughts and 2 strategies to overcome them.

We all have stories we tell ourselves. The internal dialogue we use to narrate our lives. Those stories have a strong impact on how we view the world and ourselves. The narratives create characters and setting in our minds, which we insert our identities and navigate the best we can. When you are trying to become healthier and happier, it is important that you do not let those stories become a barrier to uncovering that person.

There were many years that the internal narrative I possessed was one where I played the underdog and had to overcome many obstacles. Those obstacles included things like: lack of finances, lack of support, a biased system and an inability to be loved. The truth was that having this ‘come from behind’ story was positive in some ways. When I was full of energy and motivation, I would create the successful Hollywood narrative, where I’d rise above all the challenges placed in front of me. In those months and years, I accomplished many things and had many successes. It was this storyline that allowed me to finish college, go to graduate school and most importantly, become an endurance athlete. When it comes to performing in athletics, I have always raced from behind. The idea of being a front runner is not the story I allowed myself to consider.

The other side to this story is that when I was not as energetic and motivated, I often became sad with feelings of helplessness and loneliness. A very specific time period I remember this becoming a problem was soon after the Great Recession of 2008 to 2009. I have not went back and unpacked all of the narratives that I picked up during that time, however, when you look at the following years of 2010 to 2013 (when the storyline started to change), you can see some of the impact and consequences of those narratives.

The greatest lessons that I’ve learned from those periods of my life include:

— You have to protect who has influence over your narrative. I personally made a decision in 2012 to remove all news on television and radio from my life.

— You need to have at least one or two people who can help you create a positive narrative. I am lucky to have a few close friends that I can lean into for this.

— You need establish a habit of observation, so you can become aware of what your current narrative is. This has become a nearly constant habit for me, but initially it required a formal and scheduled action.

When you know you have a negative narrative, what can you do about it? That is one of the highest quality questions you can ask yourself. As I just shared, that question means that you have to become aware that this narrative exists. When I talk to many people, it is evident they don’t realize that the stories they are telling themselves and others each day are not supporting the life they have identified as ideal. So, what can you do to manage the storylines?

To answer that, I would like to share a personal example from running marathons.

On ideal race days, when I am running a marathon, the narrative trends from very positive to slightly negative. The slightly negative thoughts are usually when I begin obsessing about my current pace or the constant observation of the aches and pains that are present. When race day goes wrong, the story trends from positive to complete self doubt. The self doubt, in these moments, becomes so powerful that it has real impact on my physical performance. These narrative also rob me of any happiness that I might be able to find.

The value in knowing these sabotaging thoughts are going to be a part of the day, is that you can prepare and practice managing those negative thoughts. Here are two strategies that I have effectively used over the years when I race. It took me many years to realize that these same strategies can be effective when trying to manage the negative storylines in my day to day life.

Two strategies to manage negative thinking: 

1. Have a mantra to fall back on.

One of the most powerful mantras I developed for racing was during 2002 through 2003. It became so powerful because I practiced using daily. The mantra was very simple:

“I am strong. My body has done the training.”

I have had other mantras throughout the years, but I recall this one getting me through some pretty dark moments. It was also a year that I set multiple personal bests, including setting my marathon PR, which still stands today.

The value of having a mantra is when it becomes automatic. When prepared, at the first awareness of a negative internal dialogue, I return to the mantra until the dialogue has changed. Here are some examples of mantras that might be empowering:

  • I am a healthy person. I appreciate my body.
  • I am strong enough to handle today. I have everything I need.
  • In this moment, I am perfect. The future will take care of itself.
  • I am happy today. Yesterday is over.

The key is to use a mantra that has personal meaning and value for you. For many people I know, this means leaning into a religious belief. The only suggestion I would make is that you don’t use someone else’s mantra because it worked for them. Take the time and go through the process of uncovering something of meaning for yourself. It is ok if what you uncover is only useful for a short period of time. As I noted, my mantra for athletics has changed many times over the years.

2. Disassociate from the negative and move into the positive.

Another effective strategy that I have used, is to remove myself from the negative thoughts, replacing the experience with something positive. In this case, I like to use a visualization practice. I find the happy retreat, then I begin to create that setting as completely as I can. I use all my senses. If my retreat is on a trail, outside a cabin in the mountains (which it often is), then what are the sounds that I would hear? What does the mountain air smell like? How does that air feel when I breathe deeply? In a race, I work through this process, over and over until the imagery becomes as vivid and real as my mind can make it.

This past weekend, I ran the Sundance to Spearfish Marathon. It takes you through Spearfish Valley, which is one of the most beautiful places you could ever run a marathon. Somewhere around mile 16 I lost track of what mile I was running as I was absorbed by the scenery. I made a conscious decision to never look at my watch again, until the finish line. It was easy to disassociate from the reality of the race. I didn’t worry about the lack of long runs in my training. I wasn’t too concerned about little aches and pains.

However, there did come a point where I started to feel a little tired. The fatigue wasn’t worrisome, but I began to notice my legs were getting tired and I wasn’t able to distract myself by simply taking in the scenery. It was also about that point when I saw one of the small flagged mile markers. It said I was at mile 23. To combat this, I made the decision to find something else to focus on. Despite being in a perfect setting, I had to find a new scene to distract my mind from the reality of the race. As you can see from the data taken from my watch, it was highly effective.

IMG_3571

In your day to day life, you can not always fall into day dreams to avoid your stress and negative thoughts. However, I challenge you to create one visualization and work with it. Once you have practiced it, you will find that falling into the imagery, even for a brief few seconds or minutes, will enable to you tackle the sabotaging thoughts that creep into your storyline throughout the day.

The narrative that we tell ourselves and share with others can have a powerful impact on our lives. When those narratives consistently trend to negative storylines, it can be difficult to find health and happiness. Two effective strategies for overcoming those narratives are to find a personal mantra and to lean into positive visualizations. To use these tools in your journey towards health, practice often and make them a default response in those moments of need.

It is a marathon: lessons about behavior change taken from the first three miles.

It is marathon week, so I figured we could use the overused sports analogy to discuss changing our behaviors. Everyone has heard the saying,

“It’s a marathon, not a sprint”.

It has been used in everything from motivational posters and financial planning commercials to company culture documents. The lesson to individuals is that it is wise to manage your effort overtime, make logical choices to get to the next step, opposed to trying to accomplish everything in a single day.

The problem that I have with this advice is that at every marathon I have ever done, during the first few miles, the participants of the marathon forget it themselves. If there was ever someone that should understand this principle, it would probably be the marathon runner on race day. I still remember doing a marathon with a bunch of first time marathoners. We had trained for several months and were prepared to have a great day. I taught the value of having self awareness and pacing early in the race. I warned of the desire to do something you had not prepared for due to the crowd of runners. Despite that coaching, after the race started and we hit the 0.5 mile mark, one of the runners looked at her Garmin watch and saw that her average pace was slower than she anticipated. She decided to run faster and was already anxious about her finishing time.

I yelled some words of wisdom as she ran ahead. The good news is that she crossed the finish line, however the second half of the race was more difficult than it needed to be.

Why does this happen so often? What lessons can we take away from this observation and apply to our desire to change our behavior? I have a few key reasons that this mistake is so commonplace:

1. Lack of self awareness:

When you show up to the start of a marathon, in an ideal situation, you will be in the best shape of your life. Your fitness is at its peak. When you combine peak fitness with the proper pre race recovery, you set yourself up for new and unusual feelings at the start of the race. What feels like easy running, might have been a steady effort run just a couple weeks ago. You can be running at a tempo pace, but convince yourself that you are really holding yourself back. I see runners make the mistake, thinking they are running easy, but discover 13, 15 or 20 miles later that they were just unaware of what to expect in those first few miles.

When you are trying to change your behavior, it is critical that you maintain a high level of self awareness. The ability to fall back into your previously established habits is easy. Where I see this most often, is early on when you are having success with a new behavior. You have established a routine to follow that allows you be successful, then you enter an environment that breaks that routine. It may be a family vacation. It could be a Thursday night happy hour with co-workers or dinner out with friends. In these situations, extreme self-awareness is important. Understand what decisions you are making and why you are making them.

2. Have objective measures.

The discussion so far has been about the inability to maintain good judgement using subjective observations. This is why it is important to define some objective measurements that allow you to monitor progress and identify success. In the marathon, this means knowing what pace is acceptable and what is just fantasy due to early race happiness. In your behavior change project, it allows you to be accountable.

When you are trying to implement a new behavior, let’s say it is adding an exercise routine, our memory of what we did and what actually happened can be misaligned. People will commonly tell me that they were successful adding exercise to their week. Then when we review what they actually did, they may have completed the routine 1 or 2 times. That may be fine if the goal was to include exercise 1 or 2 times, but more than likely the misalignment is a function of the effort it took to complete those sessions. The effort was high, which makes the recall of what actually occurred to be overstated. Whatever the goal is, make sure there’s a way to measure and track your progress.

3. Take on one challenge at a time.

Early in the marathon, it is tempting to start thinking about ‘finish times’. Most of us show up to the race with some expectation of how we want the day to finish. However, when you are running miles 2 or 3, your finish time should be the last thought in your mind. It is important to run the mile you are running. It takes discipline of thought, but successful marathoners are good at this.

As you begin a behavior change project that leads to a happier and healthier life, it is easy to think of all the habits you need to change. You may need to eat differently, exercise more, manage your stress, along with many other lifestyle changes. The desire to change all of them at once can be tempting. But, it is an approach that often leads to failure after several days or weeks. If the goal is to create a happier and healthier lifestyle, then approach it with the knowledge that it can take a lifetime to create those behaviors. When you gain this perspective, understand that you will be most successful when you work on one habit at a time. Focus on something manageable and immediate, then reassess and take on the next behavior.

The saying, “It’s a marathon, not a sprint” is an overused analogy. It is used so often that I wonder if it has any value in our every day conversations. However, as I think about all the mistakes marathon runners make during those first few miles, I see the value keeping that mantra alive. As you work through your behavior change program, maintaining the perspective that you have a lifetime to develop your ideal lifestyle, will reward you will success, happiness and health.

Stop taking zeros: A lesson from Snapchat streaks on being healthier and happier

There is something about getting your work done every single day. There is a satisfaction to know that you have been consistent. There is a sense of accomplishment when you look at your data and see a regular pattern of behavior. The reality that you are becoming a new person. The development of a desired pattern of living.

One of the new additions to my life recently was Snapchat. I was very reluctant to add a new social media to my life, however at my brother’s wedding, I witnessed that nearly all of his wife’s friends were using the app. I tried to understand the application last year because I was intrigued with the constant use of filters by several of my friends. However, I found discovery of friends to be a little challenging and intimidating, so I gave up. The one features I find most interesting, is the Snapchat streak. It’s interesting to hear people talk about the length of streaks they have with various friends. It used to amaze me to hear the length of those streaks, but not anymore. The motivational energy that streaks create is impressive and hard to deny.

The question to ask ourselves is how can we use this principle to improve our health and happiness?

A classic example of this in human behavior is with Alcoholics Anonymous. Sharing the number of days being sober is a large part of developing a new identity within the program. In terms of exercise, Gordo Byrn was one of the first individuals that I remember using the term ‘taking zeros’. It was a very useful paradigm for me to understand when I heard him talking about limiting the days he took a zero. When trying to achieve specific performance goals, it is easy to calculate training loads in a lot of complicated ways. Those methods can be useful, however for the majority of individuals that I have helped over the years, including myself, the most important metric for the long term optimization of health and happiness is limiting the days where you take a zero.

What exactly does a ‘zero’ mean?

That is an individualized answer. My answer changes often and depends on what I am currently trying to accomplish. I have had periods where taking a zero meant:

  • Not getting at least 30 minutes of running
  • Not getting outside for a walk or exercise (of any duration greater than 1 minute)
  • Not getting in a workout of any type

The key feature of your definition is to make it something where you can be successful. You want to set yourself up for long streaks. In the third example, “Not getting in a workout of any type” I allowed myself to count a set of pushups or a set of pullups. This meant that I had zero excuses for keeping the streak alive. It takes no equipment, very little time and not a lot of energy to get down and do a set up pushups.

What happens when you set your definition of ‘zero’ to something that requires skill, motivation and time is that you’ll end up breaking the streak often. Failure to keep a streak alive and developing a lack of confidence in your ability to succeed is one of the fastest ways to give up on your behavior change process. Keep it simple and succeed daily.

Here are ten streaks to consider, to help make you a happier and healthier person.

1. Start the meditation app, Calm

2. Put on your walking shoes and get outside

3. Eat a green vegetable

4. Drink 1 bottle of water

5. Lay down and close your eyes, in a room with no noise

6. Send a positive text to a friend

7. Give someone a hug

8. Do a set of body squats

9. Pick up a kettle bell

10. Write down one thing you are grateful for

By the way, I currently don’t have any streaks going on Snapchat. My username is gditsch, if you want to connect with me.

Challenge yourself: The secret to living fully as we age, along with 10 things you can try today.

I decided to go climb Black Elk Peak (formerly Harney Peak) in Custer State Park yesterday. It was a chance to celebrate the 39 years that I have been alive. An opportunity to exert some physical energy and be grateful for the health that I possess today. It was also a way to challenge myself.

One of my heroes is Susan Bradley-Cox. I am consistently inspired by her ability to help people achieve goals through the Team in Training program. I have been fortunate to coach alongside her on a couple occasions, as I help the triathletes improve their running. While I am inspired by her coaching, I am even more inspired by her desire to continually challenge herself. When I interviewed her for the Active Lexington podcast, one of the questions that I asked was what she attributed her ability to keep going, as she aged. The answer that stuck out to me was her acknowledgement that continually learning and seeking new challenges was a big factor in going strong long into her 70’s.

When I pulled into Sylvan Lake to start my hike, I anticipated a small crowd. It is after Labor Day, so many students and parents are back in school. What I found was a decent number of cars at the trailhead. My first reaction was, “Don’t worry, it is probably some of the retired folks walking around the lake.”

As I headed up trail #9, I started with a husband and wife couple, but quickly found solitude as they stopped to make equipment changes. In the loneliness of hiking, on a new trail and in a part of the country you don’t know well, I began to become lost in my thoughts. Many of those thoughts were on the environment around me. The wildfires were burning strong, the air was smokey and the sun was partially covered. Small noises off the trail made me consider the possibility of rattle snakes. I had growing anxiety over the stories locals shared of mountain lions (my absolute most feared animal). Thankfully, after an hour, those thoughts started to ease and I began to appreciate the landscape and scenery a little more.

I do not share this story to give every detail of my trip, but who I ended up sharing the adventure with. As I made my way up towards the 7,244 foot peak, the trail became more populated. It appeared that many of those cars at the trailhead had passengers that did make their way up trail #9. They just started earlier in the day and had reached higher ground. What were some defining characteristics of my fellow adventurers? Other than a group of 8th graders from Wisconsin and a young couple carrying two infants, they were individuals in their 50’s, 60’s and 70’s. Most of them were traveling with at least one partner, but many were in small groups of three to five. And from my observation, everyone I saw yesterday was successful in reaching the fire tower at the top of the peak.

Choosing to take a different and hopefully less travelled route back down, I headed down trail #3 towards Little Devils Tower. About half way down, I came across a team of three ladies, most likely in their late 60’s or early 70’s. While I don’t know what they were up to, I’m pretty sure they were looking watch out as each member figured out how to use nature’s facilities.

As I climbed up Little Devils Tower, the trail became less of a trail and more of a rock scramble. At one point, I came to an opening to scramble up, where a lady was standing. I quickly realized she spoke French and didn’t understand English very well. I moved on through the opening and up through several other scrambles that were moderately difficult ad created some anxiety. At the top of the climb, I found the rest of the French party. Each one was moving around the rocks with grace and confidence. Each one could have easily been my elder by 30 years.

Yesterday, I climbed to the top of Black Elk Peak and I was inspired. The inspiration came from a place that I didn’t expect. I expected to be inspired by the scenery and beauty of Custer State Park. That was definitely worth the effort and time. However, the people I met along the journey is what I will take away as inspiration. A large number of people willing to challenge themselves. To do something that allows them to continue living fully.

Ten things you can do challenge yourself today:

1. Start to learn a new language using Duolingo

2. Pick a 5k to sign up and train for

3. Learn (or relearn) how to skip or jump rope

4. Do a set of push ups

5. Find a crossword puzzle, sudoku or log onto luminosity and complete one exercise

6. Learn to do a kettle bell swing

7. Do a set of jumping jacks

8. Find an open space and do some summersaults

9. Go to a climbing wall and pay an instructor to teach you how to climb

10. Go for a walk in nature with no phone, music, wifi or cell service

Become an expert at generating self motivation

The ability to improve your self motivation is something that people often believe is not possible. Many understand motivation to be an innate trait. Due to this, we often look at other people and wonder where they get their motivation from, in both the positive and negative perspective. I will often see someone that is a parent, an athlete, successful in their occupation and still finds time to be a friend and have a social life. When I see her, I am amazed at the motivation it takes to consistently be in her shoes. I also see someone who wakes up in the morning, does nothing for 16 hours and talks about being ‘worn out’ and goes to bed.

Motivation is difficult to manufacture. Being able to generate self motivation can be very difficult if you don’t understand some basic principles. While understanding motivation can be complex, the following is at least one way to become better at generating self motivation.

In his most recent book, “Smarter, Faster, Better”, Charles Duhigg talks about one key element related to improving a person’s self motivation. The element is obtaining a sense of control.

The basic principle states that when a person doesn’t believe they have any choice and no control over their choices, then they are not likely to have self motivation. The story that drove home the point was a story about how the Marines started to change the way they trained soldiers going through bootcamp. Bootcamp is normally seen as a way to break down and rebuild a soldier, where everything is completed exactly how the drill sargent determines it to be done. To improve the training process, they began introducing choices and control into the training process. The choices were sometimes of minor importance. For example, one task assigned to the soldiers was to clean the kitchen. The soldiers were given no instructions. It seems like a very minor task, but soldiers had to decide whether they wanted to keep left overs or throw them out. They had to determine where items such as the ketchup was put away. These situations where soldiers were given the ability to make a choice and had control over what occurred started to change the way soldiers perceived themselves. These small examples grew into situations that were experienced out in various training exercises, where soldiers were deliberately given tasks that couldn’t be completed with the instructions they were given. This meant they needed to make choices of their own, controlling the outcomes.

This past year, I have thought a lot about self motivation. Specifically as it relates to my career and staying motivated. When I finished the Awesome Inc University bootcamp in November, the political landscape was changing. We had a new president which brought a lot of opinions on what the future would look like. As it was November, there were thoughts about the timing for hiring managers and why it would be January prior to companies being ready to hire. Then there was the desire to remain in the healthcare, public health and wellness market, where I already had developed myself as an expert.

What I found in conversations, was a gravitation to factors that I could not control. Here are a few quick examples:

Political: Trump is now president and is going to be repealing the Affordable Care Act, so healthcare companies are not going to take as many hiring risks in this unknown environment.

Timing: A hiring manager needs to wait until the beginning of the year prior to fully reviewing new applicants. They may also need to wait until there is more clarity on what impact Trump’s presidency will have on their business.

Location: There are very few healthcare related startups in Kentucky, especially when focused on Lexington. It may be wise to start thinking about other markets that would be more likely to be hiring than Lexington.

These conversations became quite disheartening and demotivating. As I listened to these stories and opinions long enough, it became easy to fall into a belief that I simply needed to succumb to the circumstances. Sometimes the advice would be to wait until “things got better”. As someone who prefers action, even if the action is the wrong decision, these opinions were depressing. On the days that I began to believe the storylines, I felt foolish for taking action when the suggested approach would be ‘wait for better days ahead’.

Upon reflection of this past year, in the context of Charles Duhigg’s information on self motivation, I can see how having a sense of choice and control is crucial for self motivation. The belief that your effort has some impact on the outcome is incredibly powerful.

So what should a person do in order to generate some sense of choice and control when it does not seem like there is any obvious opportunity? For this I take some inspiration from James Altucher, who shares something he calls his ‘Daily Practice’.  My interpretation of James’ daily practice routine is that every person has multiple aspects to our lives. We have our physical health, mental health, family relationships, social connectedness and career. The challenge we have is to do something each day to positively impact those areas. It would be ideal if a person could have an activity for each area, however when you are struggling to find motivation and inertia, find at least one activity that can be completed daily.

While I did not think about it previously, I have implemented elements of a daily practice over the past year, as I have searched to understand what direction my career takes me. Here are the two practices that I have found that provide me choices and a sense of control, which ultimately has allowed me to maintain an internal reserve of self motivation:

Running:

I have been very observant in 2017 to not get too caught up in following a strict training plan. In fact, the amount and type of training that I have completed over the past 9 months has not been optimized towards any end goal. That being true, I can still say without hesitation, it will be one of my most successful and rewarding years of running over the past decade. Each day I determine if I will run, what route I will run and for how long I would like to run. The only real goal I have with each effort is that I continue to maintain my health and fitness, along with ensuring I optimize my happiness by the time I stop running for the day.

Writing:

I enjoy writing. It is one thing that optimizes my happiness. It is also something I have utilized over the past 14 years to support my career ambitions. Since the very first HTML page I posted to ditschfitness.com, in 2003, I have worked at sharing ideas on health, fitness and performance through my writing. In terms of finding some choice and control, it is an activity that no one manages for me. I do not have an editor, an agent or a director of content. Each day I sit down and try to write something of value. There are days that I write 200 words that are simply mental notes. Then there are days that I am able to put down 2000 words that form the beginning of an article I want to share. On days that I am struggling to write, I either go for a run and find inspiration, or I start to edit something I wrote on a previous day. The value of the writing may be difficult to calculate in monetary terms, however it has been invaluable in terms of maintaining a sense of choice and control over my career.

Become an expert at generating self motivation:

When you do an honest self assessment that leads you to question your motivation to make a change, one of your first steps should be to find an activity that you can exert choice and control. The activity does not have to be something major, it can be something as small as the example from the Marine bootcamp, where soldiers got to choose where they put the ketchup when they cleaned the kitchen. Once you have a chosen activity, it is ideal if you can practice that sense of choice and control every single day. As Charles Duhigg shares in his book, generating self motivation is a skill that can be learned. Therefore, like anything worthwhile in life, if it provides you value and requires practice, my recommendation is to practice often.

Social support in your change process: Lessons from weddings, fires, divorce and alcohol

The process of making a behavior change is difficult in the best situations. When you put that desire and effort in an unsupportive environment, it can be nearly impossible. That is why seeking and finding the right kind of social support to empower you to make the changes you want can be one of the single biggest steps in your change process.

What does the right amount of social support look like? Here are a few characteristics I’ve pulled together regarding good and bad support. Let’s start with the negative:

Signals of negative support:

Inconsistent:  When you need to be held accountable, they need to follow through in a consistent and predictable manner.

Agenda driven: They have an interest in the outcome of the change. I find this commonly happens when a spouse or parent wants a family member to change, it’s a fine line between helpful and destructive.

Authoritative only: A person trying to make a positive change doesn’t need to have someone acting as the police or a parent, they need encouragement and mentorship.

Signals of positive support:

Empathetic. The person or community trying to provide the support doesn’t need to have gone through the same process, but being empathetic about the challenges is required.

Open and Candid. To provide quality support, it can sometimes require tough conversations. Good social support will always be willing to be candid about the situation, without being mean or hurtful.

Selfless. A  positive support system won’t bring their own interests into the process, they will seek out the best decisions and advice for the individual’s desire to change.

These may all sound like sensible traits of good social support, but they are also a little theoretical. I have been thinking through some of the individuals and types of social support I’ve witnessed over the past several weeks. In sharing these, I feel like it can help create a more concrete image of what these characteristics could look like in practice.

Weddings and Fires:

The past week I have been in Edgemont, South Dakota for my younger brother Matt’s Wedding. In a small town you get to witness the type of support that is not only helpful, but in some cases essential to survive. As we prepared for the wedding, it was impressive to see the number of individuals who would help with decorations, organization and other preparations. In my world, the most valuable asset someone could offer you is their time. When someone willingly gives their time up, in my opinion, it is one of the more selfless acts a person can do. It was evident that people were willing to step forward and share their time in order for the wedding and reception to be a success. My observation throughout the week was that the support was something that was consistent and common place.

The other example of the positive community support that I saw during the week was listening to Matt discuss the volunteer fire department. The one thing I completely forgot about, having not lived in this part of the country for a long time, is just how damaging a wildfire can be. Some of the fires a little further west in Montana and Wyoming have created so much smoke that it made it much darker and difficult to breathe at times. What is impressive is the organization of volunteers that pull together in Edgemont when fires get started in the local area. As I understand, when a fire is reported, a text message goes out to all the volunteers, who then stop their current work, head to the fire station and head out to fight the fire.

These two examples would be positive community support. What would it look like in your process of change? That might depend a little on what you need, but having a group of people surrounding you who you can rely on in a time of need is critical for success. I have spent my career trying to find ways to leverage the internet as a way to get people the support they need and finding that community online.

Divorce:

One would not think that finding good social support examples is easy in the process of divorce. However, I am pretty blessed to have two (actually more, but sharing two here). The first example is Joe, the therapist. It was and is surprising to me how helpful it was to have someone to talk to, that provided an unbiased and supportive voice throughout the process. The ability to lean into someone who doesn’t have a vested interest in the outcome was worth more than I could really price.

This brings up a valuable point.  Sometimes we can find the support we need in places that don’t have a price tag. However, there are times where we will need to search out places where we can pay for that support. It may be with a coach, mentor, advisor or therapist, but one thing that doesn’t change based on if the service is free or for a fee, are the characteristic of positive support you should look for. There are clearly bad coaches, mentors, advisors and therapists.

The second social support that I’ve found throughout the process is Nikki. It has been hard for me to explain to people the status of our relationship, because most people seem to expect me to harbor thoughts of hate, anger and bitterness towards her and vise versa. It is confusing to most when I share that we still talk to each other. We still care for each other’s happiness. And we want to see the other person succeed. In some ways it makes me a little sad that this is the expectation, because with the statistics around divorce in our country, this would imply a lot of anger and bitterness in our world.

Her support has been most evident to me, in the support I’ve had in the past year during my career change. It was probably not the ideal timing for a career change, however her ongoing support has been invaluable. There has been more than one occasion over this period that I’ve been incredibly stressed and received a few words of encouragement and support from her. I couldn’t imagine if I had to deal with the stress of a career change, along with anger and bitterness of our past marriage.

The lessons that I take away from all of this is that finding the right people to surround yourself with is essential. It may require that you pay for it, but that cost will almost always be worth it, if you find the right person. I also believe that if it’s the right person, they will be the right person in all situations. They will be consistent, predictable and without a personal agenda.

Alcohol:

In March of 2015, I decided that I wanted to stop drinking. The observation that I had was that I was using beer each night to deal with my stress. In most cases, it was a single beer as I sat down to watch some television. In a few cases, it would be drinking a little too much with friends. However, I recognized the pattern and did not want to trend further down the path. I made the commitment to quit a couple times, with no success between March and May. The challenges I faced were social situations where I would be out to dinner with friends and having a craft beer was a default behavior.

To find success, I enlisted the support of a friend that I knew would be honest, consistent and hold me accountable. I reached out to Jeff Buhr, shared my goal, and that I needed to tap into him for some accountability. After a little more discussion we had a plan on what that accountability looked like. That accountability plan was for six months, in which I didn’t have anything to drink. At the end of the six months, I found that the default behavior was to not drink in any situation.

What I learned from that experiment was that sometimes different people in your life can serve as support for specific changes you would like to make. In my case, I knew that for the specific goal of drinking zero alcohol for six months, Jeff was the right person.

When you want to change your behavior it can be a very challenging process. That is why surrounding yourself with the right people is critical. This can look different depending on your situation. It might require you to enlist someone new to take on a specific role, or it may include making a group of individuals aware of your desire to change. It could also mean finding the people in your life that are providing negative support and either removing them or shielding yourself from them so you have the space necessary to grow.


Here are some other posts in this series on successfully changing behavior to become happier and healthier: