The tower of pisa (or: change is non-linear)

In my late teens, I remember being on a class trip to Italy, and one of our stops was, not surprisingly, the Leaning Tower of Pisa. Climbing 290 some stairs to the top seemed conceivable. Remarkable was that, due its ~ 4 degree angle, we would, at every floor, find ourselves descending some before we would head back up to reach the top (not to mention the queasy feelings in some people’s stomachs…).

Why do I bring this up in the context of change? Most of us have aspects of our life that we seek to change, be it health habits, our work-home balance, our ability to say ‘no’ or the focus of our career. Similar to the climb of the Tower of Pisa, change is often not linear, not as straightforward as climbing up a ladder[1]. The process of change commonly involves making progress and experiencing relapse. Just sample statistics: 62 percent of New Year’s resolutions experience a setback a week after[2].

Change is tough. As long as we are aware that relapse is frequently part of the change process, that most successful change involves several setbacks, we can perceive these as a juncture for further soul search and personal growth. This is the opportunity to renew our commitment to stay the course.  Characteristics of successful change are:

  • Recognize where I am with respect to change

Am I aware a problem exists, do I ponder making adjustments, am I getting ready to change within the next month, have I taken action and started to modify behaviour, or have I reached my goal but the change in behaviour is not yet an integral, natural part of my life?

  • Know how to match coping mechanisms with my change stage

Here is the good news: there is a vast number of strategies to support my efforts to change. Some examples include: listing pros and cons, visualizing the outcome of change, trying out new behavior in a safe space, going public, getting a ‘buddy’, substituting healthy behavior for problem behavior, offering yourself a reward, savoring your success or renewing your commitment. Important to know is when and how frequently to apply these strategies. Some coping mechanisms are more powerful in the early stages of change, while others support later change phases more effectively.

  • Take it step-by-step

It is crucial to envision the ‘big picture’, my goal and where I want to be at the end of this journey. But to get there, I will need to empower myself to take this one step at a time. Using this approach is particularly helpful in the case of relapse. ‘Not all is lost’: I simply need to add a few extra steps to materialize my desired outcome. Further, integrating attainable interim goals on my path will result in tasting the sensation of success, motivating me along the way.

  • Get support

Studies have shown: while successful, sustainable change can only originate from within, self-change does not imply going it alone. Successful self-changers have solicited the help of others: they use supportive relationships, be it family, friends, self-help support groups or an alliance with a professional coach. These relationships, if helpful, are characterized by being open about my problem and by being caring and empathetic, encouraging me to move forward. My ‘helpers’ offer constructive feedback , hold me accountable for my actions and continue their support as long as I need it, pledging sustainable change.

[1]Read more in James O. Prochaska, John C. Norcross, Carlo DiClemente, ‘Changing for Good’, HarperCollins, 2006

[2] Source: Loyola University, Chicago, Illinois, 1995