The Unintended Consequences of Personal Change

Coming up on the final day of 2012, many of us are about to embark on some kind of change. It’s about that time to start writing New Year’s resolutions. The promises we make to ourselves. And to our loved ones. That we will accomplish something great. The promise that we are going to grow. The promise that we are going to change for the better.

This is the year. This is my year.

Early last year, I wrote a post called From Goals to Dreams that documented that we really only make January resolutions. Because 99% of us lose steam on February 1st. We can’t seem to sustain what we were so gung-ho about, just 31 days prior. Our once grand resolutions falling into the ever growing scrap-heap of things we wanted to do, but never did.

This failure is the kind of thing that keeps people stagnant. Keeps people in their personal prisons. For too long.

I’ve known that I abandoned resolutions for quite some time. I just never knew why. I’m pretty sure I just figured it out. And I think this can help me, and you, move forward. To grow. Which is what resolutions should be about. You growing.

I am calling this theory the unintended consequences of personal change.

Quitting smoking or drinking, cutting-out sugar or caffeine, is not easy. Not at any time. And you need much more than my words of encouragement to help with that.

But breaking-physical-addiction aside, any ‘big’ New Year’s change all by itself, is not so big at all. These are not that difficult to do in isolation. Think about it. You want to work out more. You want to volunteer more of your time to a good cause. You want to start dating more. It takes a bit of discipline. It takes some planning. Some scheduling. And poof. You have changed. Congratulations. You did it.

But you didn’t do it. A few weeks later, you go back to what you normally do. The same old behavior. It’s not necessarily bad behavior. But even if it’s not bad, it is. That’s the same behavior that drove you to want to make that change in the first place. And now you are back at it.

Why? Why do we reject positive change and slip back to the same habits leading us to misery? Especially when the change is good for us. And fairly easy to do.

The reason is that there are consequences to change. The positive consequences are what we see when we declare to make the change. The negative impact is unseen, most times, until after we attempt to make that change. And those negative impacts weigh on us, until we finally give in.

If I want to eat healthily every meal, I’m going to have to stop going to lunch with the guys from work. The the types of restaurants we go to, the kinds of foods I select there, the amount of bread I consume alone at these places, is enough to cause my healthy year to go down. So, OK, I’m not going to go to lunch with the guys from work. Simple, right? I’m going to bring my own lunch. And I’ll eat healthy. And be healthy. And all will be good, right?

So now my friendships with the guys at work wane a bit. I’m not spending as much social time with them. I feel a bit left out. My communication at work overall suffers. Because at lunch we also talk some work. That actually affects my performance at the office. So now, I’m battling these physical cravings for this food, and on top of that, it’s causing me additional real problems in my life. I barely have the strength to change my diet. And when these side effects surface, I can’t take it. Out for pizza the next day.

If I think about this change properly, ahead of time, what could I do differently to not let these consequences happen regularly? Convince these guys to all bring lunch on given days. Find healthy lunch spot alternatives. Spend more time with them outside of work. Spend more time with them during the work days.

You have to extrapolate out, on any change in your behavior. What else is going to happen because of this change? You want to work out every morning? That’s fantastic. A great way to start your day. Great for physical health. Great for mental health. But that is going to cut into your nights out with friends or a significant other. How are you going to spend time with your friends? How are you actually going to have that same fun? That also may make you late for work on given days. It’s also going to cut into your sleep hours. How do you plan on dealing with that?

As you can plainly see from these solutions, this is not rocket science. This is just wholly thinking about consequences, before you make decisions. So that you have a chance for successful change.

And don’t try to do 10 things. That will be 10 things you didn’t accomplish. That’s 10x depressing. As a matter of fact, don’t try to do anything. Just do one thing. Master one simple thing this year. Think wholly about what you are about to do and the subsequent consequences, both intended and not. Find solutions to how you are going to offset any future negative impact. And be flexible and aware. More consequences will pop up as you go. Unintended ones that you couldn’t possibly know about. Be ready for them.

Then do it. Make this the year you grew.

Happy New Year.