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How to Make a Change that Lasts

Harvard Business Review

So another new year has dawned, you have things in your life you'd definitely like to change, but you know from long experience that traditional New Year's resolutions aren't going to get you very far. How to resolve this perpetual conundrum?

The answer lies in something we call Energy Rituals — highly specific behaviors or regimes that you do at the same time every day (or on the specific days you select). By setting a sacrosanct time for your routine, you don't have to spend energy thinking about when to get it done. Willpower is a highly finite and limited resource in each of us, so the goal is to use less of it wherever possible, by making more behaviors in our lives automatic.

It's also key to build an Energy Ritual that doesn't demand so much from you that you quickly find ways to avoid it, and eventually give up altogether.

Until recently, my younger daughter Emily, 27, who works at The Energy Project, was an inveterate and nearly lifelong couch potato. She claimed to hate exercise. During the summer, however, she began spending time with a neighbor who was a long-time runner. One day, the neighbor suggested they run together.

Horrified at the prospect, but reluctant to turn down her new friend, Emily embarked with her on a "walk-run" regime called Couch to 5k. It began incredibly gently. It helps to have something you're aiming to accomplish, rather than committing to a repetitive activity indefinitely.

Three days a week, at midday, they alternated one minute of running with 90 seconds of walking, for a total of 20 minutes. Even for Emily, that felt doable. By the third week, they were doing three minutes of running followed 90 seconds of walking. It's far easier to rationalize not meeting a commitment you've made to yourself than it is to let another person down.

The build was slow and incremental. Running still felt difficult and if she'd been expected to increase any faster, or do it more than three days a week, she's convinced she would have quit.

By the ninth week, Emily felt ready to run her first 5k race. The two of us did it together. She finished in 38 minutes and felt exhausted, but also exultant. Eight weeks later, she ran a second 5k on her own, and finished in 31 minutes.

Today, just 28 weeks since she began, Emily is running at least three miles a day, as many as 6 miles on designated days. She can run a mile in under nine minutes, compared to nearly 13 minutes a mile during her first race.

A month after starting her running routine, Emily also launched an Energy Ritual around eating. If she was feeling so much better from exercising, she asked herself, why not also eat better? Rather than trying to resist specific foods, she chose exactly what healthy foods she would eat, at what times, using an online program and iOS app called MyFitnessPal to track her food intake. In three months, she's lost 25 pounds. Working out pulls at her nearly as automatically as does brushing her teeth. Today, Emily feels so good when she does work out, and so much worse when she doesn't that she has a hard time taking a day off. That's the quintessential proof an Energy Ritual has taken hold.

If you find yourself falling off the wagon, or struggling mightily to stay on it, reduce the challenge, but stay the course. Any regimen will serve you well. Repetition, even in very small doses, builds capacity. Any positive change you can make will be hugely satisfying - and a source of inspiration to make the next one.

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