Diane Gottlieb writes open-hearted stories about people in pain who choose to grow.

Do You Believe You Can Change?

<![CDATA[Do you believe you can change? Really believe you can change?
Do you want to? Really want to?

These are critical questions, and the answers hold the key to why we so often self-sabotage and to why we don’t keep our resolutions, whether we’ve made them at the New Year or at any other time.

Last week we looked at habits, at the feedback loops, at cues, routines, rewards … and we looked at cravings. (If you missed it: New Years Resolutions Anyone?) We learned how to realign our triggers with rewards—implement new thoughts or actions—that address the underlying need driving the habit we wish to break.

This can be a real struggle! And without a change in mindset, it takes a great deal of willpower. We’ve all been there before and have discovered more times than not this bold statement: Willpower Doesn’t Work. (It’s also the title of Benjamin Hardy’s new book!)

The Trouble with Willpower—It Doesn’t Work!

Willpower is like a muscle. You can definitely build the muscle and make it stronger, but like any other muscle, when overused, it will get tired, need to take a break and rest. Here’s where the danger lies. When you call upon willpower throughout the day, you will get tired too.

Tired Willpower Muscle + Tired You = Recipe for Disaster!

So … how do we get around this willpower exhaustion cycle?

FIRST STEP: Design Your environment to avoid having to use willpower.

Here’s a simple example of environmental design: If you want to cut down on sweets, like I do, don’t keep them in the house!

You will also need environmental contingency plans.

Another simple example: If Stop and Shop has Ben and Jerry’s on sale this week (does anyone else love Chunky Monkey?), shop at Key Food instead!

Better yet … Wherever you shop, don’t even go down that ice-cream aisle, cookie aisle, or whichever aisle that tempts you. Why put yourself in a position where you will have to exercise your willpower muscle?

And NEVER NEVER NEVER go food shopping when you’re hungry!

We Are All Shaped by Our Environments. So, Too, Are Our Potentials.

Hardy cites some disturbing research by Harvard economists Dr. Raj Chetty and Dr. Nathaniel Hendron. In their Equality of Opportunity Project, Cherry and Hendron found that people’s socioeconomic life trajectories are heavily influenced by the county in which they were born. Zip codes, therefore, can determine much more than at which post office our mail arrives. (For more information about income opportunity, mobility, and race in relation to place—environment—see http://www.equality-of-opportunity.org/data/).

We Are What We Are Exposed To.

We can all think of turning points in our lives where new environments led to new experiences that expanded us and helped us to grow. Going away to college is one such life-changing experience for many young people. Joining a new workplace or organization can be another. Exposure to new ideas in an article or book can sometimes be life-changing as well.

While each one of us is shaped by our environments, Hardy claims that, as adults, we each have great power to create our environments. It’s a two-way street. So why not create our environments to best support the new habits we are trying to create?

SECOND STEP: Behavior Creates Identity

Psychologists used to believe that people needed to change their feelings/emotions/beliefs before changes in behavior could occur. Popular psychology fed us that line too—remember all the self-help books about changing our attitudes, about the power of positive thinking?

The experts actually had it backwards.

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Positive thinking is always good, but the most effective way to change our thinking (positive or otherwise) is to change our behavior. And when we change our behavior, shifts in our identities occur too.

We All Play Roles in Our Lives. What Are Your Roles?

Here are the five roles that I most identify with:
• Writer
• Teacher
• Wife
• Mother
• Friend

Writer is the first one on the list.
This actually surprised me. I am not sure that two years ago “writer” would have even made it onto the list!
How did it become top dog?

I changed my behavior!

This takes us back to the very first question I asked—the title of this blog.

Do You Believe You Can Change?

I had, for many years, wanted to be a writer, wanted it bad, but didn’t believe it was possible for me. And then … about two years ago, right after the Presidential election, I changed my behavior and that changed my belief.

I acted “as if.”

I didn’t just want it bad, I acted as if I already was a writer. I told myself that writers need to hone their craft, and for me that meant going back to school to get my MFA. This decision to make an investment in myself sealed the deal. The moment I downloaded the application to Antioch Los Angeles is the moment that I “became” a writer. I have been growing into that role ever since.

The Point of No Return

Hardy calls this investment in the self the “point of no return.” It occurs when you fully engage with a role and change your identity to include that role, when you cross that threshold and never look back.

The idea of committing 100% may seem scary at first, but it is actually incredibly freeing. At 100% commitment, alternatives no longer exist. Willpower is no longer necessary. It actually becomes irrelevant, Hardy claims, because you’ve eliminated your internal conflict regarding that role. We no longer “believe” we can change. We know it. The change has already occurred.

It’s a Mindset.

Let’s take a look at the negative roles we carry. Here’s one of mine. In high school, I struggled with math. I still sometimes catch myself saying that I “can’t do” math (or science). In those areas, I have what is known as a fixed mindset. I believe that I cannot change.

We often have fixed mindsets regarding certain roles or abilities. These are often the roles with which we have had “bad” experiences and have looked upon those experiences as failures instead of learning opportunities.

In order to change my belief system, I would have to shift my thinking to what is called a growth mindset. And making that shift requires a behavior change.

We have the greatest chance for success at transforming our fixed mindsets into growth mindsets when we look to small goals or small changes for help. In making these transformations, James Clear’s book Atomic Habits is invaluable. Clear believes in the great power of what he calls “atomic” level changes, the tiny little shifts that compound, thus resulting, over time, in dramatic change.

If I really wanted “to do” math or science, for example, I would have to start small, maybe follow Clear’s Two-Minute Rule—pick up a math text book for two minutes at a time and see tiny areas of growth and learning, then gradually extend the minutes, “adding” on to my knowledge. At some point, I would have a “breakthrough”; I would understand a new mathematical concept (new to me, at least).

That breakthrough would change my mindset. I could then decide if I wanted to incorporate “math person” into my identity. If I did, I would have to invest—time and maybe money (for teachers, mentors)—until I reached that point of no return.

Is Your Head Spinning Right About Now? Mine Is, So Here’s a Recap:

• Environment and identity are closely tied. If we want to adopt a new habit or role, we need to design our environment to support that new habit or role.

• Designing our environment involves both subtraction and addition.

o We need to remove obstacles or temptations and make contingency plans for when we may face obstacles regardless of our efforts (Shop at Key Food when B&J is on sale at Stop and Shop—or avoid the ice-cream aisle altogether!)

o We also need to enrich our environments so that they challenge us in novel ways. (For example, go back to school, find a mentor, learn a new skill from YouTube videos.)

• It is important to surround ourselves with people who will support us and avoid those who will keep us down.

Remember, Behavior Creates the Change We Desire.

We must act as the person we want to become—act as if the positive habit is already ours, and speak from that place.

Clear writes about the change on the identity level—a move away from goals towards identity. Clear presents this example to illustrate: Shift from the goal of wanting to run a marathon to the identity of becoming “a runner.” A focus on identity is much more effective than a goal-focus. If you maintain a goal focus, once you’ve completed the marathon, what have you left to do? If your focus is on your identity as a runner, however, you will have many more races ahead of you.

Clear believes that “identity is the result of behavior,” and he speaks of a simple two-step process:

• First, decide who you want to be (not what you want to do).
• Then, prove it to yourself with small victories. Baby steps add up!

THIRD STEP: Go Public!

Accountability. Accountability. Accountability. Nothing keeps you on track like accountability!
You may be the person who can hold herself to the standards she sets, can track her own progress, do it alone. But if you are, you are in the minority! Most of us need someone to answer to, or at least to cheer us on along the way.

When you decide—fully decide—to make a change, you can dramatically increase your chances of success if you share your decision with someone else or with many people. In other words, “Go public!”

Each of the four authors I cited this week and last mention the value of drawing up a contract. They suggest writing down the change you wish to implement, including the steps you will take to get there, along with a specific date or time frame when you expect the change to occur. Get yourself a witness and then sign! Place the contract where you can see it, and if you really want to get serious, stipulate some consequences for not keeping up with your end of the bargain!

I promised last week that I would go public with three of my own new habits/resolutions. Part of my accountability process will be to give you periodic updates.

If I “forget,”please shoot me an email—hold me accountable! Thanks in advance for your support!

Here goes (it helps to keep identity shifts/resolutions in the present tense):
1. I am sweets and alcohol-free on weekdays. (This does not give me permission to go cra-cra on the weekends!)
2. I do not look at my phone (texts or emails) for at least two hours after I wake up and one hour before I go to sleep.
3. I have a book proposal ready to role and to query agents with by May 1, 2019.

I think I have just officially passed the point of no return!

I would LOVE to return the favor!!! Please let me know what changes you are committing to, and how you will be designing your environment to support your intentions! If you’d like to use my email or the comment section of WomanPause to Go Public, more power to you! We’re all in this together!

Have a wonderful, transformative week!

See you next Friday!


Diane Gottlieb]]>


  1. Sarita K Sid on January 22, 2019 at 12:34 am

    Thank you for this second installment, Diane. I might have been late reading it because I still had chocolates to finish… 😉
    I definitely have a sugar addiction & I’ve learned over the years that it’s easier to avoid when it’s not in the house. I tell people it could be worse- it could be a cocaine addiction. Thinking these are the only two choices helps me when I’ve eaten several servings of chocolate/cookies/cake, etc..
    But seriously, focusing on identity rather than will power and goals is a new idea for me; one which is very appealing. When I started the MFA program I wasn’t sure at all that I was doing the right thing, but I came to the conclusion that I was worth investing in, so I took that leap. I recently wrote “writer’ in the occupation field on a medical form, & I was a little surprised at myself. And also pleased. Now that I’ve graduated, & don’t have deadlines, it’s been difficult to make myself sit down & write. The idea of sitting down & writing every day- which is the prevailing wisdom on what writers must do- feels punitive. I have to figure out a schedule that will help me to be productive, but will not feel onerous.
    Thank you Diane for being such a prolific writer. You inspire me. You are a part of my writerly environment.

    • Diane Gottlieb on January 23, 2019 at 1:03 am

      I LOVE that you wrote “writer” on your medical form, Sarita! Naming ourselves as what we aspire to helps us to realize that we are already there! I also LOVE the two choices you allowed yourself–you def picked the right one!!!
      So … as for deadlines … if you decide that you want to give yourself certain deadlines and need an accountability partner–or partners–I would be happy to help you out! I will be using the blog to report my own journey with sweets and alcohol-free weekdays and with limiting my connection to my iPhone. I would love for you to share your updates as well!

  2. Nicky on January 12, 2019 at 2:51 pm

    So much good information in this issue!
    And your goals are inspiring me. I have been wondering how to cut back on sugar after the holiday binge and weekdays seems doable. I know that once I get the craving under control, it isn’t as difficult so this might just work.
    Thanks for the idea about focusing not on goals but on identity.

    • Diane Gottlieb on January 12, 2019 at 4:28 pm

      Thanks, Nicky, for sharing your desire to cut back on the sugar. I would love to hear updates–what worked and how!

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