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Make Way for Change

Walnut Creek's M.J. Ryan talks about her new book.


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As we head into the New Year, each of us at least toys with the idea of making a new start. Local author and life coach M.J. Ryan, best known as the cocreator of the Random Acts of Kindness series, has a new book on just that. In This Year I Will… How to Finally Change a Habit, Keep a Resolution or Make a Dream Come True, she talks about the desirability of change—as well as what prevents us from following through with it. Diablo asked her for ideas about how to make 2007 the start of something big.

In your new book, you say that many New Year’s resolutions are doomed to failure. Could you explain?
About 45 percent of us make New Year’s resolutions, but only 8 percent succeed. Those aren’t good odds.

Why don’t more succeed?
Doing things a new way takes work. Scientists say that 90 percent of our daily lives is spent in routine. That’s a good thing; we don’t have to think about how to brush our teeth or drive a car. We do something enough that the pathways in our brains can repeat the sequence without our “thinking” about it.

But that same phenomenon impedes change?
A habit is also a bad thing. Habits of negative thinking. Or self-destructive behavior. Or patterns of inertia. They’re automatic, too. So now we’re living in a shoddy prison of our own making.

When do you feel imprisoned by habit?
When I find myself in front of the open refrigerator with a Coke in my hand. How did I get here? Even though I vowed to stop drinking Coca-Cola last January 1, here I am. The tendency to keep doing what we already have done is very strong, because the neurons in our brains that fire together, wire together—meaning that they tend to run the same sequence the next time, whether we want [them] to or not.

So is change possible?
Of course, but it takes energy, determination, and lots of practice to create new pathways in our brains. Three to six months, many brain scientists say—so much for seven-day wonder programs. That’s why changing our behavior requires starting over again and again when we blow it.

It’s [been] a year since my no-Coke resolution, and I’ve done pretty well. Notice I said “pretty well.” I’ve probably drunk a dozen cans, which is way better than the 300 or more I would otherwise have had. But I wouldn’t have done as well if I had thought, when I drank the first one, “I’ve blown it, so I might as well give up.”

Have you been able to apply the same kind of approach to other areas of your life?
Exercise. I vowed to do it daily—walking around Lafayette Reservoir, swimming in my pool, or pounding it out on the treadmill at Walnut Creek Sports and Fitness. How have I done? I’m probably averaging 76 percent. I didn’t do it yesterday, but that doesn’t mean I’ll give up on doing it today. When we don’t expect perfection, we can pick ourselves up and try again, no matter how many times it takes—and ultimately get more of what we want.

But can all of this apply to the big issues, like career and relationships?
Absolutely. You just need a specific goal and a willingness to keep adapting to meet your goal. I’ve read recently that we shouldn’t make New Year’s resolutions. I disagree. They’re a great way to focus on what we want to improve in ourselves. A vow is a powerful motivator if we take it seriously. Armed with a promise to ourselves and a willingness to keep at it no matter what, we can create more of what we want. When we do, we become the masters of our fates rather than the victims of old choices. And that, to my mind anyway, is the definition of a Happy New Year.

M.J. Ryan will be signing her new book, which is being published by Broadway Books, throughout the Bay Area this month. For more information, go to http://www.mj-ryan.com

 

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