During January and February, it was tough to speed through a workout at the gym. I had to wait my turn to use the equipment behind an annoyingly long line. But now it’s March, and the fitness centers of America are back to their normal barrenness. What is it about resolutions that make them so difficult to keep?
For adult educators, this is more than an academic question. Learning primarily is aimed at helping people learn and grow in order to change their level of skill or capability. Follow-through is at the center of the bull’s-eye for a CLO. But why is sustained follow-through in such significant demand and such short supply?
In a Newsweek special edition, Wray Herbert said, “The fact is it’s really hard to keep the promises we make to ourselves, including New Year’s resolutions. Not only will the January joggers soon be drifting back to their couches, others will be restocking their liquor cabinets, tossing their nicotine patches and bingeing on Chunky Monkey — in short, giving up on all those optimistic visions of healthy living.” It’s just as hard to sustain implementation of a new business process improvement approach as it is to create buns of steel.
We’ve been told to suck it up and develop willpower. But the idea that self-discipline is the key to change is not only unhelpful, it has no basis in scientific fact. Science supports a different conclusion. The key seems to reside in neurons in the prefrontal cortex of the brain that are responsible for the higher-order cognitive skills that neurologists call “executive functioning.” Executive functioning is the set of abilities that allow you to select behavior appropriate to the situation, inhibit inappropriate behavior and focus on the job at hand in spite of distractions.
Psychologist Peter Hall of the University of Waterloo in Ontario, Canada, is testing the relationship between executive functioning and resolution. As it turns out, neither willpower nor intelligence has much influence on one’s ability to translate intention to action. Follow-through requires self-regulation — the specific ability to delay gratification and do things, even when uncomfortable, that are strongly correlated with important outcomes.
On the surface, this sounds like self-discipline, but in practice it’s significantly different. It resides below the level of consciousness. Dutch researchers have found the same explanation for susceptibility to addictive behaviors such as gambling or substance abuse. The underlying structure and function of neuron activity associated with addictive behavior appears identical to the neurology behind our lapses.
Results from Harvard University and other research centers demonstrate that new neural pathways required for sustained behavior change can be established and strongly reinforced through repeated attention to constructive stories. The influence of the story occurs at the subliminal level. When it is coupled with logic and emotion, and when it connects with deeply held values, the impact can be profound.
Growing up in New Mexico, I was strongly influenced by American Indian culture. Outsiders think the chief was the most powerful person in a tribe, but the most influential person was the storyteller. The storyteller, often a woman, was the verbal source of wisdom, history, literature, knowledge, moral instruction and learning. Through her, a vision regarding what was required to thrive emerged and was indelibly etched in the collective mind of the tribe. She moved people from interest to action through the power of story.
For all our sophistication as corporate tribes, we have lost the key to sustained positive action. When a company is blessed with leaders who express compelling stories about things that matter — grounded in fact and reason, tied to values that are widely embraced, constructed with logic and expressed in positive, emotionally passionate terms — people not only listen, but are moved to action. When learners harness the power of story, they make lasting change.
But please don’t mention this to the guy on the abdominal machine. Instead, offer him some Chunky Monkey to get him out of there.