My Grown-Up Sticker Chart
In life, we often are drawn to work with others on things we need to develop in ourselves, too. So it’s no surprise that one of the reasons I began my journey to become a coach is because I knew I wanted to create positive changes not just for other people, but for myself as well.
You can’t be a good coach – or a good anything, in my opinion – unless you’re doing the work yourself, too. So I'm taking all the research I’m doing on creating positive change and forward movement, and working on putting it into practice for myself. I’m my own guinea pig – kind of like the sci-fi movies in which the doctors and scientists try the experiment on themselves. OK, maybe that's not the best example (that usually doesn't end so well!) ... but how else can I understand the change process for others, if I’m not working on my own changes?
In so much of what I'm reading, two concepts keep coming up as being the cornerstones of positive change: habits and focus – in other words, what we do, and how we think. Of course, these are intricately intertwined, like a DNA double helix. We are our habits. We are what we focus on. And we have gradually, throughout our lives, created patterns and systems within us and around us that reinforce what we do and think – many times (if not most of the time), without even realizing it.
We often start to become aware of our patterns and systems when we decide we want to make a change. We know in our minds and our hearts that we want to create something different, and we know it will be a positive result. But we resist starting, or we make false starts that don’t stick. And then it’s very easy to get down on ourselves and feel defeated. We know we're stuck in a pattern that isn't working for us. We know we want to make that change. We know it would be good for us. So why can’t we just get started, and do it?
What if that resistance to starting, and/or that inability to keep at it, were not a personality flaw, but merely a lack of an appropriate system? And what if, instead of focusing on huge change and the big end result, we took a different approach – a “kaizen,” mini-habit approach?
I’m someone who can easily get overwhelmed by the magnitude of a task. And if there’s no set deadline, it’s even worse. Nature may abhor a vacuum, but all my off-topic activities seem to love one! They rush in and fill up my time, and I’m left wondering at the end of the day, “Why didn’t I work on what I really wanted to create today?”
I want to create a new blog for my coaching business. I want to purge my five-bedroom home in advance of a future (yet-to-be-determined) moving date. I want to build more regular exercise into my life. And ... yada, yada, yada. Great ideas, right? These are the goals and actions that will help create the future I want. So, when and how will they happen? Well, if I don’t ever take the first step, the answer is: “Never.” And if I do manage to take the first step, but get tired or bored or distracted or frustrated along the way? Same result ... with the same emotional fall-out, too.
According to my extensive "habit" research (can you say "productive procrastination" five times, really fast?), what I need is a system. And in order to work, that system must be easy and effortless, have a very low-threshold entry point, and reward consistent, persistent small efforts – tiny, manageable daily tasks that add up to big long-term goals.
Enter ... my grown-up sticker chart! I bought an inexpensive “year-at-a-glance” wall calendar and some little neon circle stickers. I’m a very visual person, and figured the calendar and colorful stickers would be a fun, effective and motivating way to keep me on track.
With my sticker chart as my new guide, I decided on five new mini-habits. And rather than create an “output” kind of goal – for example, write one paragraph every day, do one sun salutation a day, or throw out/give away one un-needed household object every day – I decided to focus on time spent on the project. For me, I started with 15-minute segments. I use my phone to set the timer for 15 minutes; I press it and work on that task till I hear the beep.
The last time I had a sticker chart in my house was when my now young-adult kids were little. Did it work for them at the time? I honestly don’t remember! Will this work for me? Well, I wrote this blog post, so you tell me!
Some lessons I'm learning along the way:
1. First and foremost – it works! (At least on some habits – see below...) You should see what I've cleared out of my house and thrown away or donated in just one week.
2. Very often, I work past the buzzer. I've tricked myself into starting because of the low threshold, but then I get caught up in the project and continue. Although I realize that if I set myself up for that expectation, I may be less likely to start, so I need to be careful with that.
3. It hasn't worked on some habits – which is also a valuable opportunity for learning, reflecting, and improving.
For one thing, I realize that I set the bar too ambitiously. To be in true “mini-habit” mode, I probably should have started with fewer habits, and set five minutes – or perhaps even one minute – as my goal. The proof in that pudding is that I put off one of my mini-habit goals for five days, and didn’t even touch it, and was inconsistent with some other ones as well.
But I've also learned that looking at all the days without that purple sticker turned out to a strong motivator. "Really, Ruth? You can't take 15 minutes to sit down and write? Yes, you can."
And so I did. As a result, I got my purple sticker – and this post!
So I’ve started on my personal path to a thriving coaching blog, a much clearer house, a regular exercise regimen, and a few other goals. Will I continue? That is the key question! The system is in place, and it provides its own measure of accountability – I see the colorful dots every day. I also have accountability from publishing this, and stating my goal publicly. These are strong and helpful supports. Another crucial support is the coaching process, with its focus on creating options, taking action, and reporting back; I will be checking back in with my own coach on my progress as I go along. This is how you create movement, momentum and, ultimately, positive change.
What systems can you create to help you achieve your goals? And how will you make sure to keep them going?
Ruth Kunstadter, MA, BCC works with career changers and other individuals who want to connect to their purpose and potential, and to create more self-care, balance, and fulfillment in their personal and professional lives. Find out more about creating your best "what's next" at www.newpathwayscoaching.com or by emailing Ruth at NewPathwaysCoach@gmail.com.