It's been a widespread belief for a long time now that in order to change your life, you have to take it day by day, one step at a time. It makes sense, since overhauling your entire self typically requires several changes. If you fail at one, you still have the others.
Well, forget everything you've heard. A team of researchers at the University of California, Santa Barbara (UCSB) recently released a paper that says people are capable of making multiple changes at once -- meaning you can handle more than you think.
Go big or go home
In the study, college students underwent a lifestyle change program for six weeks, with one group spending five hours per day on self-improvement, and the other in a wait-list control group. The five hours consisted of two and a half hours of exercise, one hour of mindfulness, and one and a half hours of lectures or discussion on nutrition, well-being, relationships, and similar topics. Fun stuff! The active group was also encouraged to limit drinking and get plenty of sleep.
The outcome? Changes galore.
Now, it's easy to look at that program and think, "DUH, of course they were healthier," but Michael Mrazek, director of research at UCSB's Center for Mindfulness & Human Potential and lead author of the paper, explains that the changes subjects underwent were widespread and didn't just affect their health.
"We found parallel improvements in more than a dozen different outcomes that truly matter in our lives -- strength, endurance, flexibility, focus, reading ability, working memory, mood, stress, self-esteem, and happiness," he says. "Part of what distinguishes this work is finding such broad improvements across so many different domains, particularly given that the effect sizes were so large. Large effect sizes signify that the results were not only statistically significant but also indicative of substantial changes. Many of these effects were very large -- larger than you tend to find in studies that focus on changing only one thing."
You're way better at life than you think you are
Dr. Mrazek notes that past studies showed that exercise, sleep, and mindfulness could have widespread effects in multiple areas of our lives. By focusing on improving all of those areas at once, his team found that for greater change, your goals should be aligned -- like learning a new hobby and getting more sleep so you can have energy in the evening to work on it -- though improving one area of your life will bleed into other areas, as well.
"The greater the alignment between two goals, the more they will support one another; yet there's nothing wrong with pursuing two skillful goals that are only loosely related," Mrazek explains. "The trouble begins when we hold conflicting goals: if you want to binge the new season of House of Cards and you also want to use your weekend to put your body and mind in a great state for the upcoming week, you're in trouble." In other words, don't plan on giving up drinking while also vowing to spend more time in sports bars late at night.
You may actually have an unlimited supply of willpower
But if this is true -- if people can in fact make multiple changes at once -- what's holding them back? Mrazek believes it is everyone's own struggles.
"Everyone has struggled in one way or another to make a change in their life, so it seems like simple logic that making even more than one change must be too hard," he says. "It was also consistent with the increasingly out-of-favor theory that willpower is a limited resource. Years of research into 'ego depletion' suggested that exerting effort on one thing left you with less to accomplish the next, which gave people reason to claim you should focus on just one thing at a time."
Of course, you do still have to take things day by day (how could you do it any other way?), but you can focus on more tasks that get you to your end goals on each of those days.
This isn't just about losing weight or living a little healthier, though. This emerging research could have implications in education, for example, where change and personal growth are a part of the learning process. Adding physical activity and focusing on seemingly non-academic subjects, such as nutrition and well-being, could encourage many of those same improvements researchers found in the study.
Anyone who's been around kids knows that focus and self-esteem can be problem areas, to say the least. For children in school for eight hours a day, or college students actually living on campus, this could be huge. In the workplace, where people work 9-to-5, lunchtime seminars and a workplace fitness challenge could possibly yield similar results.
So next time you are setting goals, see which ones align and give this study a try for yourself. Fixing everything immediately could actually be your key to happiness.
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