Using a Force Field to Change Yourself

The season of trying to change ourselves is rapidly approaching.

Changing yourself can seem hard.

Sometimes everything about changing yourself can seem hard. First, you have to recognize that you need to change. Then you have to commit to changing. Only then can you figure out what you need to change to. And then you have to recognize that you’re not changing.

And, all the while, people around you, people who have come to rely on you being one way, are pushing back against the change.

Changing Your Son is Hard

Changing yourself is hard when you’re a teenager. You have to recognize that the habits that you developed while living at home – such as relying on your parents to push you to get your homework done, or to give you money for things that you want – are not habits that will help you succeed at college or in the real world. You have to make up your mind to change your reliance on those habits. You have to figure out what behaving differently looks like (developing executive function skills or getting a job). You have to develop the skills to behave differently, and try things and fail and try again. And you have to catch yourself not using your new study skills or hinting around to mom that you really miss the cool snacks at home.

And all the while, your parents are missing you and finding reasons to insert themselves into your life because they don’t like to see you suffer or fail, so they send you care packages and call you way too often. When you come home for Thanksgiving, they find out you have a paper due Monday, read all over the internet about fairy tales, and sit you down in their study and write the paper for you because otherwise they know you’ll never get it done. And then they wonder why you still act like an entitled child and don’t develop good study habits. And complain that relatives without children just don’t understand the burden of being a parent, a burden they will, at this rate, carry with them for the rest of their lives.

Changing Yourself is Hard at Work

You can see what needs to change. You want to change it. You have an idea to change it. You can describe that idea and do, until people are tired of hearing about it. You see the promised land before you. You work to build the skills necessary to lead that change.

And still you catch yourself falling back into old habits. People come to you with the old problems that you used to take off their hands, and you automatically reach out – only afterwards realizing that they wanted to hand the problem to you and you reached out and took it from them. And you own reaching out. It’s hard not to reach out.

And all the while, people continue to try to define your role in ways that serve them. I need you to insert yourself in this process because I don’t trust the other person. Can you take this crying baby of a situation and calm it down? Can you hold that other guy accountable? (It’s always the other guy that needs to be held accountable, never the person asking.)

Force Field Analysis

Kurt Lewin’s Force Field Analysis theory describes driving forces (I want to change!) and restraining forces (old habits, fear of change, lack of skill, people wanting you to take their crying baby off their hands).

Understanding Lewin’s force field analysis can help you think about changing yourself differently. In the middle of a whiteboard or a blank sheet of paper, write the change you want to make. On the left side of the whiteboard, draw a series of arrows pointing towards the change. These arrows represent each of the driving forces pushing you to make this change. Draw short arrows for reasons that are less compelling, and longer arrows for things that are more compelling.

Now repeat this on the right side of the board for all the restraining forces pushing against this change.

Are there more arrows on the right side of the board than the left? Or are your restraining force arrows longer than your driving force arrows? Then you need to figure out some arrows to add to the left side of the board or figure out how to make your driving force arrows longer, have them carry more weight.

What does this look like?

Getting Out of Bed

Let’s take a very simple example. You wake up, you know you need to get out of bed.

In this example, you can see that there are only two things driving you to get out of bed: an obligation not to be late to work; and a vaguely guilty feeling that people who oversleep are “lazy slobs” probably instilled by a parent but not really owned by you.

On the other hand, there are several forces pushing back against getting out of bed. On a cold morning, your bed is so warm and comfortable. The cat sleeps on your chest and she’s so cuddly and you don’t want to disturb her because she will rip your hand off. When your alarm goes off, you’re still very sleepy (although you know if you got up, that would dissipate). And you have that meeting – you know, that meeting – and you are dreading it.

Adding More Driving Forces

To get out of bed, you need to add more driving arrows. Clearly your parents’ admonitions about being a lazy slob isn’t working, although it might work if you were still living with them, and they were standing in front of you, screaming it at you.

Let’s look for some positive drivers that will get you out of bed every day. One might be signing up for an early morning class in something you enjoy, like Yoga. Or making a breakfast appointment with a friend you enjoy seeing – or even just buy one of those sinfully delicious donuts to eat for breakfast. You could go to bed earlier so you don’t feel so sleepy when the alarm goes off. You could drink a big glass of water before going to bed – the need to pee will act as a strong driver for you. You could enlist your cat’s help by feeding them less at night and then as soon as you get up – a hungry cat is a strong driver to getting out of bed.

And you could confront your dread of that meeting you want to avoid – if it’s your meeting, could you change it to make it more productive? If it’s not your meeting, could you find some way to make that meeting more entertaining for yourself? (I started mapping conversational patterns in one particularly awful meeting. It reduced my dread and helped me recognize the interpersonal dynamics going on.)

So now we have a force field that looks like this:

Clearly that’s an oversimplified example. Life’s never that easy. But you get the idea.

You can use Force Field Analysis to combat personal habits, like getting out of bed. Organizations use it to address huge changes that they want to make, looking at driving forces like regulatory compulsion and restraining forces like the cost of implementation or risk of market loss.

What’s on your force field?

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