Keep your new year’s resolution by overcoming your immunity to change

Do you have a resolution for 2018? Consider completing an “immunity to change map,” which helps you discover the blind spots that may have kept you from making this change in the past, and could do the same this year.

I discovered the ITC Map when I read “An Everyone Culture,” a book that advocates building a work culture that enables all members to become better versions of themselves through constant development. (The authors also have an entire book titled “Immunity to Change” devoted entirely to this particular concept.)

You can download an ITC worksheet here.

The authors explain that we are often rooted in a behavior because we have a psychological immunity to change. Just like our immune systems activate against perceived threats such as germs, our brains try to defend us against circumstances and actions that threaten our status quo and violate some innate assumption.

To this psychological, subconscious immune system, a new year’s resolution to eat less sugar threatens our sense of the freedom to eat whatever we want, or it might signal impending starvation. A goal to gossip less makes us worry that we’ll become outcasts if we won’t participate in talking bad about people our social circle rejects.

As we identify and correct the beliefs that hold us back from our goals, we can more easily alter the behaviors these beliefs cause without activating anxiety, fear, and other feelings in our psychological immune system.

The worksheet is simple to complete, and it’s a revealing exercise. I’ll describe the process of creating my first immunity to change map below and offer a few pointers.

You start by identifying an improvement goal and actions that would help you achieve that goal. These go in the first column. For me, that’s “get better at making healthy food choices,” which I can do by limiting portion sizes, eating fewer sweets, and eating more vegetables, and being more honest with myself about my eating habits.

The goal should be something you sincerely desire for self improvement. It helps to visualize how the goal will improve your life. I chose diet because after losing nearly 60 pounds a few years ago, I’ve fallen back into old habits and gained back half of that weight. I know that if I make a more permanent change, I’ll be healthier, have more energy, and feel better. I think about how I looked and felt in the summer of 2015 when my family hiked Sharp Top Mountain in Virginia. I’d like to feel like that again, and it wouldn’t hurt to have the stamina to carry a toddler up the mountain.

The Gentry family during a hike up Sharp Top Mountain. Bryan is carrying his son on his shoulders.
Me, two and a half years ago, at my healthiest. (Hiking Sharp Top in Virginia with my family.)

 

Bryan Gentry sitting, buckled up in his van.
Me, today, sitting in the car and writing this blog post, 30 pounds heavier than I was in 2015 , but ready to change.

In the second column, you list behaviors that work against your goal. If the first column is “what I should do,” the second column is “what I do instead.” For me, that’s eat sweets whenever they’re available to me (church activities with refreshments, work when someone brings in goodies to share, the all-you-can-eat buffet dining hall at work), and eat multiple servings of sweets. I don’t weigh myself and I don’t keep track of what I’m eating, so there’s little to no accountability for what I’m eating and what it is doing to my body. I justify eating sweets by imagining that I’ll exercise more later, and I overeat on other foods, too.

In the third column, you explore some of the internal motivations that drive you to the behaviors in the second column. There are two parts. First, what do you worry about when you think about changing those behaviors? For me, I kind of worry about feeling left out in “social eating” situations and missign out on the taste of delicious food. I also worry about getting hungry before the next meal, which motivates me to eat more and more. And it might sound odd, but I worry about finances: If I eat a few more cookies at this morning meeting, then I might not have to eat as much of my own food at lunch.

All these worries go into your worry box in the top part of the third column.

Below the worry box, you write your hidden commitments that these worries reveal. The authors of Immunity to Change suggest writing these commitments as double negatives, which reveals the “loss” that you are trying to avoid. For example, “I am committed to not missing out on delicious food” helps me recognize that I’m worried about losing an opportunity, whereas “I’m committed to tasting good food” would not carry the same threat of loss.

Here are other commitments I identified:

  • I’m committed to not feeling left out when other people are eating.
  • I’m committed to eating so much that I won’t get hungry.
  • I’m committed to saving money by eating free food when it’s available.
  • I’m committed to not being embarrassed by how much I’m eating.

When you identify these hidden commitments, you might feel a bit silly. For example, I wanted to put quotes around “saving money” because I know it doesn’t make sense for someone with a steady income like mine to worry that skipping out on a few free cookies would cause him  to buy more food later and never have enough savings to retire. But I had to accept these notions as actual feelings, even if though I know logically they are not correct ideas, so I can understand my motivations and grapple with them.

The fourth column uses the third column to identify the assumptions that feed our hidden commitments, our worries, and our behaviors. Each of these commitments is tied to one or more beliefs or assumptions.

For me, two of my commitments and worries are associated with a belief in scarcity. If I don’t eat food now, I might go hungry later, and if I run out of money, I won’t be able to buy food. Other beliefs include the assumption that eating with others makes it easier to socialize, that my current diet isn’t all that unhealthy, and that I’ll always relish the feeling of eating one more item from the desserts table.

After having my list of assumptions, I can start testing them. You test assumptions by concocting simple experiments to make a small change and see what happens. For example, I might talk to someone at a party without a cookie in hand and see how that impacts me. Do I have more difficulty carrying on the conversation without the food in hand?

I might pass up the dessert table at the next party I go to and see how I feel. Do I starve to death that night?

I’ll weigh myself regularly so I can know for sure how my diet is affecting my body.

When I do overeat on sweets, I’ll talk to someone about how it feels so I can drive home the negative feelings associated with that — feelings of being sick, or worrying about whether I’ll get a cavity.

As I teach my subconscious mind the truth about these assumptions, I’ll become more immune to the worries and actions they cause.

Four column Immunity to Change worksheet
Here’s a screenshot of a rough draft of my ITC Map.

One thing I like about the Immunity to Change Map is that it focuses on internal motivations to enable long-term change, rather than short-term fixes. I could respond to free sweets by always having a carrot and a stalk of celery ready to eat, thus ensuring me that I won’t go hungry. But when my healthy snack is gone and there are still cookies on the table, what will I do? It will be more useful to know that the worries of starvation are false impressions that I can safely ignore.

I’m writing this post on New Year’s Day, only a couple of weeks after completing my Immunity to Change Map, and at the very beginning of my attempt at using it. I’m writing this in the car while my wife drives us back to Virginia. I have avoided eating snacks in the car, and I’m not wasting away to nothing yet, but that’s the farthest I’ve gone in my experiments. So I can’t vouch for the effectiveness of the Immunity to Change exercise for this particular goal, this particular time.

But I can attest to how this exercise has helped me understand my thought process. I see the root causes of my eating habits. My feeling is that this will lead to long-term change. I’ll check in a few months from now with an update, and I hope you will, too.