It’s the season of joy! It’s time to harvest our crops, the seeds we planted and nurtured between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur. Our gardens are overflowing with feelings of forgiveness, hope, and purity. We feel light and unburdened, ready to begin again.
Holding onto the Light
How long will this feeling last? How long will it take before chronic irritation sets in, and we fall into our old patterns of negativity? After all of our resolutions and good intentions, how long will it be before we’re back at the “same old, same old?” For many of us, the light fades on the way home from Ne’ilah. Some lucky ones will make it through to November. But many of us will be dismayed to find ourselves back at our starting points yet again, come next Rosh Hashanah. Is there something we can do to prevent this backslide? Can we actually move forward?
Protocol for Change
We have to understand the process of change. Enthusiasm and motivation are good starting points, but on their own, will not promote sustained growth. If we come out of the Yamim Noraim inspired, that’s wonderful, but our inspiration must be grounded in a strategy that includes a feedback component.
A strategy is a plan, a step-by-step protocol for achieving a desired goal. We can write up the plan, stick it to the fridge, and look at it every day. But unless we add in a feedback component, it will remain a pretty chart on the wall. The feedback component tells us about our actual progress; it lets us know whether or not we’re following the strategy.
A simple form of feedback is a check mark. We can place a check mark beside each calendar day on which we followed the strategy. If we want to get fancier, we can rate how well we did on that day.
If we want to really help ourselves, we can devise a point and reward system so that our brain gets a dopamine hit for successfully achieving our targets.
Let’s look at a practical example of all of these steps:
Suppose Shira is all geared up to refrain from talking negatively, including avoiding lashon hara, complaining, or predicting bad outcomes. Her strategy includes spending five minutes a day either reading or listening to material that can strengthen and inspire her. It also includes keeping a counter with her at all times so that when she notices that she spoke negatively, she can click it to record the total number of such incidents per day.
At the end of each day, she puts a check mark on the calendar if she studied for five minutes, and records the total number of clicks on that date. At the end of each week, she gives herself a monetary reward that is dependent on the total clicks for the week, with the reward increasing as the number of clicks decrease. The money is being set aside to be spent on a “grand prize” when she reaches her goal of five or less clicks a week for one month straight.
Making Change Happen
Shira has a very good chance of actually succeeding in her quest to “become a more positive person” this year. Her motivation, her strategy, and her feedback system are powerful tools for growth. But we also need to build into our protocol strategies for overcoming obstacles. Shira explain why: “I was on a high after Yom Kippur. I’d managed to refrain from negativity since mid-Elul. But then Succos arrived.
My married sister and her messy kids arrived. I was drowning in a million tasks. I got so frustrated I lost my resolve to speak only positively. My ‘clicks’ multiplied out of control.”
We need to think about what is going to trigger a relapse and prepare a system for dealing with those inevitable moments of challenge.
Just writing those “glitches” down in advance can help. In addition, offering ourselves extra points and rewards for navigating challenges successfully can increase motivation and endurance. Finally, finding a “buddy” — someone to listen to your concerns and remind you of your goals — to rely on during challenging times can help reduce stress and frustration, while increasing motivation and resolve.
Keep the glow all year round. Create a plan to harness the hope and happiness you feel on Succos!
(Originally featured in Family First, Issue 663)