News and Tribune

January 23, 2014

MAY: Control the structure of your life

Local columnist

— We have been talking about how to actually keep the resolutions that we make for the new year. How can we actually transform ourselves, implementing lasting change? The truth is there are four agents that are at work, trying to influence change in life. First we change when we are motivated on a personal level — from within, our “self” if you will. The second agent at work for change in our lives is the network of people who influence us — sometimes people that we know, and sometimes society as a whole. We used to call this agent “peer pressure” — it is the presence of a social influence. The third change agent is the structure around us – circumstances, media, physical structures. Finally there is a spiritual level which attempts to influence change.

Here’s an example to make it all tie together. Let’s say that you have decided to eat healthier, specifically you have decided to cut all donuts out of your morning meals. It’s the first of the year [structure] and you [self]decide that it’s finally time to resolve for better behavior. The entire change was actually precipitated by an end of year trip to the doctor who informed you that your high cholesterol needed to be controlled [social, structure]. You tell your family [social] of your decision, but on day one you are met with several strong temptations. Before you get out of the driveway, a commercial for a local gasoline station touts their supply of freshly-baked donuts [structure]. Even worse, your normal route to work takes you past two more obstacles — a billboard with a huge picture [structure] and the only local Krispy Kreme restaurant [structure]. When you finally enter the office, you sigh a prayer for strength [spiritual] as you spy two large boxes of donuts on the table, a thankful gesture from your boss for the hard work of your staff [structure, social].

The Heritage Foundation states that over the past two decades studies have come forward that demonstrate the benefits of religious practice to an individual and to society. According to the research, religious practice promotes the well-being of the entire community — particularly strengthening the family.

Regular attendance at religious services is linked to health, to stable family life, to stronger marriages, and well-behaved children. Participation in religion also leads to a reduction of domestic violence, crime, substance abuse and addiction. Other studies hint that it may also lead to an increase in physical and mental health, longevity and success in school. In addition, the benefits are often generational — as grandparents and parents pass on the benefits to their children.

The significant factors at play in religious activity? The studies point out two life-changing differences — the acknowledgment of the spiritual in life and structure and discipline in life.

Let’s return to our struggle with donuts. You sit down at your desk and grab a tissue to wipe the jelly from the corner of your mouth, whispering to yourself that you will be stronger tomorrow. You convince yourself that you were really doing quite well until the donuts were actually in front of you on the table. It wouldn’t have been polite to refuse the boss’ gesture of kindness and appreciation. Besides, the one donut — OK, the two donuts — weren’t really a deal breaker to your desire to eat more healthily. We surely know how to rationalize, don’t we?

Some would say, “You just don’t have enough WILL power.” But you realize that the self is just one element in a much bigger picture of affecting change.

So the next morning starts with a plan you let develop in those moments on your pillow before sleep took over. On the edge of the bed you whisper a prayer to God asking for the strength to make better choices in your eating habits. Instead of skipping anything but coffee, you grab a baggie full of Cheerios to snack on during the morning drive. You affirm to your wife at your kiss-out-the-door that today will be a conquering day. Instead of morning dribble on the radio, you pop in a CD of your jazz music. You change your route so that you no longer pass the billboard nor the restaurant. Mrs. Smith has baked a coffee cake and offers you a piece, but you politely turn it down, telling her of your doctor’s orders and your resolve. You ask her to help remind you if she ever sees you about to give into the food temptation. The morning’s work begins at your desk with a whispered prayer to God thanking Him for the handful of minor victories already enjoyed.

It is important to take a little bit of time to understand what we mean when we describe “structure” as having an influence on our lives. Structure is the environment in which we live and make decisions and choices. Some items of structure we have the ability to manage and control — the road I take to work, the restaurant I have lunch in, the items that hang on my wall in the living room. Some items of structure are more difficult to manage — weather and acts of nature, a detour forced by construction, a favorite business no longer exists.

How can I better control the structure of my day? Analyze the environment to see where it affects decisions. Change the structure as much as possible. Instead, build an environment and structure that will influence success.

— Tom May is the Minister of Discipleship at Eastside Christian Church in Jeffersonville. He is an adjunct instructor in the Communications Department at Indiana University Southeast. Reach him at