Most people know there is something in their lives that they need to change. An overweight person knows he needs to lose weight. An unhappy employee knows she needs to find a new job. The fighting couple knows they need to improve their communication skills.
Most people even know how they should change. For example, they need to eat better and exercise more; or they should be more assertive or less angry and resentful.
So, despite being aware that change is needed, why is it so hard to actually make the changes? Why do we keep doing what we know is not good for us?
There are several possible reasons.
One is that change can be scary. Trying new behavior is risky and can lead to rejection or ridicule. For instance, standing up to your boss might be the right thing to do but it takes a lot of courage. Or, your friends might tease you if you don’t want to go out for drinks because you are trying to cut back. At least when we continue with old behaviors we know what to expect. It might be uncomfortable, but we have dealt with the problem for so long, we can do it a while longer.
Changing is also often difficult and a lot of work. Sure, it would be great if we could fit into our skinny jeans again, but it takes effort to eat better and to exercise every day. It’s not enough to do it for one day or one week — we have to do it consistently for a long time.
Change can be painful, too. And I’m not only talking about sore muscles a person will experience after exercising. Change often means letting go of things or people that are no longer good for us. Maybe you need to find new friends or move to a different place in order to facilitate the wanted changes in your life and you are just not ready to do that yet.
As humans, we tend to avoid things that are scary, difficult, or painful. So even when we know we should change, as long as the current situation is not scarier, harder or more painful than the anticipated change, we tend to continue with what we know.
But this doesn’t mean it’s impossible to change; it’s just not easy. Fortunately, there are strategies that can help and that make success more likely.
Try to define clearly what you want to change and what your goal is. “Being healthier” is a good goal but it is way too broad and doesn’t provide clear behavior implications. “Changing my diet and exercising more” is a bit better but still not specific enough. “Eating more fruits and vegetables and going to the gym three times a week until I lose 10 pounds” is clear and specific. If your goals are too broad or too far in the future, it is easy to become frustrated and give up before you reach them.
Like most people, you will probably experience relapses and setbacks. That doesn’t mean you are failing, it just means you still have work to do. Try to use those situations as learning experiences so you know better what to avoid and what to do the next time. It can take several weeks and many repetitions for a new behavior to become a habit. Be kind to yourself and don’t beat yourself up for not being perfect.
Old behaviors are difficult to break. Particularly if we are stressed or short on time, we tend to fall back on old patterns and habits. So if you are serious about changing, you will need to prepare for situations that tend to trigger your unwanted behavior. For example, pre-pack lunch to avoid stopping at the fast food restaurant, or volunteer to be the designated driver so you have a reason not to drink alcohol. If possible, solicit the support from others. It is easier to say no to dessert if your friend or spouse does the same.
And lastly, reward yourself for successes, no matter how small. Find rewards that are meaningful for you and use them often in the beginning. This will strengthen the new connections in your brain and will make it easier to continue the new behavior. Change is hard, but if you set reasonable goals, expect difficulties and setbacks, plan for difficult situations, enlist your friends for support, and reward yourself, it is possible to create new behaviors. And in the long run, you will be glad you did!
- Antje Rath
- September 2014