Whenever I think of the word change there’s always an influx of things that come to mind that I want to change about myself. From my anger management skills, to my shopoholic tendencies, to the amount of meaningful conversations that I engage in on a daily basis. I want to lead a healthier lifestyle (and lose some weight), be a nicer person, and start saving money rather than wasting it all. I want to worry less and stop overthinking everything. I don’t want to be late ever again. There are so many changes that I want to make, and not all of them are tangible. So, when, where, why, and how do I start?
Change can be an overwhelming thing. A change is mainly composed of the replacement of old habits with new ones, that will come together to produce a new behavior as an outcome. It implies a process that will rarely be easy or instantaneous. It requires dedication, sacrifice, perseverence, and patience. How have I personally done it, then?
The truth is that I rarely ever stick to the task of working on these areas of my life for a few reasons. Here is a list that I’ve gathered of bad habits and behaviors that can often impede us from giving change a try and sticking to those changes we want to make.
- I want to change way too much. Did you read the list of things I want to change at the beginning of this post? That’s a very extensive, huge, and almost impossible list. I cannot make all those changes at once because I know I will most likely fail. We all have a tendency of believing that we are great multitaskers. While the brain is this fascinating, extremely advanced computing maching, it cannot focus on thousands or even ten things at once. A study published by neuroscientist Etienne Koechlin and his team in France (link below) revealead that our brain can only complete two tasks at once by assigning one task to the left frontal lobe and the other task to the right frontal lobe. Since we have two hemispheres, we can complete at most two tasks at the same time. But even as the brain manages to complete both tasks, if one of them presents an unexpected need for too many unrelated thoughts (too high a complexity), the brain resorts to alternating focus from one task to the other. Thus, the solution to this problem would be focusing on one thing at a time. Make a list of all the changes you want to make in your life or at the moment. Place them in a hierarchical order, from highest priority to lowest. Now, focus on the first thing on your list.
2. “I am not ready to change, just yet.” According to the transtheoretical model of behavior change developed by James Prochaska and his colleagues, there are five stages in the process of change:
- Precontemplation: In this stage, one does not recognize the need for change, nor does one have the curiosity or interest.
- Contemplation: One starts to think about change and there is an intention and will to take action, but no action is being taken just yet.
- Preparation: One starts planning how they will go about taking action.
- Action: One starts making changes to their daily lives in a very active manner to bring about a change.
- Maintenance: One starts adjusting to the changes being made and begins honing the skills necessary to maintain these changes for a longer period of time (hopefully, permanently).
The transtheoretical model mainly looks like a cycle. There is room for going back and forth in between these stages of change and there is room for getting back on track if one were to relapse.
Personally, I have two problems that tend to occur in regards to these stages of change. Oftentimes, I find myself in a state of contemplation, and will even go as far as to move to the stage of preparation. But I find myself unable to move into the stage of action, mainly because of the fear of failure and the feelings associated with it. Embarrassingly enough, I must admit that it’s very common for me to say “I’ll lose the weight over the summer” or “I’m waiting to get it done as my New Year’s resolution”. But change doesn’t go at the same rhythm as the seasons or holidays do. The time for change is relative to one’s own needs. If you are ready to change, have the will, and feel the itch to change, then change should occur now.
Other times, once I am in the stage of action, it is easy to have one relapse of old habits and rather than getting back up on my feet and continuing on the phase of maintenance or action, I decide to go back to a stage of contemplation. Picture this: you’ve built a huge sand castle that took hours to forge and shape. As you are placing a flag on the tip top of the castle or trying to perfect one of the towers on your castle, a whole chunk crumbles off. Rather than trying to fix the castle’s missing chunk, in a fit of frustration, you kick the entire castle and destroy it. This same behavior is easy to engage in, say if you’re trying to eat healthy and experience a relapse. But, it doesn’t need to happen this way. Fixing the castle’s busted chunk would’ve taken at most half an hour to fix. On the other hand, building the castle from scratch would’ve taken a couple of hours. Relapse can be a scary concept and experience, but just because we experience relapses doesn’t mean we have to start from zero.
3. My goals for change are too vague. In any journey towards change, there must be some form of goal-setting. There are indeed psychologists that have studied some of the most effective ways to set goals, such as the researcher John Norcross. When setting goals, apart from it being essential that these goals be realistic and achievable, they must be specific. One of the things you learn in some leadership classes are setting S.M.A.R.T. goals. This meaning that the goals you set must be specific, measurable, attainable, realistic/relevant, and time-based.
Different people encounter different weaknesses in their goal-setting. Mine is usually specificity. I often say “I want to lead a healthier lifestyle” and while I have been able to narrow it down to “eat healthier”, I stumble when trying to get even more specific because I underestimate the need for being as specific as possible. I think that “eating healthy” is quite self-explanatory. So I end up using the vagueness as an excuse for my lack of progress. “Well, bread is necessary for my diet and it has tons of fiber. Cheese and tomatoes are good, too. Therefore, this slice of pizza is a bit healthy.” Now, picture instead if my goal were “I am going to minimize my intake of bread to once a week and it must be one slice of Ezekiel bread.” The specificity will prevent me from getting stuck and not seeing any progress. After all, not seeing any progress will create a sense of failure that may destroy all my efforts for change in the first place.
Likewise, it is important that every person identifies which area of the goal-setting process represents a challenge for them. Tackle this area, while not neglecting the rest. In this way, it will be harder to get stuck in any one stage of change without producing noticable results.
4. I make up excuses. The same way in which we can only know the strength of a hypothesis by testing it, we can only be sure of our change and adoption of new habits by testing ourselves and our limits. A temptation to switch back to old habits and even the doubt of why we wanted change in the first place are bound to come. Instead, acknowledge the difficulties and temptations that may arise during your journey towards change. Make sure you know exactly how to navigate around them, mentally, emotionally, and physically.
For example, if you want to change the bad habit of spending money by replacing it with the good habit of saving money and start doubting why you even want to do this, remind yourself of how you do not need to spend your money on unnecessary goods, remember all the debt you could avoid, and think of all you are helping your future self and those around you. Stop surfing the web and perusing through online shopping websites. Avoid going to stores you used to splurge in and find something, such as going to the park with a friend (which requires no spending), to fill the anxiety that may come from this change. Find support through family members and friends, so that they are not excuses you can use for any relapse or back-tracking you may experience.
When you reach a goal within your process for long-term change, treat yourself accordingly. This does not mean you can go crazy, nor does it mean you can treat yourself with something that may trigger a relapse. Meaning, if your change is to stop smoking, after reaching the milestone of a month of not smoking you should definitely not treat yourself with “the right to smoke just once”. If you have not spent money on anything unneccesary (you should clearly define what unneccesary means to you and what it means in general) for a month, you can treat yourself with a nice brunch with family and friends or go on that small road trip you’ve been wanting to go to for a long time. While you can choose to treat yourself with the nice pair of shoes you’ve been longing for, it doesn’t mean you can treat yourself with four pairs of shoes just because you’ve been a good sport.
5. I forget to mark my progress. It is very easy to feel some sort of embarrassment of our current starting state when beginning a journey towards change. This is often why when given the opportunity to track progress, for those seeking the route of weight loss taking that first picture for later progress-tracking can be painful and shameful. But: everybody starts their journey at one point or another. Deciding to start and taking the first step should be something we take pride in and get excited about. One of my favorite quotes of all time is this Chinese proverb which says that:
“The journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step.”
It is incredibly important to track one’s progress. According to a study published in 2015 by Benjamin Harkin et al., “progress monitoring is a key process by which people strive for goals”. This teams of researchers also found that “monitoring goal progress is a crucial process that intervenes between setting and attaining a goal, and helps to ensure that goals are translated into action.” There are numerous ways to track progress. The principal one being through measurement, e.g. a calendar may be used to track time periods in which one has stuck to a goal or a scale may be used to track weight loss. One could also track progress through pictures or videos. Finally, there is writing, my all-time favorite. Find the method which motivates you most. Additionally, using a multi-method approach could work best.
While these are just five ways that often work to keep us from taking action, there are many more tips and tricks for successful implementation of change that can be devised from simply studying our own behavior. Being aware of oneself is crucial for understanding how we can individually change.
For more on:
- Ettiene Koechlin’s study on the brain’s capacity for focusing on two tasks simultaneously:
- Prochaska’s Transtheoretical Model of Behavior Change:
- Goal-setting and input from John Norcross:
- Cognitive Dissonance and its relation to excuses:
- Marking progress and its importance: