How to Successfully Change Our Behaviors

We all have things we know we should change, have vowed to change, and perhaps have even attempted to change. Whether you want to lose weight, go to bed earlier, quit drinking, improve your language, or work out regularly … change is hard!

Often, we think that raising the stakes will provide the motivation we need to change. However, research would show this isn’t the magic fix. Tobacco users who have a heart attack or stroke are advised to stop smoking to reduce the risk recurrence and yet 40 percent of them are still smoking a year later. Another study of 9,000 cancer survivors found that only a few switched to a healthy lifestyle.

Instead of waiting for something to motivate you to change or giving up on change, it is important to look at what makes change so difficult.

First, be honest with yourself about how an undesirable behavior benefits you.

Sometimes change is difficult because the thing we are attempting to change is doing something for us. If you want to quit eating ice cream or other sweets and are finding it difficult, consider asking yourself it, “What is this doing for me?” Sometimes the first thought like, “Making me unhealthy” isn’t helpful and you need to look beyond that negative consequence to identify what is driving the behavior.

As someone who loves sugar in all its forms, this is something I have had to seriously look at. Truth is, I like sugar because it makes me feel better (seriously!). When something goes wrong and I pull out that bucket of ice cream, it soothes my negative emotions, feels comforting and provides enjoyment that takes my mind off whatever went poorly.

To successfully curb my sugar intake, I must find something else to do those things. My need for comfort is legit! I will need to identify other activities that will fulfill this need and then practice going to the new activity instead of the ice cream bucket when things go poorly.

Identify and test your underlying beliefs.

If you’ve been trying to develop healthy study habits so you can do well in the class but no matter how many reminders you set on your phone, you find yourself vegging out on Netflix instead of studying, there may be underlying beliefs getting in your way.

Some questions which may help unearth these beliefs include:

  • When I think about engaging in the healthy behavior, what do I think or feel?
  • What I think about stopping the unhealthy behavior, what do I think or feel?
  • What do I think about other people who engage in the healthy/unhealthy behavior?

Asking these questions about your study habits might unearth beliefs like:

  • I’m not as smart as others, so I’m never going to be good at school.
  • Smart people don’t haveto study in order to get good grades.
  • Studying is a waste of time because I stink at taking tests.

Once you have identified underlying beliefs, it is important to identify whether these beliefs are accurate.

  • If they are accurate, what would change this and allow you to successfully adopt the new behavior you want in your life?
  • If they are not accurate, what is the accurate belief you need to adopt instead?

Until you have addressed underlying beliefs driving negative behaviors, it will be difficult to change them.

Break massive goals down into manageable steps.

If the goals we set around a new behavior don’t allow for learning and growing in our ability to engage in this behavior, we have set ourselves up to fail. If you knew how to successfully lose 30 pounds and keep it off, you would probably have done it long ago.

Changing behaviors requires learning to do new things, and this is always a process. Think about how infants learn to walk—first they creep, then they crawl, then they pull themselves up on things, and then they let go and take a step. Each of these steps is practiced over and over until it’s perfected and then the next step is added on.

When we set lofty goals like “I’m going to eat healthy” without thinking about the steps needed to learn behavior, we set ourselves up to fail. If you’re currently someone who doesn’t consume vegetables, learning to eat healthy might start with eating one carrot at supper every evening and then adding an additional carrot daily until you are eating one serving of vegetables daily.

By breaking the activity down into incremental manageable steps that are practiced until they are mastered, you can avoid the trap of expecting yourself to know how to do things without needing to practice.

Don’t go it alone!

Addressing each of the stumbling blocks above can be incredibly challenging and is not something easily done in isolation. If you find yourself struggling, seeking professional assistance is often a necessary step in identifying barriers standing in your way to success.

Professional musicians and athletes have coaches who can help identify what isn’t working or needs improvement and then coach them as they learn new skills. Counselors can help to do this with your thoughts and feelings. If you are attempting to change a behavior, reaching out for assistance may be a necessary first step!

You are not alone! We can support you or your loved one at every step of recovery.

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