Working out how to change something, especially a bad habit, is one of the most frustrating experiences you can have. Many people know what they want to change, but don't have the knowledge needed to implement that change.
Perhaps you can relate: You start a new diet on a Monday and wonder why, as an intelligent, self-motivated, driven person, you cannot seem to keep a cupcake out of your mouth by Wednesday. What's up with that? Or you wonder why you can't seem to kick your procrastination habit, your lack of an exercise habit, your bad work habit, or any other part of your existence that is not serving you well.
Sound familiar at all?
Understanding the process of change—why we are the way we are, and how to change when we really want to—is incredibly important. The attribute of driving effective change can give you the keys to the kingdom of success and happiness. However, , if you don't learn how to use it, you can stay mired in a dark hole of frustration that can lead to self-defeat and low self-esteem.
So let's start with what we typically know: Changing behaviors is hard. (Change is hard, period.) You get wired to certain behavior patterns, and your brain gets stuck in a groove that takes concerted, conscious, and consistent effort to change. And even when you do manage to change for a few days, weeks or months, it is all too easy to slip back into old patterns.
The good news is that we know, through the latest neuroscience, that our brains are "plastic." This means they can create new neural pathways, which allows you to create change and form new patterns of behavior that can stick over time. You find a new groove, so to speak. But it takes work—sometimes, a lot of work. And it takes time. The popular myth that you can quickly and easily change a deeply-ingrained habit in 21 days has been largely disproven by brain and behavioral scientists. They now think it actually takes anywhere from six to nine months to create the new neural pathways that support changing behavior.
There are three things you need to make any change, whether mental, emotional or physical: desire, intent, and persistence. Our culture is filled with magazine covers that say you can meet your dream partner by the weekend, land your dream job in five days, or lose 10 pounds in two weeks. This can leave mere mortals feeling completely inadequate when they fail to achieve such results, which are completely unrealistic, if not downright impossible, in the first place.
When you consider that only 8% of people actually follow through on intentions to change a habit, you can see why it's so critical to understand enough about the change process, and yourself, to smooth a path to success.
So what are the steps and considerations? Here are some questions to think about, as you begin to create positive change in a lasting way:
Do you really want it?
There is no point in saying you are going to stop working so much, so you can get some semblance of balance in your life, if in reality you really don't care that much about balance, and you really love to work. Who are you doing it for? Don't kid yourself. You must be serious and care about the change you decide to make, so you'll be willing to work for it and follow through.
What need is being served by what you are doing now?
Your current behavior is there for a reason, or you wouldn't be doing it. Hard to swallow, but true. Whether you're a workaholic, 20 pounds overweight, have anger management issues, or are unhappily single—your current situation is serving you somehow. So take some time to think about this. Whether the need is relaxation but the behavior is binge drinking, or the need is recognition but the behavior is overwork, you first need to identify what need is being served by your current behavior. Once you have the answer, you can work out how to meet this need in another way, smoothing the path to change.
How else can you meet your needs?
So, you have identified the current behavior and how it is serving you. Now think about how else you could get this same need met. You may relate to this example. For some people, eating foods they know are not only bad for them, and in fact likely to leave them feeling tired, grumpy, and full of self-loathing, is less about the foods, and more about the nurturing, comfort, or distraction they provide. How else could you get your need met? Perhaps retreating to your meditation cushion, your yoga mat, the bath tub, or even your bed, would give you an even greater sense of the nurturing you need, without the guilt, the self-esteem crash from not following through on your intention, and, of course, the pounds. So when you think about the needs you have, how else can they be met?
What's the price of not changing?
You will experience ambivalence on the change path, no question about it. And that's okay. But to progress down the road, you have to ask yourself: What is the price of not changing? If you really want a promotion, but are too fearful to ask for the management training you need, the price is staying in the same role. Is overcoming your fear worth the goal? Or if you really want to get healthy, lose weight and get fit, but you don't want to have to cut the sugar and get out walking, what is the price of that behavior? Putting on yet another 10 kilos? Think about and write down any negative effects your current behaviors are creating in your life—self‑loathing, boredom, career stagnation, frustration. Once you have hit this wall of realization, you are in the perfect place to turn around and move forward.
What positive image can pull you forward?
It is known, from research in positive psychology and neuroscience, that you'll have more success when you move towards something positive rather than away from something negative. It is also known that positive images pull you forward. (Think vision boards, athletes visualizing their performance success, or thinking through the positive outcome of a business presentation before it takes place.) It works, and science proves it. So what positive image of the outcome you want can you visualize to pull you toward success? Come up with one; have it firmly in your mind; place it on a wall, in your computer, in your journal, or anywhere you will reference it; and look at it frequently. It can be especially helpful when your resolve is slipping, to remind you what you are working so hard for.
Are you acknowledging success?
When you have made progress on your efforts, it is important to acknowledge that achievement. When you celebrate your efforts, you create upward spirals of momentum that help reinforce the positive change and make it stick. Recognizing your efforts also helps to reinforce the direction in which you are moving, and motivates you further toward your goals. Recognizing, acknowledging, and celebrating progress, however small, is a key to success on your change path.
Change can be challenging. Anyone who has tried to change a habit knows this is true. But it is possible. And you can smooth the path to success by being aware of the cycle of change, being prepared, and being consistent. The result is worth the effort, if you want it badly enough to work for it.
For more on creating positive change in work and life, you might like Getting Real About Having It All (Hay House) available at Amazon.com.