This One Change May Immeasurably Transform Your Life

Whether motivated by desire or necessity, we have the power to alter our habits.

Posted Jul 13, 2020

Slidebot/Used with Permission/No Attribution Listed on Slidebot
Source: Slidebot/Used with Permission/No Attribution Listed on Slidebot

Many of us want to be different. We may desire to be more extroverted, spontaneous, or productive. On a more concrete level, we may need to exercise three days a week, consume less alcohol, or lose 20 pounds. One scientific fact we know for sure is that when we want to change our personalities, we have both the capacity and the ability (Hudson & Fraley, 2015). The quest for personal development and change does not imply malcontent but instead suggests the ubiquitous human need to improve.

Improvement comes in many forms and may include reaching goals such as enhancing skills, becoming healthier, or appearing more sociable. However, personal development has psychological costs that hold some people back. When we contemplate change, we also acknowledge an existing deficit or weakness, a realization that some are ill-prepared to confront. We also must devote considerable effort to the challenge. In many cases, change minimally means habit revision and, in some cases, may result in a complete reinvention of our personalities, for better or worse (Hudson, Briley, Chopik, & Derringer, 2019).

The capacity to change starts with self-awareness and the creation of a targeted measurable goal. For lasting change to occur, a few things must happen. First, we must have a compelling reason to change. Desire alone, while critical, is insufficient to make change happen. Often the need for change is suggested or obvious (such as smoking cessation) but the person does not assess a pressing need and thus compliance is temporary or sporadic. Second, we must understand how to make the change. Not everyone recognizes which optimal strategies support the desired outcome. Third, social support for change improves the likelihood of change effectiveness and stability. Unless these three factors are intact, we may quickly revert back to our bad habits, subsequently feeling disappointed and frustrated about our failed attempt.

My Problem

My dilemma was a result of 20 years of late-night activities. When I started graduate school in 2002, I worked or attended class during the days and became accustomed to staying up late most nights to study. It would not be unusual for me to be pounding the books until after midnight. I needed a few hours to unwind before sleep; my typical lights-out time would be 2:00 a.m. Unfortunately, I was unable to break the unhealthy habit even though I finished school 16 years ago. The late bedtime did not mean I would sleep all day, but it clearly meant that I was not getting enough rest for optimal thinking and productivity.

Studies show that people who sleep less have multiple cognitive, physical, and attitudinal deficits. Sleep deprivation results in lower ability to recall information, slower reaction times, decreased lung functioning, the perception of having less energy, and higher blood pressure (Patrick et al., 2017). Lack of sleep can also make us prone to obesity (Cooper et al., 2018), purchasing more food (Chapman et al., 2013), and eating larger portions (Hogenkamp et al., 2013). Lack of sleep also affects our emotions, with sleep deprivation related to anger susceptibility (Krizan et al., 2017) and displaying animosity toward ethnic groups (Alkozei et al., 2017).

Slidebot/Used with Permission/No Attribution Listed on Slidebot
Source: Slidebot/Used with Permission/No Attribution Listed on Slidebot

Finally realizing the night-owl consequences, I was committed to changing my behavior. What I didn’t know was exactly what to do. Automatically waking 3 to 4 hours earlier after 20 years of sleeping in wasn’t the easiest problem to conquer. The first step was having a plan in advance of my quest. I decided to get up 30 minutes earlier for 8 days in a row. Next, I figured out what to do with my time to allow the early rising effort to pay off. In other words, I would measure my success to substantiate my belief that getting up earlier was beneficial. Third, I made a pact with a close friend to meet for a 1-hour walk before starting the day. The agreement put some social pressure on me that wouldn’t allow me to “revise” my goals on days where I craved rest.

What happened as a result of my change? First, I had more energy than ever before. My productive time increased by about two hours. Second, I was more alert and rested upon waking up. Although my hours of sleep were relatively constant compared to before the change, the early awakening made me feel better physically and mentally. Third, as most early risers know, during the mornings we experience a calmer more peaceful world as things like traffic and the daily grind have yet to begin for most people. Finally, I feel like I have more control over myself, my productivity, and my mood, even though this perception of efficiency has little to do with waking time. If I get up before 7:00, I know my day is off to a good start.

What Should You Tackle?

What should you tackle? It depends on the degree of your commitment. A wise old lady once told me “pick battles big enough to matter, but small enough to win.” While some scholars suggest starting with small, incremental goals to guarantee success, only you know how much you can commit to a particular quest and if that challenge is significant enough to make a difference.

Also, evaluate your capacity. Do you have the time and energy to devote to your objective? Goal setting is highly personal, and you should avoid doing things just because it sounds right or based on the persuasion of others. Also, success is more likely when you track your progress, by literally writing down your plan, accomplishments, and outcomes.

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Alkozei, A., Killgore, W. D., Smith, R., Dailey, N. S., Bajaj, S., & Haack, M. (2017). Chronic sleep restriction increases negative implicit attitudes toward Arab Muslims. Scientific Reports7(1), 1-6.

Chapman, C. D., Nilsson, E. K., Nilsson, V. C., Cedernaes, J., Rångtell, F. H., Vogel, H., ... & Benedict, C. (2013). Acute sleep deprivation increases food purchasing in men. Obesity21(12), E555-E560.

Cooper, C. B., Neufeld, E. V., Dolezal, B. A., & Martin, J. L. (2018). Sleep deprivation and obesity in adults: A brief narrative review. BMJ Open Sport & Exercise Medicine, 4(1). doi: 10.1136/bmjsem-2018-000392

Hogenkamp, P. S., Nilsson, E., Nilsson, V. C., Chapman, C. D., Vogel, H., Lundberg, L. S., ... & Dickson, S. L. (2013). Acute sleep deprivation increases portion size and affects food choice in young men. Psychoneuroendocrinology38(9), 1668-1674.

Hudson, N. W., Briley, D. A., Chopik, W. J., & Derringer, J. (2019). You have to follow through: Attaining behavioral change goals predicts volitional personality change. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 117(4), 839–857.

Hudson, N. W., & Fraley, R. C. (2015). Volitional personality trait change: Can people choose to change their personality traits? Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 109, 490-507.

Krizan, Z., & Hisler, G. (2019). Sleepy anger: Restricted sleep amplifies angry feelings. Journal of Experimental Psychology: General, 148(7), 1239-1250.

Patrick, Y., Lee, A., Raha, O., Pillai, K., Gupta, S., Sethi, S., ... & Smith, S. F. (2017). Effects of sleep deprivation on cognitive and physical performance in university students. Sleep and Biological Rhythms15(3), 217-225.