Behavior Change Is Hard
What can you do to make it easier?
Posted January 6, 2021 | Reviewed by Ekua Hagan
There is historical evidence to suggest that the ancient Babylonians were making New Years’ resolutions 4,000 years ago. Although our calendars have changed over the years, the ability of humans to remember the past and to anticipate the future seems to predispose us to creating ceremonies to mark the passage of time. In the United States, drinking champagne, watching fireworks, and singing Auld Lang Syne have become the norm for ringing in the New Year. However, approximately 40% of Americans also say they plan to make a New Year’s resolution each year. Unfortunately, far fewer of us actually follow through on that resolve. This is due in part to our tendency to rely on vague, aspirational goals, instead of identifying realistic goals, and creating detailed plans for how to achieve them. (I talked about this in the post published on New Year’s Day.)
But let’s assume that you have identified a change you are committed to making and are motivated to start. Whether your goal is to floss your teeth more, stick to a budget, or be nicer to your spouse there are things you can do to increase the success of your efforts. One crucial factor is the way your environment influences your behavior choices. As much as we would like to believe in mind over matter, we actually live our lives at the mercy of the pull of gravity, the need to eat, sleep, and earn money, and our interdependence on other people.
Fortunately, with the right planning, we can use some of those situational factors to foster the changes we want to make. This isn’t a novel idea. Many formal weight-loss programs require people to limit their eating to one place, using only certain dishes, to facilitate portion control. We can use a similar process to manage our own behavior. So, if you want to stop off at the gym after work several days a week, leave some spare workout clothes in the car so you don’t have to remember to bring them on the right day. If your desk is so cluttered you can’t find your bills, never mind creating a budget; spend some time getting organized so that the mess doesn’t become a barrier to managing your finances. If you can never remember whether you took your vitamins, count them into a pill container every Sunday, so you have a way to keep track. The use of such situational inducements can make a big difference in your ability to follow through on a resolution.
Mobilizing social support helps as well. Certainly, starting a diet or exercise plan with a friend is more fun than going it alone, and you can hold each other accountable too. However, telling your non-dieting partner to make sure you don’t snack after dinner is a set-up for a fight the first time you have a bad day and decide you need a treat. Sometimes the people in your life may even resist or impede your efforts to change. For example, a spouse who still smokes may be threatened by your quitting if they aren’t yet ready to make the effort themselves. If you find that the people around you don’t want you to make beneficial changes in your life, it may be time to seek therapy to figure out how to navigate those relationships.
In some cases, behavior change depends on developing new skills. If you want to eat out less, you might need to consider attending some cooking classes to make home meal preparation less daunting. If you haven’t been in a gym in a while, it might help to schedule a session with a trainer. I constantly tell my students that going to a tutor or academic coach doesn’t mean they are a poor student any more than taking tennis lessons means they aren’t a good athlete. The point of coaching is to help you improve the abilities you already have, which will then make it easier and more enjoyable to practice the new behavior.
There are two other mistakes that people make when trying to change a behavior. One is to assume they should punish themselves for failure rather than rewarding success. If punishment was really an effective behavior deterrent then fewer of us would speed on the freeway, and find ourselves in trouble with our parents, bosses, or the legal system. Behavioral psychologist B.F. Skinner argued that punishment simply induces us to avoid a behavior when we think we might get caught, and it doesn’t address the need that triggered the behavior in the first place. Think for a minute about dieting. Many of us eat to manage our feelings and feel chronically guilty about our weight. But starting a diet with the intention of forfeiting something you like if you err is literally a recipe for disaster. When we overeat because we are upset, we are meeting one need at the expense of another which makes us feel even worse. In the end, we often give up on the whole process. What if instead, you rewarded yourself on the days you were successful? Doing so can bolster your motivation to continue, even if you have occasional lapses.
Another cause of failure stems from viewing behavior change in all or nothing terms. Far too often people set extremely high goals and assume even a single lapse erases all prior success, so they might as well quit trying. This phenomenon, called the Abstinence Violation Effect, has been observed in a variety of contexts including dieting, alcohol or smoking cessation, and efforts to change interpersonal behaviors. But what if we recognized that behavior change is an ongoing process, and created a plan for coping with occasional slip? If you know you are likely to overeat on a holiday, you could adjust your plan to prioritize weight maintenance rather than loss during the break and then go back to dieting the following week. If you know you won’t have time to do your full workouts for a while, you could set a smaller achievable goal like doing sit-ups when you wake up and push-ups before you go to bed so you don’t lose your forward momentum. Like most things in life, behavior change doesn’t have to be perfect to be rewarding, and some of the joy can stem from the process. 2020 was a year of unprecedented, undesirable change for all of us. 2021 just might be the perfect time to take charge of your own behavior so you can make your resolutions a reality.
Martin, G., & Pear, J.J. (2019). Behavior Modification: What it is and how to do it. New York: Routledge.