Another new year has arrived. It is that time of the year that many people decide to make New Year’s Resolutions. You may have guessed that statistically most will not be successful. What I read a few years ago was it was between 8% to 10% of people who were successful though about half the country make resolutions. It probably hasn’t changed much. Even though resolutions tend not to be successful, that does not mean you cannot make changes in your life.
What To Consider
Making a life change is a process, not a one-time event. I think that is why resolutions tend not to be successful because how people generally approach them. Whether you are looking to break a habit, or add a new behavior, it is a process. There are 2 important parts to consider. The first is “where are you”, in terms of where are you in the process or what stage of making a life change. The other important factor is you taking care of yourself which is essential to your success (self-care).
Life Change Process
The stages of change are pre-contemplation, contemplation, preparation, action, and maintenance. Where we are in the process, can be very different from person to person. Life change is a process; not everyone is at the same place at the same time. Depending on the life goal you want to reach, you may find that you are not yet fully ready. You may need time to just think about making the change, rather than making the change. You will be more likely to succeed if you know what “stage of change” you are in, and how it may shape your plans.
Are You Ready?
Change is hard and if you are not ready you will not be successful. It is important that we are ready and not trying to meet other people expectations. If you are not ready for a life change, but everyone around you is expecting you to change something, things are not going to work out too well. This is because people in your life are jumping ahead of you in the process. Or, if you have moved to considering a life change, but others in your life have moved to planning the change, you may feel rushed or that you aren’t being understood or well supported.
Where Are You?
Some questions to ask yourself. Do you feel that you would like to change something in your life, to make it better, happier, or easier? Have you been thinking lately about a specific thing in your life you either don’t like or would like to change? Do you intend to start planning within the next 6 months exactly what you need to do to make a life change? Have you already started to make changes in your life to make it better, happier, or easier?
If you answered yes to the first question or the first two questions, then you are probably considering a life change. People can stay in the contemplation stage for quite a while. Now if you answered yes to the third question or to the first three questions, you are preparing for a change. Now if you have answered yes to all the questions or the last one then you probably started to act on a life change.
You are now ready to move forward on making some changes. Some elements to consider. What is your actual plan? You should start small and make one change at a time. Choose one behavior you want to change first. You can also look to involve a friend/buddy and ask for support which could be a formal program, therapist, or support group. Your plan is your roadmap. It will help if you are specific, instead of being too general such as I will exercise more. An example could be, I will walk in the morning (Monday, Wednesday & Friday) at 6AM for 30 minutes.
You should have a realistic short-term and long-term goals. Break down your goals into small steps and small changes. Only being able to do something for a week, or a month will not help with your long-term goals. Everything needs to be manageable, or you will not be able to stick with it. Remember our unhealthy behaviors developed over the course of time. When we are replacing an unhealthy behavior with a new healthy one, it will require time. If you make too many changes, it may feel too overwhelming and may be difficult for those new behaviors to becomes new habits.
We need to recognize a resolution/new goal is a contract with ourselves. When we are setting a plan, we need to focus on elimination or replacement of undesired behaviors. Understanding the behaviors that are maintained are the ones we reinforce. Whether we approach habits with the ABC (antecedents, beliefs, consequences) or use Charles Duhigg from The Power of Habits the 3 Rs of habit formation which are reminder (cues or triggers), routine and reward. We need to look at the behavior chains that are occurring.
It is very important to understand what is happening before the behavior or habit we have. It is looking at the behavioral loop that occurs. There are five general categories to look at: location, time, emotional state, other people, or what is occurring right before. You need to identify the routine of habit loop that is occurring.
We need to understand whatever we do routinely is what becomes habits. If we do not understand what our triggers are then we will not understand how to make a change. It can start with logging your behaviors and taking notice of what is happening around those behaviors.
Once we understand our ABC or the 3 Rs of our behaviors then we can create a plan. Once we break down a habit, we need to change something in the chain. Get rid of the cue/trigger. Or change your response to the trigger. Make it more difficult to respond to a cue. Or replace the response to the cue with a different behavior. Make a change to the reward.
Our awareness and curiosity will help us to make a change. Much of our habits are done mindlessly and so being present with what we are feeling, what sensations that are in our bodies, what is going on around us, who is with us and how we are reacting, will help with changing those habits.
Let’s break this down and see what patterns developed. Let us look at a simple habit of drinking coffee in the morning. The cues could include coffee machine, feeling tired, time of day (morning) (before work), and location (home). The routine is drinking coffee and relaxing in the morning before getting ready for work. The reward is the taste of coffee, quiet time before getting ready for work, and feeling more awake. The other element here that needs to be discussed is cravings. We also have a craving element that includes seeing, smelling, and anticipating the taste.
When a habit is repeated over and over again and consistently delivers a positive reward, the brain develops a craving for it. You can think of cravings as fuel for the habit loop, making the routine become more and more automatic. They’re what makes the habit “stick” in the long term. The reward is driving the habit which can be a powerful driver. What is happening is we have our trigger or cue, then the craving shows up. You may never even think about something until you see or smell it which triggers a craving for it.
Our brain has developed a craving for something because it is connected to a reward. Your phone buzzes, you want to learn what it is, you grab your phone and read what is on your phone. You satisfy your craving to read the message. Grabbing your phone becomes associated with your phone buzzing.
The important piece here to understand is that an actual change is happening in our brain when we are rewarded for a behavior. The brain’s dopamine pathways are activated. There is a lot going on here, but it is a part of the reward system. Some habits are going to be more complex than others. Addictions involved more neural circuits in the brain which is a more complex problem.
Start With Adding A Habit
Adding a new behavior to another established habit can be an easier step than breaking a habit. If it can be paired with a solid habit. For example, you want to start flossing daily so you can pair flossing with brushing your teeth. You would keep the floss right next to the toothbrush as a cue which will help to establish the new behavior by associating it to a behavior you are already doing.
Another example would be, I don’t want to give up my coffee drinking with a different behavior but instead I want to create a new habit which I can pair with my coffee. We want to make the cues obvious, make the craving attractive, make the responses easy and the reward needs to be satisfying.
I decide I want to start meditating in the morning. So, I use my present habit to pair a new habit to it. I used the cue of brewing coffee as my trigger/cue. I set up a space to do my meditation. My reward is feeling calm, relax and drinking my coffee after I have completed the task of meditating
Changing/Breaking A Habit
When breaking a habit, you must change something in the chain. You may want to get rid of the cue if possible or change the response to the trigger or make it more difficult to respond to. For example, your cue is finishing dinner then you have a candy bar (your response) but instead of keeping the candy in the kitchen, you move it to the other side of the house on a high shelf that means you must get your step ladder which is kept in the garage.
Even though the cue of eating dinner is there, you must change how you react to the trigger or cue. You may still have the craving, but it becomes more unattractive since the response becomes more difficult. You could also substitute it with eating an apple or some healthy snack. It is to start disrupting the behavioral chain and to increase her awareness instead of doing something automatic.
Awareness and Curiosity
Our awareness and curiosity will help us to make a change. Much of our habits are done mindlessly and so being present with what we are feeling, what sensations that are in our bodies, what is going on around us and how we are reacting will help with changing those habits. Be open to approaching your feelings with curiosity and what is going on with you and around you. Whether we want to stop smoking or drinking coffee, it will start with our awareness, staying present and really noticing what is going on.
Once we can better understand what is happening in our habit chain, we can adjust. Can I find an alternative/replacement? Do I reduce or stop it? What strategies do I need to help with the craving? Can I change the reward to a healthy option? Create some accountability by telling someone else or seeking help. One thing at a time and taking small steps.
We need to believe the possibility of changes. Making a life change takes small and big steps made over time. And just about everyone will have setbacks along the way, no matter how hard we try or how good our plans are. Setbacks are to be expected, and they do not mean that you won’t ever be able to reach your goal. Expect setbacks as part of the process and have a plan to deal with them.
When we are looking at making life changes, we need to look at the long game and not the setbacks along the way. It is a process in our journey. The research certainly varies on just how long it takes to build or break a habit. It depends a lot on the habit, but the average is about 2 months. According to a study in 2009, it ranges from 18 to 254 days.* Repetition and giving yourself time to adjust are the main factors in forming new behavioral patterns. Keep trying and give yourself credit for the changes you have made. If it was easy, we would all have only healthy habits. Don’t forget to keep practicing self-care along the way.
To read more on habits:
The Power of Habits by Charles Duhigg; The One Thing by Gary Keller & Jay Papasan; Atomic Habits by James Clear.
There are other books too available if you want to learn more about building and changing habits.
* How are habits formed: Modeling habit formation in the real world. Phillippa Lally, Cornelia H. M. van Jaarsveld, Henry W. W. Potts, Jane Wardle. European Journal of Social Psychology. First published: 16 July 2009
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Blog, “Can Healing be Overwhelming?”, https://illuminationcounselingservice.com/2021/08/13/can-healing-be-overwhelming/
Original Post January 1, 2022 on Karen Gentilman’s website Illumination Counseling Service.
Karen Gentilman is a Licensed Clinical Social Worker (LCSW) practicing in the State of Idaho, working for 30 years with many different medical conditions both acute and chronic conditions, the last 20 years in neurological rehabilitation including brain injury, strokes and spinal cord injuries. She takes a trauma-informed, integrated and holistic approach with utilizing multiple modalities which is individually based while striving to provide compassionate therapeutic environment. Call (208) 266-4642 or email KarenGentilman@IlluminationCounselingService.com to set up a FREE 15-minute consultation. Visit Karen Gentilman’s profile page.