Top Six Tips for Changing Unhelpful Behaviors for Good

Updated on July 3, 2018
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Mohan is a family physician and a postgraduate associate dean working in the UK. He has a keen interest in self-regulated learning.

New Year, Old Habits!

Every season of good cheer, good will and merriment, the last thing we want to think about is changing. Yet every New Year is just around the corner, ready to receive our plans, intentions and ideas for change. There is always this sinking feeling when we talk about change. We don’t like change; we like things to remain as they are. Not many of us like to be told to change. This can be intimidating, upsetting and downright patronizing. We have the right intentions. We should really be making plans but there is always tomorrow, next week, next month, or even next year—same as there was last year!

Messages Telling Us to Change Are Everywhere

We are constantly bombarded by messages that are telling us to change. These come from our loving family, our well-meaning friends, health professionals, media and from the government itself. Everywhere we look, there are messages telling us not to drink too much, not to eat too much and not to smoke. We know these mean well, but why is it so hard to follow them? What are the barriers and hurdles that we come against in accepting the validity of such messages?

Firstly, these are external. We have no control or ownership of them. We feel we are being nagged incessantly. It becomes white noise, lost in reception. We may get angry and annoyed. We feel like a little child who wants to be naughty just to be spiteful. We don't want to be told what to do. We are our own masters, thank you very much.

Why Do We Resist Change?

Yet, it is hard. There is that part of the brain that makes it all look so hard. It’s the same part of the brain that has all the excuses written and ready. "I am too busy. I‘ve got too much on. I have a lot of people to look after. My work is too hard. I’m always tired. I enjoy this too much. I am too stressed. I don’t believe in the things they say."

There's Always an Exception

We've all got an aunty who smoked till she was 90 and she was fine. We've all have a distant uncle or a grandpa who was a big drinker, yet never suffered any ailments. We've heard them all. These are strong narratives that stop us from doing the right thing. Our change-resistant brain doesn't want to understand that there are exceptions to the rule. There'll always be people who look like they can get away with certain habits, but can we take the chance? Do we like playing Russian Roulette?

Information Can Be Conflicting

The health messages don’t make it easy. The media keeps picking on conflicting messages to show how science can be misleading and can get things wrong. The science and research can sound confusing and the media and the internet pick up this confusion and make it look a lot worse. This makes it look like the messages are unreliable. This makes our change-avoiding, addictive brains happy. It says, "See, I told you, they don’t know what they’re talking about."

Strategies for Implementing Change

1. Positive Visioning

We do know we have to change because our bodies are constantly changing and being affected by the things we do. We want to be healthy, and to be there to enjoy the fruits of our working life. We want to do the things we’ve always planned to do, such as spending time with children, travelling, indulging in that hobby we’ve secretly nurtured and visiting family and friends in faraway places. We need the strength and energy to do all this. We want not to be ill.

One strategy that helps is positive visioning. We need to visualise what it would be like to be fitter and healthier. We need to avoid thinking in double-negatives—"I don't want to be ill" has not got the same impact as "I want to be healthy".

We need to visualise strongly the benefits of healthy living in specific, measurable terms—money saved, time saved, looks maintained, energy generated, benefits socially and at work, etc.

2. Develop Broad Aims and Specific Goals

To start with, we need to agree on our aims. We need to sign a contract with ourselves that we have collectively agreed with our addictive part of the brain that we own our aims. These aims can be simple yet clear. There should be no confusion or subversion.

Never mind the external messages, we need internal messages that inform our vision. We need our own personal commandments.

  • I am going to eat sensibly so that I can maintain/lose weight (or gain, if you are underweight).
  • I am going to drink in measured fashion so I can enjoy my drink socially and healthily.
  • I am going to ensure my physical fitness is in peak condition.
  • I am going to spend more time with my family.
  • I am going to maintain a healthy work-life balance.

Where are you in the stages of behavior change?
Where are you in the stages of behavior change?

3. Identify Problems and Accept Change

So, how do we change?

First, we need to be aware there is a problem. If we live in denial, we cannot change. Then, we need to look at the scale of the problem. Is it early or is it approaching a crisis? Is it a preventive strategy or do we need to act quicker? For example, someone diagnosed with a heart problem, diabetes or arthritis needs a much more immediate plan than someone not yet diagnosed.

We need to accept that change is needed. It should come from within. We should do it for ourselves. This is called ownership—we need to own the problem and the solutions. If we do it for others, no matter how strong-willed we are, our resolve will weaken at moments of despair.

However, there are always other factors. We need to look at what stage of change we are at (or the persons we are trying to help change are at). There are different stages of change readiness.

SMART Goal setting
SMART Goal setting

5. Develop SMART Objectives

SMART objectives are more helpful than vague ones. SMART is an acronym that means:

  • SPECIFIC: We need to make specific, measurable plans. Not vague ones. "I will eat sensibly. I’ll drink less." These are vague, unclear targets that have no specificity. We need to say "I will cut down portion sizes by this much. I will stop snacking in between meals. I will stop drinking alcohol weekdays and alternate weekends."
  • MEASURABLE: We need to measure progress and keep reminding ourselves of how far we've come. We need to find alternate rewards. See, we do the things we do because it gives us pleasure. We need to find new ways of rewarding our brain so it doesn’t lose the will. A measure of progress, weight lost, number of cigarettes we have reduced by, money saved, calories burnt—they can all be kept in a diary and measured to give us a sense of achievement.
  • ACHIEVABLE: Often, we fail because we aim too high (although this is not always a problem). We need to look first at what is achievable and make this our primary target. Going for higher targets is great but if we have failed in our past attempts at changing perhaps its because we didn't address this.
  • REALISTIC: Objectives may need to be grounded in reality, at least for managing personal change. We can dream high and have high ambitions. But when it comes to shedding an old habit and developing new habits, it may be better to have some realistic objectives. While a 40-a-day smoker can dream of stopping cold turkey, it may be more realistic to cut down in incremental steps.
  • TIME-BOUND: We need to set clear dates to achieve things by. This gives us a schedule and a sense of urgency. If we time our objectives, they can forever get dragged and postponed.

6. Seek Support

Most of all, we need support—family, friends and health professionals—there are armies of support out there and they can help. They can pat us on the back, give positive feedback and makes us feel good. We can seek support via people who know and have helped manage change. We need to seek support and solace, but we need to be honest with those who are trying to help us.

More importantly, we need to be honest with ourselves!

As a wise man once said, "The only thing constant is change."

It is not easy. But it can be done. When truly want to, we can move mountains. We can harness lightning. We can travel to the stars.

© 2010 Mohan Kumar


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    • AnnaCia profile image


      2 years ago

      Thank you for the publication. Inspirational and educational.

    • profile image


      4 years ago

      Very inspiring. Would you happen to have the photos/illustrations in poster form to order? Please advise. Thx! ")

    • Maralexa profile image

      Marilyn Alexander 

      8 years ago from Vancouver, Canada

      Excellent article! Inspirational because it makes me feel I could succeed following your advice here.

      Well written and well laid out! If I were not already following you I would do so now.

      Thanks, Docmo. Up and awesome.

    • DanaTeresa profile image

      Dana Strang 

      8 years ago from Ohio

      Very well done. Right on point,beautifully presented, clearly explained, easy to understand. Anyone who decides to take up this advice and sticks to it is sure to succeed.

      Wish me luck! :)

    • Daisy Mariposa profile image

      Daisy Mariposa 

      8 years ago from Orange County (Southern California)

      Mohan (Docmo),

      Wow! What a wonderfully inspirational article.

      This isn't a Christmas and New Year Hub. This is an evergreen Hub, with messages that are applicable year 'round.

      Thanks for publishing this, polymath.

    • poshcoffeeco profile image

      Steve Mitchell 

      8 years ago from Cambridgeshire

      I agree with you on all counts Doc. Love the photo's and illustrations.

    • Docmo profile imageAUTHOR

      Mohan Kumar 

      8 years ago from UK

      @sueroy- glad this has motivated you - hope you have had a successful outcome on what you wanted to achieve. Thanks for your kind comments.

    • sueroy333 profile image

      Susan Mills 

      9 years ago from Indiana

      My favorite image is the "good vs evil".. those guys cracked me up!

      This was awesome.

      I've found so much of this to be true! Coming to the realization that losing a pound a week was still on the right track was difficult. I think most of us like to see big results, and see them quickly.

      Over the next 6 months (which are coming if I lose weight or not), if I lose a pound a week.. well, I'll be right where I want to be! Take that you little devil-on-my-shoulder!

      Great hub!!!

    • Docmo profile imageAUTHOR

      Mohan Kumar 

      9 years ago from UK

      Patty, this is a 'certificate of merit' coming from you and I am beaming like a proud student. Thanks for stopping by.Appreciate the feedback.

    • Patty Inglish, MS profile image

      Patty Inglish MS 

      9 years ago from USA and Asgardia, the First Space Nation

      Very Good Hub and the images fit extremely well. Rated Up and Awesome.

    • Docmo profile imageAUTHOR

      Mohan Kumar 

      9 years ago from UK

      Thank you Bel, Have a great New Year!

    • Bel Marshall profile image

      Bel Marshall 

      9 years ago from Michigan

      This is a fantastic piece. Well written, reasonable goals and objectives. As well as very workable techniques to bring it all together.

    • Docmo profile imageAUTHOR

      Mohan Kumar 

      9 years ago from UK

      Thank you spirit whisperer. Love your profile name! Could do with a bit of spirit whispering myself!

    • Spirit Whisperer profile image

      Xavier Nathan 

      9 years ago from Isle of Man

      An excellently written piece covering all bases.Thank you.

    • Docmo profile imageAUTHOR

      Mohan Kumar 

      9 years ago from UK

      Thank you so much Linda!

    • Linda Winterton profile image

      Linda Winterton 

      9 years ago from Midland, On. Canada

      An excellent piece of writing - thank you for illustrating the challenges and the rewards of change.

    • Docmo profile imageAUTHOR

      Mohan Kumar 

      9 years ago from UK

      Thanks Nell, yes- all you need is to listen - but I bet you don't have a bad habits to break ;-)

    • Nell Rose profile image

      Nell Rose 

      9 years ago from England

      HI, this is great! now all I need to do is listen! lol thanks for a great hub, rated up cheers nell

    • Docmo profile imageAUTHOR

      Mohan Kumar 

      9 years ago from UK

      Thanks Rhonda, you have a wonderful year too!

    • Rhonda Waits profile image

      Rhonda Musch 

      9 years ago from The Emerald Coast

      Very useful hub. Thank you for sharing it. Have a great new year.

    • Docmo profile imageAUTHOR

      Mohan Kumar 

      9 years ago from UK

      Thanks again, dear friend. Much appreciated. Best wishes to you for the forthcoming year.

    • richtwf profile image


      9 years ago

      Change - Something which many of us are resistant to! But if change is for the better then the effort to change is indeed worth it! I came across the SMART acronym earlier this year and it is certainly very useful to know.

      Excellent hub as always - Useful and awesome my friend!

      God bless and continued success in your writing for the forthcoming year!


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