Top Six Tips for Changing Unhelpful Behaviors for Good
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.
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.
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.
Questions & Answers
© 2010 Mohan Kumar