Brain-Friendly Steps to Make Change Stick
When’s the last time you promised yourself to make some changes, either break or make a new habit? And how long did your changes last?
Changing habits can be one of the hardest things to do. Once we decide to lose weight, quit smoking, get fit, or do anything differently, it takes a lot of effort and persistence before we can claim success. Anyone who tells you it only takes 30 days to acquire a new habit doesn’t know human nature.
Most people who’ve been successful at making major lifestyle changes report that it rarely comes as steadily upward progress. Instead, it’s often two steps forward and one back, with intermittent relapses, surges of resolve, and a lot of learning along the way.
One has only to look at the obesity problem in the US and other affluent countries to see how hard it is to make behavioral changes that stick. Despite growing evidence that being overweight contributes to heart disease, cancer, diabetes, and premature aging, people struggle to lose weight, start exercising, and eat healthy. The obesity rates aren’t getting better, they’re getting worse.
And yet we know more about how to make or break habits than ever before. Behavioral scientists have conducted extensive research into how people make lasting changes. Why aren’t more people successful?
Knowing Isn’t Enough
“If you want to make a change you need to know why you’re making the change – but for that change to really last you need more than knowledge. When it comes to change, our minds don’t work rationally.”
~ The Telomere Effect: A Revolutionary Approach to Living Younger, Healthier, Longer, Dr. Elizabeth Blackburn and Dr. Elissa Epel, Grand Central Publishing, 2017
We humans have far less personal control than we like to think we have. We largely go about our days operating out of automatic patterns and impulses. When we decide to change our routines, some of us are more accomplished than others. Here is what successful change experts suggest we do.
First, identify a change you’d like to make. Identify one area you’d like to improve, such as health. Before you commit, ask yourself three questions.
- How ready to change are you? On a scale of 1 to 10, how do you rate your readiness to actually make this change? (A ranking of 1 would mean you’re not at all ready; a 10 means you’re extremely ready.) If you rate your readiness at a 6 or below, go to the second question to explore what truly motivates you. Many of us are ambivalent, even though we admit we “should change.” Pick a change for which you are truly ready to commit.
- What about this change is meaningful to you? Ask yourself what things are most important to you. Try to tie your goals with your values and deepest priorities in life. The more your goal is connected to your values and priorities, the more likely you are to stick with the change. Choosing goals related to relationships, enjoyment, and meaning in life are simply more important to people than wealth, fame, or how others perceive us.
- On a scale of 1 to 10, how confident are you that you can make this change? If you aren’t sure you can attain your goal, make it smaller and easier to achieve. Anything you rate as a 6 or lower means you need to adjust your sights. You need goals that are challenging but realistically attainable based on previous results. Self-efficacy is one of the biggest predictors of future behavior. Break down goals into steps that will boost your confidence.
The brain is equipped for automaticity and economizing efforts. The way to make that work in your favor is to include brain-friendly action steps.
- Make small changes: If your goal is too hard, break it down into easy-to-do steps. Instead of 45 minutes of exercise a day, set out to do 10 minutes a day or one hour a week. You will feel successful and energized to make the next small change.
- Staple it: Tack your change to something else you do regularly. If you log on to your computer each day, set a goal of writing for 20 minutes before opening email. Hitching a behavior to an already embedded one helps you stick to your plan.
- Mornings are best: Whatever change you decide to make, do it before the day gets in the way. Once you let a busy schedule take over your brain, other priorities will interfere. Make your change a priority first thing.
- Don’t decide, just do: Schedule your behavior and don’t waver. Making decisions will deplete mental energy and resolve. Just do it. Or, just start to do it. Once you start, you may decide to complete the action.
- Celebrate it: Give yourself credit for whatever you accomplish. We are often judgmental of less-than-perfect efforts. If you aren’t giving yourself positive reinforcement and mental pats-on-the-back, you will lose enthusiasm.
It’s not rocket science; making changes stick isn’t complicated. Make sure you set meaningful goals, and create a pathway to success. Expect obstacles and distractions. Those who succeed are those who get support from others, are willing to delay gratification, and persist.