Did you already drop your New Year’s Resolution? It might be too early to drop it, so what is going on? We want to see change in our lives but have difficulties changing ourselves.
This article is a reminder to myself that making changes demands sustained focus, continuity and effective habits. As a therapist, I work with behavior change at the individual level every day. Well, it is actually the only thing I do for a living.
A commitment to change is a 100% deal.
There is no such thing as a “half deal” when it comes to changing behaviors. This means that there is no real excuse for not doing that change – as you already chose it. You can stick to it, or you can drop it. It’s your call.
The small child, who just learned to reach out for objects, does not hesitate to reach an object. Either the child is committed to reaching it or it is not.
You need to deal with any ambivalence if it is there. Are you willing to put the time and effort into it right now? You should wait if not and you could prioritize some other goals instead. The so-called intention-behavior gap is normal. You may feel highly motivated for change without doing much about it.
Most people attribute their goal-failures to lack of time, resources or motivation.
You might adjust your goal and plan as the proces goes on, but it is always a 100% commitment to that new goal. You are most likely going to slip along the way, but have you made a deal with yourself or not? Holding a goal in one’s mind is the basis of changing any behavior.
The willingness to change, or readiness to change, is the most important factor for a change. Although this is stating the obvious, it is so profound. What is just a good idea, and what is really important or necessary to you – something that speaks to your heart?
Making a change is always demanding. When you slip, you want to make sure that your change proces is attractive to you. Also, you will need to focus on actions towards your goal, even when difficult thoughts and feelings enter the scene. Step by step you walk towards that attractive goal. Make learning out of setbacks: What should you try the next time to overcome setbacks? Plan ahead of it.
Human nature is tricky as you have to overcome innate psychological mechanisms that can block for change: Healthy or value-based behaviors may feel bad, while unhealthy or destructive behaviors may feel good or give relief. Well, at least in the short run.
So, while having an attractive goal in mind, you may still feel bad in the proces towards it. Simply put, the goal can be super attractive even though the proces does not (always) appear so.
Key Points on Behavior Change
You may benefit from the Fresh Start Effect – just like a New Year’s Resolution: Different points of time can help you split your perception of time into a “before” and “after,” and then you might be more likely to attribute previous failures to something in the past (Dai, Milkman & Riis, 2014).
Having a specific goal in mind and a plan for how to achieve your goal increases the likelihood of your success (Norcross and colleagues, 2002). Sharing your goal and plan with someone may help you increase your commitment. If you are not willing to share it with someone, perhaps it is not a 100% deal? Consider it.
You may also benefit from establishing new goals instead of breaking bad habits: A study found that 55% of people considered themselves successful in sustaining their New Year’s resolutions from the last year: But participants who did something new were significantly more successful than people who tried to stop doing something they already did, with a 58.9% versus 47.1% success rate (Oscarsson & colleagues, 2020).
Habits can help you adhere to a goal when motivation is low (Neal and colleagues, 2013): Creating a habit by task repetition is a useful way to work around a lack of motivation as the human brain relies more on habit-creating mechanisms than long-term goals. When behaviors become habits, you do not spend as many mental resources, which is more sustainable. Repetition is what habits are made of.
You cannot rely on motivation alone as feelings of motivation is dynamic and fluctuating. By now you might consider whether it is possible to engange in your goal with low feelings of motivation? You might want to try it out. After all, what is more rewarding than finishing something difficult? Make it a challenge. This means intentionally doing things without motivation to get you empowered. Read more about that approach in this article by psychologist prof. Steven Hayes.