Change is Hard

Did you know that only 17% of people make it to February with their New Year's Resolutions? Considering that stat, it is almost certain that you have allowed many resolutions to go unaccomplished. Why do we have such a difficult time breaking habits and starting new ones?

Habits are not, in and of themselves, bad or good. Habits are just habits. In fact, they are an important part of every day life. This function has been traced back to a part of the brain called the basal ganglia. Forming a habit take a three part-cycle including a cue, a trigger, and a reward. Scientists have called this cycle the "habit-loop" and after repeating it sufficiently, the behavior becomes almost automatic.

When you experience the cue and the trigger, your mind goes into autopilot. It knows, because of the repetition and reward in the past, exactly what to do to get the reward in the present, so it just takes over. The benefit to this function is that it frees up our mind to focus on other, more important things. When the behavior is undesirable, however, the fact that it is almost automatic makes it very difficult to change on your own.

If you have every tried to break a habit, you understand how difficult change can be. Here are three things you can do to help you start a new "habit-loop" and establish healthier behaviors.

  • Get change associates
  • Build a plan
  • Adopt an E-L-A attitude

Change Associates

Several years ago, I met a 15 year-old girl that had successfully kept her smoking addiction from her parents for two years. We met at a week-long camp that I was directing. The camp had strict rules against smoking. We thought something was strange in her room early in the week when someone smelled cigarette smoke and found her smoke detector covered up with a scarf. Two days later we found her with cigarettes and she and I had to have a very difficult conversation. As a result of the violation, she had to be sent home. I asked her to call her dad. I was a little worried about how dad would take the news. I could hear the conversation and I was relieved by what I heard. First, he expressed his love for his daughter, and then he promised that he would help her stop smoking. I have not been able to follow up with her, but I have no doubt that she was able to overcome the addiction. Why am I so sure? Because she had a solid "change associate" in her father.

A "change associate" is someone that you authorize to give you correction. It is very important that you specifically give them permission to step in and stop your behavior. When your brain goes into autopilot with these behaviors, you can no longer clearly see what you are doing. A person from the outside does not have that limited vision and is in a position to help you.

Who are the best change associates? Each of us has individuals that cue and trigger the behavior we want to change. These are the most effective change associates you can get, if they will agree to help. In order to do this you will have to have a conversation in which you explain your desire to change and how they can help you. You need to explain to them that you think they can help by stopping you from doing X, Y, and Z behaviors.  These are the best change associates because not only have you added someone to your team, but you have also removed a part of the negative "habit-loop."

Sometimes, individuals that are cues for your negative behavior will not be willing to help. What do you do then? Well, this is not easy, but you have to remove the cue. In some cases, especially when drugs or alcohol are involved a totally new set of friends will be necessary in order to be successful. 

Other people can also help you as change associates. For example; parents, spouses, and children are powerful change associates because they are very motivated to help you succeed. Others might include colleagues at work, or friends from your neighborhood. The truth is that anyone can be a good change associate if you will allow them to give you correction.

Build a Plan

Once you have your change associates in place, you need a plan. How many times have you said, "I am going to start running (insert your own behavior here) tomorrow"? Then tomorrow comes and you don't do anything different than you did yesterday or the day before. The reason is because you did not have a plan in place.

Some might say, "Wait a minute. I had a plan. It was to run tomorrow." That is not a plan. That was a goal. Goals and plans are very different things. A plan needs several things to be effective.

First, it needs to be written down and placed somewhere that you will see it often. I know many people that are very good at changing and adapting. Each of them has some visual way of reminding themselves often of the goal and the plan. It can be a picture, a phrase, or even just a number. I have seen these visual motivators taped to a bathroom mirror, on the keyboard at work, or on the door to the fridge. 

Include in your written plan a reason for changing your behavior. What will the benefits be for you personally? How will your family benefit if you are successful? What will change at work or in your other relationships? These will serve a positive reinforcements and become the ultimate "reward" in the new habit-loop that you are trying to create.

As a part of the plan, you also need to write out the worst-case scenario if you fail at instituting the plan. Make it a WORST-CASE scenario. For example, if I am trying to break an alcohol addiction, I might write out a scenario where I drive home intoxicated and kill an innocent bystander, spend years in jail, lose my job, and lose my family. This type of scenario will help you remember the potential consequences to the negative behavior and will help neutralize the reward in your current habit-loop. 

Now that you have written motivation, what will you do make the change happen? In other words, if my goal is to run every morning I might: set out my running clothes the night before so that I can quickly get out the door; ask my spouse or roommate to remind me in the morning to go run; set two alarms on my clock or phone and then place the clock/phone on my running clothes on the opposite side of the room; and/or go to bed one hour earlier so that I am not as tired when it is time to run. Your specific plan will vary depending on the specific obstacles that keep you from reaching your goal.

Finally, you need to have a reward system. I suggest you have short-term rewards, middle-range rewards, and a long-term reward. Continuing with the running example, for a short-term goal, I will go to a favorite restaurant after I have run for a week straight. For a middle-range goal, I might reward myself with a new pair of shoes if I meet my goal of running for 6 weeks straight. The rewards need to be motivating, but don't let them break the bank--especially if one of your other goals is to live within a budget.

Adopt an E-L-A Attitude

One of the most important things we can learn about change is that we will fall short, but that falling short does not equate to failure. You have not failed until you give up. As long as you are always willing to try again, you have not failed. That is why an E-L-A attitude is so important. E-L-A stands for:

  • EXECUTE your plan
  • LEARN from your experience
  • ADAPT your plan according to what you have learned 

It is really a simple process. When you try to carry out your plan and fall short, step back and ask yourself why you were not successful. Was there another cue or trigger that you did not account for? Do you need additional change associates? Is your reward not enticing enough? Do you need to stay with your change associates during specific times or activities?

As you answer these questions, you can learn from your mistakes and then adjust according to what you have learned. Now, you adjust your written plan and then E-L-A again. Over and over again until you have created a new habit-loop and successfully changed your behavior. If you just quit because you were not successful the first time, you will never learn those lessons. 

Change is hard, but we find the greatest fulfillment in this life by doing hard things. Improving in any way will always feel like you are swimming against the current, but if you will employ these 3 little tips, you will create a stronger, healthier, happier you.