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Kathy Whelan

Posted on January 09, 2021

Someone asked me recently, “Why is it so hard to change?” Even when we know what we want to change, actually doing it, and continuing to do it, can be challenging. Trying and not feeling successful makes it easy to give up, lose confidence and not try again. If this sounds familiar, keep reading.

We are creatures of habit. Modern imaging techniques show our brains changing throughout our lives, creating and strengthening brain pathways according to our behaviors. Repeating any behavior consistently will, over several months, strengthen a brain pathway to the point where the behavior becomes habitual and more or less automatic. What we practice, we become.

The bad news: Our brains don’t distinguish between helpful and unhelpful behaviors, so “bad” habits form as easily as “good” ones. A new, healthier habit requires the same repetition over time that created the old habit. For this reason, quick-fix solutions should be viewed with suspicion.

But there’s good news: Once a new, healthy habit is formed, it will override the old one and itself become automatic. It may even become part of your identity, adding to its durability because we tend to repeat behaviors consistent with identity.

This may sound like a lot of work, especially after an exhausting year. But taking certain steps will increase your success and bring you an early sense of accomplishment. Here’s a snapshot of how:

• Be clear about what you want.

Create a vivid mental picture of your version of success by visualizing yourself in a few years in your ideal state of health. What do you look like? How do you feel physically? Mentally? What are you doing? With whom? Where? If all the details don’t fill in at once, keep revisiting the exercise. As I wrote last January, visioning is powerful on a neurological level: Because the brain interprets imagery as real action, picturing yourself this way jump-starts brain change.

• Know why it’s important.

To strengthen your vision and give it personal meaning, ask yourself what’s important about being in that state. Not why it’s important to your family member or your doctor, but why it’s important to you. How does it support what you want to be in your life?

• Decide where to begin.

What one area of health will you work on first? Managing anxiety, for example, can be approached different ways: practicing mindfulness, increasing exercise, changing your diet, getting more sleep or nurturing your relationships. Why just one area? To help you gain traction and confidence. You can add another area later.

• Is now the right time?

Just because everyone is making New Year’s resolutions doesn’t mean it’s the right time for you to change. Maybe you think you should, but you’re ambivalent because your old habit is serving you well in some way (or you wouldn’t be doing it). You don’t need to resolve your ambivalence completely before trying to change, but you’ll move forward sooner if you can tip the balance of pros and cons in favor of change. Imagine the likely future if you don’t change, then imagine it if you do. Think of as many reasons as you can for changing. And if now is simply not the right time, wait until it is or consider making another change first.

• Boost your confidence.

You might have the necessary conviction but lack confidence, often because of past perceived failures. If that’s the case, ask if those “failures” contained some successes. If you exercised regularly for a few months before giving it up, what made you successful for that long? Identify skills that have brought you success in other areas of life and ask how they could help you now. If you need more information, find useful resources.

• Make it concrete.

If you feel ready at this point, set a 3-to-6-month goal (yes, months, not days or weeks). Make it SMART (Specific, Measurable, Action-oriented, Realistic and Timed) so you will know success when you achieve it. If you want to eat healthier, for example, be clear: “Three to six months from now, I will eat a Mediterranean-style dinner (which you should define) five nights each week.” Then design your first step toward that goal: “Starting Monday, and on one other day next week, all the grains in my dinner will be whole grains.” Week by week, repeat and expand on this step.

• Trouble-shoot in advance.

Consider what could go wrong and make plans for overcoming potential obstacles.

• Build in support and accountability.

Find someone to cheer you on and someone to check in with you regularly on your progress.

• Keep a growth mindset.

If you catch yourself thinking, “I can’t do this,” change it to “I can’t do this yet.” Rome wasn’t built in a day, and neither are new habits. Learn something from every outcome – complete success, partial success or no success at all – and revise accordingly.

• Celebrate every success, however small.

We hardly ever do this, but it’s important and will serve you well.

Having gotten through 2020, you can do anything. I wish you a happy and successful 2021! And please let me know if you would like a “guide by your side” on your journey.

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