For many of us, changing a bad habit can be one of the most frustrating experiences. This is made worse by the countless promises we see and hear every day of quick and easy solutions for everything from weight loss to finding your dream job, date, or soulmate. It’s no surprise that many of us begin to feel completely inadequate and eventually join the more than 90 percent of people who give up on their goals.
What if we were told that changing behaviors is hard? That it takes time and work? It certainly won’t fare well in ads. 3 Challenging Solutions doesn’t stand a chance next to 3 Simple Keys. And 9 Months to Confidence has none of the appeal of Instant Confidencepackaged in a single workshop. Which is why we enroll in these programs expecting to leave a different person, only to realize that whatever momentary change we felt was just that—momentary.
The reality is that change is not easy. Our habitual behaviors are neural patterns encoded in our brains, either because they served a survival purpose in the past, or because they’ve become ingrained in us thanks to mindless repetition. As such, they function in a cue-and-response fashion, getting activated every time we find ourselves in a similar situation. And for habits that are laden with emotions, such as aggression and avoidance, the similarity can sometimes take quite a stretch of the imagination.
This doesn’t mean that change is not possible. Far from it. We now know that the brain is plastic until the day we die. That in itself is something to marvel at. Old neural patterns do not need to define us. Statements such as “I’m an angry person” or “I just can’t quit smoking” hold little weight in the court of neuroscience. Neural patterns wither and die when we don’t engage in old (and often self-defeating) behaviors, and new ones replace them when we consistently practice behaviors that serve us well.
I like to think of it like footsteps on a well-trodden trail. You can let the grass grow over the path you no longer wish to take, and watch a new path form by walking it every single day. And just like the footsteps, every time you engage in behaviors you want to let go of, you not only strengthen the old neural patterns, but also starve the new and still budding ones.
Given all this, here are 5 (relatively easy!) steps to bringing about change:
CLARITY: What Do You Want to Change?
Be clear on the habit/behavior you want to change, or the new one you want to establish. Write it down—it builds commitment and holds you accountable. As you write, reflect on why you want to do this. How is the current behavior harming you or your relationships? What need does it fulfill in your life? (Hint: The answer may lie in the past.) If the need still exists, how will you satisfy it in a more empowering manner?
VISION: What Will Change Look Like?
Now envision what life would be like once you changed. What will you be doing and how will you feel? How would you interact with others, and how would that impact the way others felt around you? Really step into the future as you do so, because the more passionate you become about the change you want to see, the more you’ll allow your dreams to pull you forward.
CHALLENGES: What Exactly Will You Do If…?
Unfortunately, dreams become fantasies without an action plan. In her book Rethinking Positive Thinking, psychologist Gabriele Oettingen says one of the main reasons we don’t get very far with our dreams is because we don’t brush them up against the obstacles that stand in the way. Doing so keeps us moving, because we’re armed with what Dr. Heidi Halvorson calls “if/then plans.” For example, “IF it is 11 a.m., THEN I will get up and take a 5-minute walk,” Get clear on the challenges you face so you can come up with your if/then plans.
CONSISTENCY: How Will You Create Positive Habits?
Here’s where it finally begins to get easier! Breaking down your goals into behaviors that you repeat on a consistent basis will eventually take up little to no energy in your brain. Dr. Roy Baumeister’s research on willpower has found that the most successful people are those who establish positive habits (and get rid of negative ones), so that they use their mental energy not to argue with themselves, but to make important decisions and initiate significant changes. Again, you can use if/then plans to do so.
TRANSFORMATION: How Will You Feel More Competent?
Positive moments can be lost on us not only because we’re wired to hang on to the negative, but also because the pace of life today doesn’t always allow us to stop and savor them. However, it is precisely in savoring these moments that we take momentary states and embed them into our long-term memory. So the next time you practice your positive behavior, take a moment to let the good feelings sink in, and another to remind yourself of your power in making it happen. Making this a regular practice can go a long way in forming an empowering story of your life.
As we now know, change is not effortless in the beginning. But it eventually becomes so with patience and consistency. And the best part? The more you go through the process, the easier it becomes the next time around.