Resolutions for Change That Last All Year: Part 1: Deciding on the Change

by | Jan 4, 2017 | Retirement, Stories, Uncategorized

change behavior

Changing old habits can be a challenge, but it’s doable.

It’s no mystery why gyms and fitness centers are more crowded in January. As the new year begins, many people make resolutions to improve their diets and get back in shape. A few weeks later, the good intentions have faded, the novelty has worn off, and the reality of making a lifestyle change has set in. The shine on that new piece of exercise equipment has come off, and it’s already well on its way to becoming an expensive clothes rack.

It can be a whole lot harder to make a permanent or long-term change than it might seem. How do we make the shift from “I hope to do this” to “I’m doing this?” How do we manage the frustration we feel for “failing,” avoid making excuses and stay on track for the long run?

Whether the behavior change is healthier eating, more exercise, quitting smoking, making time for a new hobby or any other goal you want to pursue, the road to permanent change may be bumpy. Understanding and anticipating those bumps can help you stay on course. In this blog series, we’ll examine how to decide on a change and how to follow through or make the change.

Why Is Change So Difficult?

First, it’s important to understand why making a change can be difficult. We’ve all heard about willpower, but what is that? Is willpower enough to motivate us? Is change defined by trying hard enough, or is it more than that? Questions to consider: Do you really want this change? Is it your goal, or is someone else prompting you? How do you feel about making the change? Is your heart in it?

Many people find themselves stuck either in thinking about change or attempting change without making progress. How do we move ourselves forward when we know a change is important or would be better for us? How do we overcome our own resistance to change?

In one of the college courses I teach, my students have to complete a project in which they attempt to change one of their behaviors. They can pick any behavior: nail-biting, smoking, exercise, diet, study time, TV time, smartphone time or any goal that matters to them. The important thing is that they are choosing their own goal; I’m not deciding for them. The overall goal of the project is to help students understand that change is not like flipping a switch (“Voila, change!”). It’s much more complicated than that. As the students move forward in their careers, they will have to help their future clients set goals and create plans to accomplish them. They also will have to empathize with their clients as they struggle to make changes and meet their goals. Many of my students struggle with trying to change their own behavior for the class project, so there’s plenty of room to learn empathy.

Cases in Point: Sandra and Natalie

Take my recent student “Sandra,” who planned to get up earlier every day so her morning routine would be less rushed. She has several young daughters who have to get ready for school, and she felt their mornings would be less stressful if she had about 30 extra minutes each day. The problem as Sandra defined it was her habit of hitting snooze on her alarm—sometimes as long as 90 minutes before she’d get up. This habit blew a hole in Sandra’s morning routine every day. She decided to stop snoozing in the mornings, thereby allowing herself more time to get her daughters ready for school. She would reward herself with a special coffee if she got up on time.

As the project progressed, Sandra reported little success in changing her snoozing behavior. Her classmates offered ideas, such as putting the alarm clock across the room, which would force her to get up to turn it off. Sandra was reluctant to try these ideas, preferring to keep her clock where it was. Although she did get up earlier on occasion, she wasn’t doing it consistently, and she was still hitting snooze at least once or twice each morning. She also was giving herself the special coffee regardless of whether she got up on time, so she wasn’t earning it as a reward. In the end, Sandra did not succeed with changing her snoozing behavior. At the end of the term, as she reflected on her goal and the project, she concluded that she simply did not want to get up earlier. Because she is a stay-at-home parent, she knew she could return home after dropping off her kids and resume her morning routine if it wasn’t finished. In short, although Sandra felt some reduction in stress when she got up earlier, that wasn’t enough incentive to motivate her to maintain a consistent behavior change.

Contrast Sandra’s experience with that of “Natalie,” who decided to decrease the time she spent on her smartphone. Natalie reported that she was spending upwards of four hours per night engaged on her phone rather than interacting with her family. She was noticing the disconnect among her family members as they were allowing their phones to take over, and she felt sad about it. When we discussed her project idea, I suggested that she could consider her goal in terms of what she wanted to increase or improve (time with her family) as opposed to what she wanted to reduce or restrict (time on her phone). Natalie settled on a goal somewhat in the middle: increasing family time by reducing phone time.

As Natalie began her project, she noted the difficulty in breaking the habit of checking her phone frequently. She started putting her phone in another room so it wouldn’t be as present or available. This helped her to break the feeling of urgency that surrounded her phone. She turned off some of the phone notifications, which also reduced her anxiety about checking her phone. As Natalie found herself less engrossed in her phone, she began initiating evening activities with her family members, such as playing board games. While she encountered some reluctance from her family at first, as time progressed, the old routine with the smartphones was being replaced with time spent on activities together. This was exactly what Natalie hoped to accomplish, and she determined her project was a success. She also indicated that she would continue this new behavior after the class ended.

Differing Experiences

What’s the difference between Sandra’s experience and Natalie’s? The answer might be found in their intentions, attitudes and motivations. A 2005 study by psychologists at the University of Surrey examined the relationship between intentions and attitudes on motivation to change diet. The way we think about the change may influence our motivation and success. “The cognition ‘I intend to …’ seems to translate to ‘I did’,” according to the study. How we frame the change–whether in positive or negative terms–also may affect our success.

The type of motivation involved in the change can have an effect. Individuals might be more motivated when the change doesn’t emphasize avoiding a behavior. Goals such as “I will not smoke,” or “I will not eat sweets” focus on avoidance. The study’s authors also found that emphasizing avoidance may not change a person’s attitude toward the item they are trying to avoid. People may maintain a positive attitude toward the object they wish to avoid. In other words, despite a goal to avoid cigarettes, candy or snoozing, they still like the idea of smoking, eating sweets or sleeping later.

The authors say it’s crucial to develop a negative attitude toward the item that should be avoided. For example, ethics, morals or other principles could support the intention to continue a new behavior. “I will drive the speed limit to set a better example for my child,” provides a positive intention to change as well as a principle to motivate it, as opposed to “I will not speed,” which emphasizes simple avoidance. The study’s authors conclude that both “intending ‘to do’ a healthy behavior and ‘not liking’ the unhealthy behavior seem to be the key to success.”

Does the Theory Work?

How did the authors’ theory bear out for Sandra and Natalie? In Sandra’s case, she never developed a negative attitude toward hitting snooze. Although she knew snoozing was her barrier to getting up earlier, she enjoyed snoozing every morning because she wanted more sleep. Her attitude toward snoozing was positive for the duration of the project. Without a negative attitude toward snoozing, Sandra’s incentive to change the behavior was limited. The reinforcement of having extra time in the morning wasn’t enough to override Sandra’s desire to sleep longer. She didn’t have enough “want” to change.

In contrast, Natalie developed a negative attitude toward the use of her smartphone. She not only made the connection that the smartphone habit was affecting her family time, but she viewed the phone as an interference—a negative—that should be stopped. This negative view influenced her desire to reduce smartphone time. She not only took active steps to address the habit, such as limiting her access to her phone, but she also chose replacement activities (playing board games) that supported her goal of increasing time with her family. The steady increase in family activities reinforced Natalie’s behavior change.

Stay tuned for Part 2 of our blog series on Resolutions for Change when we focus on strategies to make the change.

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