Change of behaviour is not merely a matter of knowledge or skill. If that were true, then all the information campaigns on how to improve your health would have made behavior-related illnesses a thing of the past. We would all be slim and rich and birth control information would prevent teen pregnancies. Sadly, many people fail to create lasting changes in their behaviours and will repeat their failures over and over again…
Have you ever tried to break a habit? The key to creating and maintaining behavioral change is in getting and staying motivated. Some people start lifestyle changes that last a few weeks at best. Checking the attendance figures in January and February at your local health club will show you the people who began by being very motivated and lost their passion. Other people wish they could do something, but never work up the motivation to begin. The title of the book by comedian Totie Fields I Think I’ll Start on Monday: The official 8 1/2 oz Mashed Potato Diet sums it up. She also said: “I’ve been on a diet for two weeks and all I’ve lost is two weeks”.
Can crisis motivate change? Conventional social work theory suggests that the highest potential for change is during a crisis. This seems logical, since during a crisis nothing is normal and there is now the opportunity to make important decisions about the future. Organizations often try to make radical shifts when they are facing financial or other disasters. But if crisis really is the highest potential time for change, then why do 90% of coronary bypass patients fail to make long-term changes to their behaviour after surgery?
Because breaking a habit requires both short-term and long-term motivation strategies. When a crisis triggers someone to want to do something differently, it can be effective for the short term. This motivation trigger is motivation away from something, because the person or organization is motivated to move away from a situation they do not want. 2 examples: a person can’t breathe and feels sick so decides to quit smoking. A company faces the arrival of a lower cost competitor and starts looking for costs to cut. Motivation away from can get you started. The problem is that it loses its power once you are on your way. How can you stay on track after the away from motivation has waned? In 2 ways: 1. to constantly remind yourself that you don’t want to be unhealthy, poor, or out of business. This takes a lot of work and the effects of maintaining a state of fear or disgust are unhealthy. 2. to add to the away from motivation by also having something to move towards.
Since away from motivation is really only effective for short periods of time and most behavioural or habit changes take longer time, you need a mechanism to maintain motivation. You can do this when you have a goal that you deeply want to achieve to replace the problem you want to avoid. This goal represents motivation toward something. The away from motivation can get you started and gives you a push. The toward motivation draws you closer to what you want. This way you get the benefit from the push energy to move away from what you don’t want and the pull energy enticing you toward what you do want. The problem with only having a toward motivation is that if you are beginning far away from your goal, the idea of starting is demotivating. If your goal is to run a marathon and you get out of breath walking briskly around the block, it is easier to put off running until tomorrow. If you only have toward motivation with nothing to kickstart you into action, you may procrastinate.
Reinforcement: habits are like water running downhill. Away from and toward motivation are not always enough. Habits are hard to kill. They are like water running downhill – it takes no effort to maintain a habit. Habits are rituals that you perform without thinking; they are procedures to which you are psychologically committed. Sometimes they are like stimulus-response Pavlovian formulas. Sit in front of the TV; feel hungry; get food… A good system is one that is easier to follow than not to follow. If you want something to become a habit, put it inside a procedure that you normally do. To remember to take vitamins put them in front of your coffee pot instead of hiding them in the cupboard. Placing your new behavior inside your existing procedure builds your new commitment into what you already do. When your new behavior is part of a standard procedure that you already effortlessly follow, you will find that it gets reinforced and gradually becomes like water running downhill.
What you see is what you get. From a research project on quitting smoking researchers found that people were more successful at becoming nonsmokers if they could see the state they wanted to move away from and the state they wanted to move toward. Verbal affirmations are rarely compelling enough to trigger and maintain your motivation. But when you can see both what you want and what you don’t want, it becomes more real than merely telling yourself something. Imagine the idea of being at the right weight or level of fitness. It’s easier to imagine when you can see yourself in your favorite outfit or running 3 miles effortlessly.
Beliefs, values, and who you are contribute a great deal. If you don’t believe it’s possible to change a habit, none of the motivation strategies will work. Look for an example where you have already made a significant change in your life. Notice that all of the motivation strategies were present. If you could do that, why could you not do this? There is only one way to find out: how important is the change to you? If it’s not frequently on your radar, perhaps you don’t really care enough to make the shift. Why is changing this habit important to you? And why is that important? What kind of person believes that the change you desire is worth pursuing? Is this the kind of person you wish to be? How are you already like this? When you have identified the beliefs, values, and identity that will enable you to imagine that this change of behaviour is really possible, hold them in your heart and allow them to take their place from there, spreading throughout your physical, emotional, intellectual, and spiritual self. Repeat this daily as part of your daily rituals until it feels natural.
Miracle cures are not motivation. Real change of behaviour is possible when you have the strategies to start and maintain your motivation, when you can see what you want, have placed the new behaviour inside a ritual you already do, believe it’s possible, value the new behaviour, and think of yourself as a person who does that. There’s no wonder that miracle cures don’t last!
Here’s your motivation inventory
Do you have a project for behavioural change that is important to you? Check by filling in the blanks whether you have all your motivation triggers in place.
Away from: I do not want ____________________________________.
Toward: What I want instead is ________________________________.
Negative consequences: If I don’t succeed, what will happen that I don’t want? _____________________________________________________.
Positive consequences: When I do succeed what will happen that I want?
I can see/imagine an example of each of the above.
I have put the following new habit inside this procedure that I already do naturally.
I am regularly accountable to _______________ for completing my goal.
I believe it is possible to do this because ______________________________________.
I have already succeeded at something like this in my life when I ___________________________.
This is important to me because ________________________________.
The kind of person who does this is ______________________________.
I am that kind of person because ________________________________.
And if you feel that sharing your experiences is helping, you needn’t walk alone! I’m always here to support you.
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