Sometimes I'm struck by the number of people who truly want to create change in their lives. You need only look at the success of weight loss programs to see how motivated we are to change. For a society constantly being told that we are obese, the success of these businesses makes it difficult to label us as unmotivated. Many will say that we simply do not want to work hard for change. I don't believe that. I think that the problem is that we may not know what to do with that initial motivation. We repeatedly try new weight loss programs. We make attempts at healthier living, but we fall down frequently or our changes do not last. As a wise person once told me, "When you try something over and over and it doesn't work, don't try harder, try different."
In Part 1 of this series, I asked readers to do three things.
1. Identify a health change that you want to make. It is important to address only the general change at this point and not to define goals. Setting specific goals is critical to your success, but this will be addressed below.
2. Rate the level of importance of creating this change on a scale of 1 (lowest) to 10 (highest).
3. Rate your level of confidence on the same 1 to 10 scale.
It may not seem as though there was reason to stop the first blog entry at that point, but there was. Building lasting change takes thought, planning, and insight into what motivates you and where you stand in your confidence to create this change. Now that you have had time to identify your target and think about your ratings, we can finish this task. If you haven't taken that time, you may want to now.
What To Do with Your Numbers
Now, ask yourself why your rating of importance is not higher? For example, if you gave yourself a 6 for your importance rating, why didn't you score a 7 or an 8? Write down your answers. These are your barriers to change. These answers represent the items that get in the way of progress. If you remember nothing else, remember that ambivalence to change is natural and should be seen as a normal part of the change process. It is often minimal when you decide to change, but it becomes more prominent as you make your change attempt. Maybe change isn't more important to you because you feel fairly healthy. When change becomes difficult, this thought could creep in and keep you from making a decision to pursue change at any given moment. These thoughts could shatter your confidence. Keep them archived and understand that barriers, real or imagined, can wreak havoc on your progress when you begin to struggle. If you hear your inner voice parroting these barriers to you, label them as barriers and move forward. Tackle them or ignore them but they are a call to action and you must respond. The next exercise will help.
Now ask yourself why your importance rating is not lower? In the example above, why did you give yourself a 6 instead of a 4 or a 5? This may be a more difficult question to answer, especially for those of you who are actively trying to change. When you are in the throws of creating change you have a tendency to focus on barriers, not motivators to change. Write these down as well. These are reasons for change. They are motivating. They are personal. You cannot get these from your doctor, your friends or your family. They are what you hold onto to create change in your life, but they can lose their presence in your mind when you struggle. Keep these for reference as you create change in your life. Use them to counter your ambivalence. Use them to persist. Use them to remind you why you want to make smart choices multiple times a day.
Now do the same exercise for your ratings of confidence. Why not higher? These things can break you down when you struggling. Why not lower? Remember other changes you have made in your life that seemed difficult, but you were able to persevere. Use this as your confidence builder. We all have success stories, but we don't always remind ourselves of them. Tell others so that they can remind you when times get tough. Put them on sticky notes on your bathroom mirror or on your refrigerator. Revisit them to be mindful of your intentions and of your ability to create the change you desire in your life. Embrace these as evidence of your true capabilities.
Importance initiates change by serving as a motivator, but confidence maintains change by allowing you to develop habit out of your behaviors. There are certainly times I do not want to exercise, but I never question my ability to do it. Often, this alone keeps me going. Recognize that importance and confidence should both be monitored as poor attention to either can lead to failed attempts at change. The person who suddenly convinces herself that this change is not important will stop trying. Equally, the person who suddenly feels incapable of achieving the results he wants may also eventually quit.
The final piece needed before you initiate change in your life is to set reachable goals. Here, I do not mean long-term goals. Many people see where they want to be in the future and shoot for that goal. They see this long-term goal as a motivator for change. Indeed, such goals can be motivators initially, but they can lose their motivational value quickly if progress seems slow or if confidence falls. Behavior change is a process. It involves making multiple decisions a day to maintain focus. Put simply, significant change just is not that easy for most of us. So, when you reach a tough moment in your change process, you may be struck by the realization that you are far from your goal and that your confidence in your ability to reach your goal is waning. With that waning, comes less of a focus on your motivators and more of a focus on your barriers. Soon, you make a bad choice - to get less sleep than you know you need, to skip a workout, or to eat unhealthily. "A lapse is normal," you may tell yourself. And, you're right. However, it is not a lapse if it is a decision made out low confidence or fear of failure. Instead, it may harken the beginning of a return to old habits. Such a lapse is different when you ultimately feel confident and the goal still seems reachable. Don't give yourself the opportunity to make a decision out of fear or low self-confidence.
My advice is to set a goal that is meaningful, but reachable within two weeks. Shoot for that goal. Reach that goal. Celebrate reaching that goal -- not with behaviors that counter change, however. Never use counterproductive behaviors (e.g., eating doughnuts and ice cream) as a reward for achieving your health goal. This gives the counterproductive behaviors more value than healthy living. Instead, celebrate with behaviors that support the goal (e.g., a night out with friends supporting your new healthy lifestyle, a massage, an iTunes download, a new outfit, etc.). Then, check in with yourself to see if your confidence is high enough to set another goal. If it is not, remind yourself what you have accomplished. It was difficult, but you did it. Go back to your ratings and re-rate importance and confidence. Remind yourself of your reasons for not rating them lower. If confidence is high, on the other hand, set another goal. Keep setting, achieving and celebrating and you will keep changing. I refer to this as adopting a practice of change. We rarely view change as "practice," but if we do then two things happen: (1) we do not expect to conquer our problem on the first try, and (2) we begin to see this new behavior as a process that we intend to carry throughout your life.
You now have the necessary tools to begin the change process. Remember that these tools will not make change happen automatically. Only you can do that, with commitment and persistence. The tools, however, create the right environment for lasting change, and, after all, none of us wants to put effort into change that cannot be sustained.