We all want to change something. Most of us have tried
and had either fleeting success or chalked up a failure. Why
is it so hard?
The way we think about change is the problem. In this
arena (unlike most), we think too much. We usually think
our way to keeping things exactly as they are.
There's always a good reason we do the things we set out
to change. On some level, these things -- whether food or
drink or drugs -- work. They may cause all sorts of problems,
but there's a reason we keep doing them, and it's not
laziness or lack of willpower. They soothe us in some
fundamental way, no matter how transiently.
Our mind has devised this maladaptive solution and has
hijacked our better sense in an attempt to protect us. It is
dedicated to preventing the loss of this behavior and made
anxious by even the idea of such change. For this reason,
most thinking about change has been sabotaged from
Change is about doing, not thinking.
There are three big mistakes people make that doom their
attempts from the get-go. Avoid these and you're off to a
It's not something you want to change, it's someone
This may prove more complicated than it seems. Let
me give you an example.
Harry's wife wants him to lose weight. His doctor
has informed him that he's developing a pre-diabetic
condition that puts him at risk for all sorts of bad
things. Harry believes that enjoying life means eating
and drinking to your heart's content. To curb these
appetites is to create a life not worth living.
In this setting, it's highly unlikely that Harry will
change. However, let's say Harry really loves his wife
and that she is terrified of losing him. He wants to "be
there" for her. He wants to feel like a good husband.
He is distressed that he is the cause of her anxiety. It
is more powerful to see himself as a good partner than
to enjoy the pleasures of a glutton. Now, change has
become his agenda.
The change you want to make is not a behavior.
Let's stick with Harry. So Harry decides that what he
really needs to do is lose weight (fine) and therefore
defines weight as his thing to change (not fine).
The choice of what we're going to change is the most
important factor for success. It must be a simple
behavior, not a broad goal. Hopefully the chosen
behavior will move you toward a broad goal.
If weight-loss is desired and diet the approach, then
an example of an appropriate change would be to
eliminate bread. This can be done on a day-by-day
basis. The goal each day is to have no bread that day.
This sits much more comfortably in our minds than
the resolution that we will never again have bread.
Another essential component here is the ease with
which we can measure success. You go without
bread today, you succeeded. Success is not months
or years down the road when you tip the scales at
some magical number. And there is nothing like this
one-day accomplishment to make something feel
controllable. Success breeds success.
You will adopt the change behavior most of the time.
Choice is the enemy. Good old Harry figures, "hey,
I've been eating a ton of bread every day, if I don't
eat bread most days, it will be a big step in the right direction."
As soon as the option to eat bread sometimes is on
the table (so to speak), you'll fail. Every time you sit
down to eat, you will play the "do I eat bread this time"
game. It's as if you decide to wrestle with the decision
to change this behavior several times a day. There will
always be a rationale for why it's ok to eat bread "this"
time. And you will feel worse after allowing yourself
to do it. Such feelings make you feel weak and erode
confidence that you have the power to change.
100 percent is easier than 90 percent
I know this sounds upside down, but it's not. No
matter what you're trying to eliminate -- bread, gluten,
TV, alcohol, pot -- I believe you will succeed much more of the
time when it's all or nothing.
I'd say "good luck," but it's not about luck. It's about
making it really small, getting out of your own way,
and creating some successes.
For more by Paul Spector, M.D., click here.
For more on emotional intelligence, click here.