It can usually be done - it's just hard!
Updated: Jul 25, 2022
Change is hard - especially when it is a change in habits of a lifetime that, even if they haven't served us well, have only given a "slow burn"...a bit like that extra chocolate that doesn't hurt, until you've had one every day for a year. It is little wonder that people give up so easily...after all, where I am isn't that bad...I've lived it every day so far right?
While I could (and would in a session) ask you to reflect on that last point, and then consider how long you've been happy, or unhappy, in your current position, for the purposes of this article, I wanted to offer 5 top tips for motivating change - not so you have to do it, but so you know you can. But, these tips, like changes in physical fitness, take commitment.
1. "It can't be done" undervalues the capability of the human...it undervalues what YOU might effect...if you persevere.
DILT's model of change explains that while we can easily change our external environment, and our behaviours, it is only when we make the change internally that we really begin to gain momentum with results. Looking at this pyramid - Dilt explains that any change made at the lower rungs does not easily feed upwards, but change made at the top feeds down.
Take the example of "wanting to lose weight". You might change your environment eg. you join a gym; you might even change your behaviour eg. you go a few times...but unless your mindset changes to one of "I am the sort of person who goes to the gym regularly" (ie. change at the top end of the pyramid), when it gets tough, or dark, or cold...or [insert other reason here] you are likely to stop. What makes this situation worse is if you have achieved some results, you may well hold a sense of criticism and regret if they disappear and you are back where you started after a time.
We only need motivation when we feel stuck so try this (and the following 4 tips):
a) Know your options for achieving your goal - and learn more if you wish to. The more choice, the more likely you will find something that works for you.
b) Be aware of what has worked for you in the past - it is generally likely to work again.
c) State the goal as a character change rather than a target eg: rather than "I will lose a stone" or "I will gain a six-pack", try to think of a fitness journey as "I am the sort of person who exercises for 20 minutes every day". When that goal is achieved, you might change it to "...30 minutes..." and then you might add something else such as "...drinks water every day..." This style of goal suits the ongoing nature of life and enables you to grow continually rather than hit a target but not really be of the mindset to maintain, or better it.
2. "What's the worst that can happen..."?
Many coaches often ask you to write down "the worst thing that could happen if you do it." It is a helpful technique to challenge some of your negative thinking which might not be accurate. I prefer to ask you to write down "the worst thing that could happen if you don't." For me feeling stuck where I'm not happy is enough to give me that little nudge to make a difference.
After you've identified the "worst that could happen if you don't do x"...then think about whether you can accept/live with that. If you can, that's absolutely fine, and perhaps you're just not ready to make that particular change yet. That's ok. However, if you do think - I don't want that I'm going to do something - then all I would ask you to do is one thing, one small thing, that moves you that little bit closer to your goal.
(For some of my clients, it helps them to reflect consciously on their choices as moving them towards or away from their desired results."
3. Specific change aside, stretch yourself every single day
Our brains evolved to keep us safe, our bodies to perform the vital tasks efficiently...as such we do recognise fear more easily than happiness, and, physically we tend to do things that keep us comfortable. The irony of the latter is that after a while it can become too uncomfortable to make any change at all - even when you recognise staying the same is no longer what you want.
So work to beat that rut now. Look at change as having three zones, the first is the "comfort zone" (the place where we spend the most time), the next is the "stretch zone" and the third is the "panic zone". Understandably neither our brain nor our body wishes to get into the panic zone, BUT stretching - well, stretching can actually feel quite nice.
Do something - anything at all - that pushes you a little into the stretch zone every day. Perhaps one day you might lift a slightly heavier weight, you might walk a little further, you might take the first steps to learning a new skill. When you get used to the stretch, you'll find that becomes comfortable, and suddenly your old "panic zone" has moved to become the new "stretch zone".
4. Remember why you started (and you don't need to explain yourself to anyone)
A lot of the time, if we prepare to change we might be advised to "tell people" - which "makes you accountable". If you are anything like me, guilt over not doing something makes me feel accountable enough without people saying "Oh, I thought you were...". Now there is something in accountability - but that doesn't mean you have to post anything on social media nor even tell your nearest and dearest, unless it affects them. Sometimes simply joining a group of likeminded learners can keep you accountable to the commitment (or any money spent), or maybe telling a professional - especially one from whom you are seeking advice is enough to move you from the person who "thinks about x" to one who is "doing x".
Another thing that comes under accountability is often a reason why you want to do something, and for the sake of conversation, people may ask you that question. This isn't always easy to answer, especially if you feel you have to defend your choice - which can in turn make the decision to do it less palatable too. So know why you want to do something (and to "look nice"; to "see if you can"; and "because I've always wanted to" are things which you understand at a much deeper level than others might be able to), and decide whether you need to voice that at all. After all, you do not need others to validate your behaviour choices.
5. Be patient - but prepared
Of course things will not happen overnight. Results tend to be fast, then slow, then non-existent as the time comes to level-up your plateau - so be kind to yourself, and also remember that everyone's outcomes will be unique to them. My hairdresser knows that my hair takes over 20 minutes to "get started" with a dye, but the moment it does - the colour strips extremely fast. Know how your body and/or mind responds. Just because someone else is getting results, doesn't mean you are any "worse" than they - try instead to reframe envy into joy at their success, and maybe even ask them for tips...or springboard off that more positive emotion to doing one more thing that might bring your closer to your goal. You don't shout at a flower to grow, why would you do that to yourself?
Remember also that goals are not singular - so there are other things you can do in preparation for results. Perhaps you can window shop a certificate frame for your new qualification; or a new outfit for your new style - you do not need to purchase them yet, but the excitement may act as another quick boost. Alternatively you might consider the jobs you want to apply for, or the experiences you want to have. When we are goal-focused we have a tendency to become quite blinkered in our thinking, and by lifting our gaze we may already begin to enjoy the benefits of the new stage in our life that the goal is bringing us to.
So change is hard, regular practice - especially when it's uncomfortable or you are not seeing results yet - is hard...but nothing is harder than feeling stuck where you do not want to be.
Dr Audrey Tang is a chartered psychologist and author with a specialty in the "how to take action", rather than just giving explanation and advice. Listen to her podcast Retrain Your Brain here; and catch her practical masterclasses Psych Back to Basics on DisruptiveTV & Energy Top Up for resilience.