As a psychologist, people come to me to learn how to change their behavior. More often than not, people want to change behaviors that have been longstanding, reinforced over many years and resistant to change. For example, people have asked me to help them to stop relying on substances like alcohol and benzos to manage their stress and negative emotions, help them get more and better quality sleep, and help them become less depressed or anxious so they can get more positive experiences from exercise and social interactions.
Here, I’ll share with you some tricks that have worked in my practice for meaningful, long-term behavior change, based on scientific principles such as learning theory, theories of motivation, and cognitive-behavioral theory. Hopefully, these principles will apply to the changes you’d like to make in the new year.
1. Assess your motivation for change.
Sometimes people use the new year to make commitments that they are not ready to make, just because it’s a new year. But they make a cardinal assumption—that they have already considered the realities of that change, the consequences of no longer doing the safe and comfortable thing, and that their life is set up to accommodate this change. Prochaska and DiClemente’s transtheoretical model of intentional human behavior change (1983, 1994) proposes that people achieve behavior change by moving through the following stages: precontemplation, contemplation, preparation, action, and maintenance.
People would be unlikely to make any successful changes in behavior if they are stuck in the precontemplation stage, when they are unaware of the problem behavior, or if they are still in the contemplation stage, when they have become aware of the problem behavior but are conflicted about moving forward.
Make a list and consider the pro's and con's of making the change AND the pro’s and con’s of NOT making the change before committing to any new years resolutions. It might also be helpful to consider times in your life when you’ve been able to make changes in your behavior to understand your motivations and reasons for change. Everyone is different in what motivates them to change.
2. Pick only 1 or 2!
This might sound like an obvious tip, but once you have decided you are ready to make a change, only choose one or two to work on this year. The reason for this is simple—lifestyle changes like exercising more and reducing stress take daily effort and time management to assess and re-evaluate your progress. Making too many goals comes at the cost of the energy you can devote to each, and decreases the likelihood of successfully making positive change.
3. Set clear and definable goals.
This is a basic premise of behavior modification theories—to change a target behavior, the target behavior must be clearly defined and observable so that it can be easily tracked. When my patients tell me they want to feel less depressed, I ask them, what does that look like? Does that mean you’ll be able to go to the gym more? See your friends more? How many times?
Operationalize the goals you set out to achieve!
- If it’s exercise more, set a realistic goal of 2 spin classes and 1 strength training session per week.
- If it’s drink less alcohol, set a goal of having 2 less alcoholic beverages each week.
- A key point here is to follow-up with this goal by tracking your progress each week. There are many apps out there for this and tracking it on a personal device like your phone is a great way to keep yourself accountable.
4. Assess barriers to change and address them.
Great, now you’ve thought your motivation to make the changes you want to make, developed a clear and definable goal and a way to track your progress, but there are still lots of roadblocks.
These can be financial, logistical, or emotional. For example:
- You want to exercise more but can’t afford a gym membership.
- You want to reduce your stress but have no time in your schedule to attend a stress management class or go to yoga.
- You want to quit smoking but all of your friends smoke and you wouldn’t get to see them anymore if you quit smoking.
- You want to be a better partner, but are struggling with your own mental health issues and don’t see the point of setting goals you’ll never reach.
Consider all of these potential barriers to the changes you want to make, and address each of them one by one. Often leveraging the support of someone else can help you overcome these barriers- for example, if a friend will go running with you outside once a week so you don’t need to go to a gym, or if you have a coworker who doesn’t smoke who can introduce you to more of her network of nonsmokers. Anticipating these barriers and doing this work up front eliminates any surprises and last minute impulsive choices that keep you from achieving change.
5. Set up an environment that is conducive to change.
This idea is related to the last one, which also stems from behavioral theory. Much of our behavior is shaped by our environment (our schedules, our living situation, the people we interact with on a daily basis), and the reinforcers of the old behavior need to be modified to prepare for your new behavior.
- If your new year's resolution is to work on your lateness to meetings, and your lateness is reinforced by all the clocks in your house being set a few minutes late, then set all of your clocks a few minutes early.
- If your drinking habits are reinforced by the huge bar you have at home, then get rid of the extra bottles of liquor and wine.
- Set up your environment to get rid of the reinforcers of your problem behavior!
6. Break down a big goal into smaller goals and shape/reinforce each step of the goal.
Another huge takeaway from Edward Thorndike’s law of effect (behaviorism): behaviors with positive consequences will happen more, whereas behaviors with negative consequences will happen less.
If your goal is to exercise more and this is something previously associated with negative consequences (grueling ordeal, no fun), reward yourself after doing even a simple thing like packing a gym bag. On the next day, reward yourself after packing a gym bag, and putting on your sneakers. The next day, reward yourself after packing a gym bag, putting on your sneakers, and walking toward the gym. And so on, reward thyself until you start to experience positive reinforcement from each small step toward your goal.
7. Challenge your thinking.
A huge part of my clinical practice is encouraging patients to challenge their destructive thoughts, which feed into their problem behaviors and handicap them from reaching their goals.
How often have you heard a voice in your head saying:
- Since I already ate badly earlier today, I should just keep eating badly the rest of the day- I already messed up! (an example of black and white thinking)
- Or how about, If I don’t reduce my stress, my partner is going to leave me and I’ll end up alone (catastrophic thinking)
- People must think I’m incompetent because I’m always a few minutes late (mind reading)
- Or If I feel (insert negative label: fat, lazy, stupid), then I must be… (emotional reasoning)
Identify these negative, automatic thinking patterns, and then challenge whether they are valid. What would you tell a friend who is having these thoughts?
8. If you’re unhappy in a relationship, assess your attachment style and your needs.
The new year can make people reflect on changes they want to make in their romantic relationships, and for some, this means making the decision to end or keep a problematic relationship. Attachment science offers insights into the various attachment needs that people have, and which attachment styles tend to clash. The concept of early attachment was developed by Mary Ainsworth in her Strange Situation experiments, in which she examined the attachment styles of infants by assessing how they related with novel toys and strangers, in the presence and absence of their caregiver.
Approximately 50% of the population appear to be securely attached- people who find it easy to relate to and depend on others for intimacy and closeness. However, the remaining half of the population are a mix of people with “anxious” attachment (afraid of being abandoned or rejected by others) and “avoidant” attachment (uncomfortable with being intimate or close with others) styles.
The most mismatched combination in a relationship is when one person is anxiously attached (seeks closeness) and the other is avoidantly attached (seeks independence), which can lead to strife. One of the recent books I read is called Attached: The New Science of Adult Attachment, which clearly explains this mismatch and ways to address it. The part of this book that really stuck with me was the concept of the dependency paradox, which is the paradoxical idea that the more you depend on your partner, the more independence you will actually experience than if you didn’t depend on your partner, because you have a secure base to fall back on when things don’t go your way.
If you are aware of your attachment needs, regardless of which attachment style you have (secure does not mean best!), you can experience happiness in a relationship just by virtue of communicating these needs to your partner.
By Angela Fang, Ph.D. - Mental Health Expert