“Chains of habit are too tight to be felt until they are too heavy to be broken.” ~Warren Buffet
I’d like to say that change is something that people embrace. I’d like to say that if we get fed up and disgusted enough with a habit in our lives that we’ll be motivated to make that change.
I’d also like to think that change is easy. But, the fact is, no matter how much there may be something in our lives we want to change, we often fall short of making it happen.
I’ve been in the field of Behavioral Science for over two decades. As a Behavior Analyst, I’ve seen a lot regarding the struggles people have in making changes in their lives. I’ve seen resistance. I’ve seen blatant refusal. I’ve seen denial. I’ve seen projection..and tears, and hope.
…And I’ve seen that change is possible.
However, getting to that place of change is a different story.
Who knows? Maybe Ego gets in the way and keeps us locked in a self-defeating pattern when our pride doesn’t want to face what’s become habit.
Or, maybe we’re wearing rose-colored glasses thinking there’s nothing wrong — because we’re looking on the outside at others instead of on the inside, at ourselves.
Yet, in those moments of honesty when we’re trying to “convince” ourselves that we “need” to change, things seem to backfire as self-limiting. After we’ve given ourselves enough ultimatums and excuses, we often start finding ways to distract ourselves from facing the habit we wanted to eliminate in the first place.
So, the habit winds up sticking.
There’s your cycle.
Change can be tough because there are so many variables influencing it which keep us locked in the habit we want to change. Adding another layer of challenge is believing that habits can be made or broken within a few weeks — which sets you up for failure.
The fact is, the longer a habit has been in play, the tougher it is to take it out of play. There are no shortcuts.
Studies have been conducted in recent years in how long on average it can take for a new habit to stick. For example, a study by Phillippa et al. (2009) reported that on average, new habits can take about 66 days to become automatic, but can range from 18–254 days depending on how complex the situation is. However, other things should be taken into consideration such as monitoring the habit after it’s been established to ensure it’s continuing to be strengthened, rather than just being automatic — otherwise you’re at risk for developing a weak new habit that’s now on autopilot.
Other studies which are behavior analytic in nature, look at reducing unwanted behavior by examining contingencies and environmental factors — not just “rewards”. Analysis takes a richer examination of behavior to include more than just the behavior itself. Here’s where things like magnitude, duration, rate, formal assessment or differential reinforcement are considered, along with creating healthier alternative habits.
Because unwanted behavior is notoriously difficult to reduce or eliminate, it tends to come back. By ensuring that a behavior is not only scheduled for change, but is changing with a long-term durable outcome, analytic interventions often track several types of data to improve long-term successes.
The 4 Reasons Why Change Is Challenging
We already know bad habits are tough to eliminate. And, we’ve probably experienced it ourselves or know someone who’s struggled with change.
The biggest reasons change is challenging include:
Getting Discouraged. Change is not instantaneous. Or even fast for that matter. Long-term change is something that has to be monitored and modified as progress is made. This can take time. Yet, for whatever reason (motivation, lack of tracking, unrealistic expectations, etc.), if we aren’t seeing the results quickly, we wind up throwing in the towel…where the unwanted habit sticks around.
Enough of Your Own Crap. You’ve probably heard that old saying that change is what happens when you’ve had enough of your own crap. It’s true. Motivation and drive play a big role in habit formation and habit change. In behavior analysis, we examine things deeper and run analyses on why the habit may be in place. Then, once we’ve targeted why it’s there, we schedule the habit for change.
However, at the end of the day, the best analysis in the world won’t get you to quit a habit if you aren’t on board in quitting it. Stopping a habit can only come through acceptance. You’re dedication to acceptance and change are perhaps even more important than the intervention itself.
Complacency. Here is where most of us wind up spinning our wheels. We may have an “idea” of what’s going on in our lives that we want to change. Some of us may even know how long a bad habit has been there, where it started, and why.
Sometimes, however, there is a disconnection between knowing it’s a bad habit and doing something about it.
The thing with complacency is that it feels good — in the moment. It’s comfortable, or familiar, even when it’s toxic to your personal growth. Complacency prevents growth, and is what keeps us stuck on a loop — where we keep repeating our starting point instead of moving past it.
By staying complacent, we’re often in the habit of denying, rationalizing and minimizing to spare our Ego. Once we’ve had enough of falling further down a self-defeating rabbit hole, we usually start waving the white flag…and surrender.
The Fear of the Unknown. Change can be nerve-wracking. It’s the fear of the unknown and the hit our Ego can take in the process that keeps us stuck in a loop instead of jumping off the hamster wheel and making healthy changes. We may start psyching ourselves up that we “can’t change”, or scaring ourselves into believing that we’re somehow “damaged” for being human. All this does is keeps us chained to the habit we want gone.
Taking a Chance at Change
I’m not here to tell you that change will come easy. However, change is directly proportionate to the time, investment, and dedication we put into it. We’re all lifelong learners and part of the learning curve includes figuring ourselves out. Some of us will be faster learners while some of us may need a few extra lifelines.
Change starts by first accepting whether you want to make a change and then gearing up your mindset and behavior to be aligned with that change.
Once you’ve made peace with yourself and are honest in your starting point, you can become more open to the possibility of change. Maybe change your perspective on the process, or change your mindset about it. Perhaps use different word other than “change” such as improvement, or empowerment.
Get rid of expectations or preconditions you may have had about self-improvement. Expectations are what keep us locked in the cycle of complacency and self-defeat. Instead, embrace your own pace and chose self-awareness as part of the journey. It makes the process faster, and you gain some insight along the way, which is worth its weight in gold.
Write down your goals regarding change, and have a solid plan of action. These are necessary if you actually want long-lasting and substantial positive change. Write down your thoughts throughout the day, your feelings, your struggles with how your goals are panning out for you. Be aware of cycles emerging, both good and bad, and plan accordingly to tackle them and make necessary changes.
Practice the art of self-forgiveness. The reason it’s an art-form is because we’re often hardwired to be our own worst critics. By learning how to practice and increase your overall self-forgiveness, you become more receptive to understanding yourself on a deeper level (why a habit started, your feelings about it, where it may have been learned, whether it’s self-protective or self-sabotaging..or both).
Consistency is key. Part of consistency is in the monitoring of your goals, your habits, your stumbles, and your victories. These are part of the process of change and often the most rewarding part. Your goals, feelings, thoughts, and daily patterns should be tracked hourly, or at a minimum of four times a day to start (when you get up, lunch, after work, before bed). More is always better when first beginning to track a new habit or eliminate an unwanted one, and consistency is the secret to mastering this process.
In addition to consistency, what you track is equally as important as how often you’re tracking. Consider creating a chart or using an app to track things like your emotions, thoughts, whether your motivation is up or down, and most importantly — new healthy habits that are geared to replace the unwanted ones. Tracking should be an everyday thing — especially at first.
This is called behavior momentum and is critical for starting any program geared for increasing healthy habits or reducing unwanted ones. There is ample research confirming the necessity for consistency in daily tracking of habits, patterns and behaviors when engaging in a habit-change program.
When tracking is not done consistently, it often becomes one of the biggest predictors affecting improvement.
Most importantly, celebrate every victory, no matter how big or small you believe they are. These are what help to positively reinforce your ongoing positive change.
Greer, B. D., & Shahan, T. A. (2019). Resurgence as choice: Implications for promoting durable behavior change. Journal of Applied Behavior Analysis, 52, 816–846.
Phillippa Lally, Cornelia H. M. van Jaarsveld, Henry W. W. Potts & Jane Wardle. (2009). How are habits formed: Modelling habit formation in the real world. European Journal of Social Psychology, 40, 998–1009.
Skinner, B. F. (1974). About Behaviorism, New York: Random House.
This post was previously published on Medium.com.
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