This week I attended a seminar on Successful Behavior Change presented by Mary Ann Hodorowicz. Although this talk was primarily aimed at clinical educators much of it was applicable to anyone attempting to change behavior for one reason or another. For example, suppose you recognize that you need to exercise more. Perhaps your doctor has suggested that this is necessary to improve your health. Or maybe you used to exercise regularly but got out of the habit due to illness, injury or just life interferences. You know you felt better when exercise was part of your life but you’ve been away so long and so much has changed that you lack the confidence to jump back in.
Whatever the reason and regardless of your good intentions, changing one’s behavior can be difficult. There are so many obstacles along the path. Family or job obligations, weather, time constraints, physical limitations, fatique, depression or just plain inertia – all of these and more can conspire to keep you from moving forward. You end up telling yourself that you just can’t change and it’s pointless to try. Sound familiar? Here are some ideas that might help you break this negative cycle.
The first step toward making any kind of change in your life is accepting that the change is important to you. This means making a decision. Changing anything necessarily means letting go of something and replacing it with something else. This involves a loss of some type. Loss is difficult so a choice needs to be made. The thing you’re giving up might be time, for example, or an extra half-hour of sleep. Maybe you will need to ask someone else for help so that you can make the time. Sometimes that’s a tricky proposition requiring some risk of rejection. Or maybe you just don’t like having to ask for help so the loss is your pride. You already know what’s standing in your way, now look at the reasons why you want to make the change. How much do you value the thing you’re giving up? What are the benefits of the new behavior? For example, regular exercise has to potential to improve your mood, reduce your stress levels, give you more energy so you can accomplish more, make mobility and simple tasks easier, reduce pain, etc. In fact, the benefits may extend beyond yourself. You might actually find that those around you experience benefits as well. When your quality of life improves, everyone around you benefits. Try making a list of potentially positive results and weighing it against whatever you might think you’re losing. See if this helps to motivate you.
Making the decision is a big step, but then you have to follow through. This can be tough, too. One thing that might help is to ease into it. In the years when I was running ultramarathons there were many slogans we used to stay motivated. One was “start slow and back off”. This was an acknowledgement that we all start off too fast. In order to complete an ultramarathon one needs to have the stamina and endurance to go the distance. It helps to have a long term mind set for the long range process. In many ways, behavior change is like a marathon. It is a lifetime process. If you try to do too much at once, you will likely get discouraged and burn out or quit. Just like the proverbial tortoise and hare, slow and steady wins the race. Remember – you did not get where you are overnight. It will take a consistent committment to get you back on track.
At this point it helps to let go of expectations. Forget what you used to do or think you should be able to do. In fact, drop the word “should” from your vocabulary. There is no “should do” there is only “can do”. That means celebrate what you can do right now in this moment. If it means you can walk for 5 minutes or you try the first few movements of an exercise in a class before taking a rest, that’s fine! It’s a start. Everyone has to start somewhere. Starting is the important part. This is a process that you want to be able to maintain long term. The outcomes will become apparent over time and they may be totally different from what you initially thought. You may find additional benefits that were not in your original list. For example, if you decide to try classes you may discover the social benefits of exercising with a group. As you begin to gain skill you may even surprise yourself by finding out that you actually like exercising. At that point you will find that keeping the change in our life is not so difficult anymore. Even if you don’t like every movement, you will enjoy the benefits. When obstacles arise, resistance will be easier to overcome.
If you are still grappling with how to implement changes you know you need to make in your life, a reality check may be necessary. You can stay in denial, refusing to accept that the change is important to your quality of life. You can also waste alot of time waiting for the right moment. So many times I hear people say, “As soon as (fill in the blank) is over I will start exercising.” Or “I need to get in shape first and then I’ll come to a class”. These are all excuses. When you run out of excuses it can actually be a relief to simply accept reality and make the effort of choose change. It will require some thought and planning, but showing up is half the battle. Once you’ve made the decision take that first scary step. Then add another step and another. Before you know it, you will be on your way to implementing that change and making it a part of your life. That’s something you can really feel good about!