Making lasting changes to our lifestyles, or our behaviours, is a tricky task. While our initial enthusiasm for the change might get us started, even shifting the old habits, we invariably end up relapsing back to our old ways of doing things. Which is frustrating…and disheartening.
That frustration can often lead us to throw our hands up at the possibility of ever succeeding in our desire to do things differently. When we get to that stage, not only do we feel like we have gone backwards, we often feel like giving up entirely.
But some people do manage to lose weight and keep it off, or continue with regular exercise, or give up smoking, drinking, chocolate or whatever “bad” habit they may have had. They do manage to become more assertive, or procrastinate less, or create healthier relationships or make more time for their own well-being. So how do they do it?
The first thing to realise is that making lasting changes to our lifestyles or our behaviours is not just about having willpower alone. It is about recognising that change is a process, not a single, once-off event.
I have written several articles in the past about the cycle of change that moves us from not even considering change, through to recognising that we need to change, to deciding to change, then taking action to change and ultimately working to maintain the change or relapsing back to our pre-change ways.
All through that process we might need help and support from other people. Sometimes we need the eye-opener perspective from peers or family to recognise, for example, that our lifestyle may have slipped from being unhealthy to being dangerous. Or they might help us realise that our habits have really negative impacts on others, not just ourselves.
They may be instrumental in helping us to find the tools, supports or motivation to make the necessary changes. From major interventions such as getting a loved one into rehab treatment for serious addiction, through to signing us up for Weight Watchers as a “present”, or offering to join us in a nightly walk or trip to the gym.
But even when we have help and support to both spot the need for change and work out how to change, the real success in maintaining change does require some strength, individual determination, willpower, grit and effort on our own part.
So, when you have tried to change things in the past (and probably relapsed back to old habits), you may have felt like it was an individual failing on your part. Perhaps you even recriminated that you simply didn’t have the strength of will to commit to the change. But you may not have been fair to yourself.
Having willpower is not some instinctive trait that you either do or don’t have. Willpower requires us to understand something about the different forces at work within our complicated brains.
At its most simple, we have two competing brain systems at play. On the one hand we have the impulsive brain, with its reward centres, that is being triggered by the old habit and the promise of short-term gratification.
Even when we are unhappy with the old habit (like hating smoking), the reassurance of doing the behaviour (like having a cigarette) might be enough to reduce anxiety and release endorphins, because the “devil you know is better than the one you don’t”.
We then have the rational, wise, brain that is trying to combat the habitual neural triggers of the behaviour we are trying to change, by managing the impulses, rationalising why the change is good, or trying to decide on alternative behaviours. Our wise brain has an eye to the long-term gain.
Sometimes the impulsive triggers are very powerful (we often term them “cravings”) and the rational part of our thinking can feel overwhelmed.
To counteract these cravings, we have to try not to “fight” them. Rather than denouncing the desires we need to accept them. It sounds simple, but it takes some effort. In practice, when we feel a powerful, almost emotional, urge to carry out the old behaviour, we need to pause and really focus on what that feeling is (rather than deny it or simply try to distract from it). Pausing (for a minute or so) and feeling the urge, gives us the time required for the reason why we want to change to filter back into our minds.
This is a process of mindful, curious acknowledgement. We might desperately want to smoke, or watch pornography, or place a bet, or eat some chocolate and we need to let those feelings have space to “be” within us. Rather than running away from the discomfort of those feelings, we need to actually approach them, notice them and accept them. At that point it becomes easier to re-engage our wise and rational brain.
Within the rationale for why we are changing, it is really helpful to have a clear sense of what overarching reason we had to make the change in the first place. Knowing what we really value, or what is most important to us, allows us to cope with discomfort for longer.
In my own experience, my first successful sustained abstinence from smoking occurred when my first child was born, and I knew that I didn’t want him to grow up with a dad who smoked. So, knowing this reason, for yourself, is critical. You need to have it imprinted on your mind, so it is easily accessible when temptation to stray appears. We need to practice repeating it to ourselves or place it visibly around us; on the fridge, by the bed, on the computer monitor. The more your conscious thinking brain can keep you aligned with your determination, the easier and more successful your change can be.
However, even when such a clear rationale is easily accessible, a major stumbling block still remains. Change can come with setbacks when we fall short of our intention. How we deal with those setbacks is important. If we are harsh, unforgiving or critical of ourselves, we are more likely to see mistakes as failures, and failure as a reason to give up on the change we had embarked upon.
So, much as we have to accept the feelings of desire, or craving, that will inevitably occur, so too must we accept that we are human, and we will make mistakes.
If a friend made a mistake, and decided to binge on cake and chocolate, instead of their intended diet, would we berate them, or criticise them? Hopefully not. Hopefully we would treat them with compassion, understanding and try to spark their hope that they can do better the next time.
We have to adopt the same internal approach to mistakes or setbacks, being compassionate, forgiving ourselves and giving ourselves permission to try again. Only when we are kind to ourselves can we hope to make lasting and sustained change.