Recently I was reminded once again how hard it is to change the way we think and the way we act, specifically when it comes to giving up a bad habit and adopting a good one.
My husband Lee and I were at the Outer Banks of North Carolina with a group of enthusiastic bird watchers, and one morning we were having breakfast with another couple.
The topic of food came up.
The husband said he had a history of heart disease in his family and revealed that he’s pre-diabetic. When he was first diagnosed with this condition, he attended classes to help him learn how to choose foods more wisely to reduce his risk of compromising his health further. So he’s now aware of the damage that consuming sweets can do, and he know what foods to eat instead. Yet the facts haven’t altered his attitude or behavior.
His exact words: “I don’t care. I still love cookies and I’m going to eat them. I pretty much eat whatever I want.”
Even though he has a compelling medical reason to change his eating patterns, he’s not open to making any type of modification. Even if it costs him his life.
Unfortunately, his reaction is not unique.
I know several people who face medical challenges that could be corrected if they altered their eating habits. But most of them have refused.
What causes us to close our minds to alternative approaches? Why do we persist in minimizing or ignoring potentially serious consequences when they’ve been clearly mapped out for us?
Part of it stems from our reluctance to stretch outside our comfort zone. What we’ve been doing is familiar. It’s like those comfortable clothes you climb into after you get home from work. You like the way they feel.
Our habits are the same way. We’ve “worn” them a long time. Even thinking about trying something new and unfamiliar can create anxious feelings and thoughts.
Why do I have to give up something I really like to do/have/eat?
What if it’s too hard?
What if I try and fail? How will that look to others?
Changing a habit means interrupting a routine that’s been firmly established in your brain. And that’s not easy or automatic. It requires physical rewiring a new pathway of neuronal connections. Not only that, this new path has to become even stronger than the old one to over-ride your ingrained response.
While there are many factors involved in making a change - including the repetition of the new behavior dozens or hundreds of times - here are three that have a huge impact on your success rate.
You have to believe that you’re capable of making this change, that it’s possible for YOU. This may sound simple, but it’s not. We all carry a lot of baggage related to our capabilities, much of it inaccurate. Your self-image is the driving force behind everything you attempt or achieve in life, so it’s important to develop a strong belief in your abilities.
In The Power of Habit, author Charles Duhigg discusses the role belief plays for participants of Alcoholics Anonymous (AA): “Once people learned how to believe in something, that skill started spilling over to other parts of their lives, until they started believing they could change. Belief was the ingredient that made a reworked habit loop into a permanent behavior.”
Duhigg also points out the importance of a support group, such as AA, in expanding one’s beliefs. He shares this insight from Lee Ann Kaskutas, a senior scientist at the Alcohol Research Group: “There’s something really powerful about groups and shared experiences. People might be skeptical about their ability to change if they’re by themselves, but a group will convince them to suspend disbelief. A community creates belief.”
Identify a community you can join where the members will help you build belief in the new habit you want to adopt.
How badly do you want to make the change? Until the reason becomes truly compelling, you may not care enough to put forth the necessary effort. Identify the benefits you’ll get if you actually create the new pattern. Write them down and review them every day to keep them in the front of your mind as you go through your day. Visualize how you’ll look, feel and act when you’ve adopted the new behavior. When you connect strong, positive feelings with the new habit, you feed your motivation.
There are two forms of commitment. One is to make the initial commitment – you decide you are going to make the change. The second is to stay committed, even when you encounter obstacles, setbacks and failure. And trust me, you will encounter these difficulties. Recognize that these are just temporary impediments and a natural part of the change process.
A caring community can go a long way in shoring up your resolve and keeping you on track. Whether it’s just one other person or dozens of individuals, these supporters play a key role in strengthening your beliefs, motivation and commitment.
The next time you need to make a significant change or adopt a new habit, remember these words from American psychologist William James:
"The greatest discovery of my generation is that human beings can alter their lives by altering their attitudes of mind...It is our attitude at the beginning of a difficult undertaking which, more than anything else, will determine its successful outcome."