Wanting to change some aspect of our behaviour is a goal most people have held at some time. But as the reputation of failed New Year’s resolutions proves, change is easier said than done. Failing in our efforts to change can become a source of frustration and even shame. We will explore reasons why change is challenging, as well as ways to maximise your chance of altering habits successfully.
Your expectation about change is unrealistic
Generally, we start our journey of change by setting a goal. Our aim might be to start a new habit (e.g., exercising every day), or something we are going to stop (e.g., smoking). Sometimes, our goal can be vague (e.g., be better), or even reflect a sense of desperation (e.g., get my life together).
If our goal is unrealistic then we set ourselves up to fail. Goals to change can be unrealistic for the following reasons:
Your change goal is too complex
- If your goal is complex then it may seem unattainable, making you more likely to avoid changing your behaviour.
- Goals that are overly ambitious can also set us up for frustration if we do not have the necessary skills. If you wanted to change a behaviour like aggression you would need to build up alternative coping skills and calming strategies before expecting to master a new, calmer demeanour.
- If your goal is too complex, try breaking the behaviour you want to change into steps. For example, the goal of ‘becoming fit,’ becomes simpler if it is broken into incremental steps on an exercise plan.
- Goals become more concrete, achievable, and strategic if you use well-known goal setting techniques such as the SMART goals strategy.
Your environment makes the change unachievable
- If we make goals to change, they should be aimed at things we can control. For example, the goal of ‘save my marriage,’ is not a change that we could realistically expect to influence fully. A better goal might be ‘communicate more affection towards my spouse.’
- Change is affected by more than our motivation and actions. Even the best intentions can be waylaid by unforeseen factors. For example, poor health could impede lots of plans, as could unforeseen stress.
Habits die hard
Most people have at least a few habitual behaviours they would label ‘bad habits.’ But how do bad habits arise? We might think of them as maladaptive problem solving. These are behaviours that may have fulfilled some need in the past or currently, but that are also problematic. For example, overeating is a common ‘bad habit,’ which may be borne out of multiple causes (e.g., boredom, enjoyment of food, a way of coping emotionally, or a social norm).
Our brain learns through repetition and when we repeatedly engage in a behaviour it creates a mental shortcut for this pattern. This is reflected in the notion of ‘neurons that fire together wire together.’ If we want to create a new pattern of behaviour it is not as simple as deleting the old habit and replacing it. We must create an alternative neural pathway and strengthen it, which takes time and practice. Underestimating the difficulty of changing habits is very common. Being realistic about how long change will take and how hard it will be can prevent you from becoming disappointed. Another pitfall to avoid when trying to change is mental rigidity when faced with setbacks.
You give up too easily.
Have you ever stopped trying to change because the process was too difficult? Many people can relate to this, and it is certainly more complex than simply being lazy or weak. Changing behaviour is not an all-or-nothing process and if we view it in this rigid way then we are more likely to give up. Seeing change as a ‘succeed’ or ‘fail’ task can fuel relapse, when people go back to regularly doing a behaviour they were trying to change. While relapse is often used as a term in the realm of addiction, the principle can be applied for other behaviours too.
In addiction treatment the difference between a lapse and relapse is highlighted to help reduce feelings of defeat if faced with a challenge. If you revert to old ways, try thinking of this as a lapse (an instance where change didn’t occur as planned), rather than a relapse (being back to square one). This might sound obvious, but when we are frustrated with ourselves it is easy to engage in an absolute and negative style of thinking. Sometimes it is convenient to think this way in the moment too, as it gives us a sense of apathy and permission to fall into easy, established patterns.
It’s also worth considering the following question – does not achieving a planned change always mean failure? If a change we are trying to make feels too difficult or is not what we expected it’s possible that we might be better off not changing. This is particularly true when strong emotions are at play, or when we start to change and become aware of additional factors we had not considered.
It’s also possible that difficulty with changes means you are making the wrong decision, or that it is not the right time for the process. For example, you might start trying to change your job due to feeling emotional, only to later realise your job is not the problem. Or you might try to quit smoking then restart this behaviour to help cope with a relationship breakup. If we are feeling physically or emotionally unwell it is difficult to persist with changing behaviour. Sidestepping rigid thinking can improve your ability to make changes in the long-term. For example, you might remind yourself that you can always resume the change process (and even if you’ve gone backwards you have some experience in trying to change). Showing kindness to yourself and accepting when you don’t meet your goals is also useful.
You don’t really want to change
We’ve explored how difficult change is and how internal and external factors may impede efforts to alter behaviour. If we don’t really want to change in the first place, then it will be easy to find reasons to give in.
People’s attitudes towards a particular change tend to be more complex than a yes or no dichotomy. Often, we have mixed feelings towards change, and generally our existing behaviour is giving us something (which is what fuels it in continuing). For example, smoking has been proven to be deleterious to health, is expensive, and can be inconvenient. At the same time, smoking can be a stress reliever, enjoyable and may be perceived in a positive way by some people. Thus, the answer to ‘do you want to stop smoking?’ may be both a yes and a no.
The stages of change model identifies readiness to change through five stages. There is precontemplation, where one has no desire for or reflection about change. Contemplation involves emerging thoughts about change. Preparation involves planning for a change and maybe some initial steps, whereas action is implementing change more fully. Maintenance means consistently performing a changed behaviour, whereas relapse involves going back to the old behaviour repeatedly. The stages of change model may be helpful to you in recognising where you are at, and in validating that it is normal to have feelings of ambivalence about change. If you are pushed to make a change when you are only in contemplation, then you will be less successful in achieving this change than if you were in the action phase. This is worth keeping in mind if you are trying to help someone else change their behaviour. You cannot control where someone is at in the change process. Assisting someone appropriately might involve recognising where they are in terms of change and then giving them relevant help. For example, if someone is only contemplating changing their drug addiction then information and conversation about the effect of drugs on their life would be more appropriate then forcing them to plan a date to start detoxing.
Even if you do want to change a behaviour, you must want this enough to persist through difficulties. Writing out reasons for change before you commence the process can help in keeping you motivated when you feel like giving in. Public commitments (where you tell others about the change you are going to make) may also boost your likelihood of succeeding. This is because public commitments add an extra element of motivation, a feeling of social pressure. Having said this, it is better if the change has an underlying intrinsic motivation. Changes we commit to due to our own values and motivations tend to be more effective than those we make due to external reasons.
Change can be difficult due to overly ambitious goals, or because of barriers in the environment. Sometimes we might decide that a change is not for us, or that it is not the right time to change. In addition, our brain is wired in a way that makes change difficult, because we must repeatedly enact a behaviour for it to become a regular response. Given how challenging change is, it is easy to give up prematurely on attempts to alter behaviour. You need to have strong motivations and be ready to make the planned change, which is sometimes difficult when behaviours tend to have both pros and cons. Remaining self-compassionate throughout the change process is preferable, as are sustained attempts to make new behaviours turn into habits. With time and effort, we are all capable of making changes in our life.
If you feel you would benefit from further help in changing behaviour our Young Minds team can assist (phone 3857 0074 or contact us online).