This is for everyone who has started down a new path toward a healthier weight, better conditioning, less procrastination, regular flossing, less alcohol, or no more cocaine (and all the other things you may want to change). You have the goal in your sites, and you’re ready to go!
If it were only so easy. It’s all too common that the new routine fades and enthusiasm wanes. This all happens in one big bang, one significant “forgetful’ moment, or a slow petering out. And the critical self-analysis begins: “I’ll never succeed at that”, “I’m a screw up”, “If people only knew how little willpower I have…” , to add a little insult to injury for the soul.
In addition to the not so nice self-attack routine is the likelihood that the thing you were wanting to change or start is now less likely to happen. Why is this? Wasn’t it really important to accomplish just the other day? Of course it was, but we are learning creatures who respond to feedback, or reinforcement, in a rational way. So when things get painful (because of the negative shouting in our heads) we can convince ourselves that it wasn’t really that important and it suddenly seems less worth it!
Since we are addiction experts, we pay close attention to how people shift from destructive paths to more constructive ones in relation to substance use. We know that change is difficult and is a process that benefits from some forethought and some pointers, regardless of the thing we are hoping to change. So where to begin?
Define Your Goals
First, it helps a lot to define as accurately and specifically as possible what it is you are aiming for. For example, “I’d really like to slow down my drinking” is not very specific, and does not have much detail. On the other hand, “I’m planning to drink no more than 2 nights a week and no more that 2 drinks a night” is much clearer.
Define Your Values
Next up: it is critically important to take into account 1) what is important to you about this change and 2) what you will not like about this change. Knowing why making the change matters to you is critical and will be the cornerstone of deciding to make a change in the first place. And it matters that the change you are trying to make is important to YOU. It’s ok for it to matter to your partner, kids, or parents as well, but at midnight, on your own, feeling bad, it really matters that your change goal is important to you for reasons you can remember. And why bother with thinking through what you “won’t like” while making this change? Because you were engaged in the old behavior for reasons that mattered to you also. People don’t drink too much/not exercise/put stuff off/eat a lot/not floss because they’re crazy or defective; they do it because they get something out of these behaviors (e.g., relaxation, extra time for work, avoid pain in relationships etc).
Identify Skills and Challenges
Then, go back to being clear. Ask yourself, how am I going to do this? Saying to yourself, “I’m really determined” is nice, but not so effective. Instead, have a specific plan to go with your specific goal, and you’ll get out of the starting gates better. For instance: “I am planning to let my partner know about my plan so she can support me, as well as keep track on my drinking app”.
Additionally, have the expectation that “this will be challenging” and a specific plan for dealing with those challenges. We say “challenging” not to be nervous nellies, but because all new learning takes time and failure. There is no way around it. If you don’t play the piano, you can’t sit down and play a concerto just because “I really want to”. It takes time, learning, and tolerating the experience of it not going well. This is part of change and new behavior, and if you are not prepared to experience that, you are probably not going far with this change. As you start to work on making a change, think through how you will deal with setback (“I drank a ton on Saturday and it made me feel hopeless”). You will have setbacks! Knowing ahead of time (“I’ll have my partner review my progress to date and help me feel less hopeless”) how you can step back onto the change track will be pivotal for staying the course.
Another important point to keep in mind is that change is a process of addition, not subtraction. When we are changing we are actually adding new behaviors to all the other behaviors we have practiced in the past. So, while the goal may be to “not drink alcohol anymore” or “to stop eating junk food” there is no way to “unlearn” or erase how to drink alcohol or eat junk food. The challenge is to find (or add) another behavior into your life that can be called on in those situations when drinking alcohol or eating junk food happened and seemed to make sense. Just trying to subtract behaviors typically results in them lurking in the background wanting attention and feeling neglected (because they don’t “go away”). Establishing new behaviors that have their own “pull” (i.e., rewards, reinforcement) will help keep you walking in that new direction.
Prepare for Uncertainty
Our last pointer has to do with the psychology of change and how to maintain it. Know that your reasons for change…will change! When you first decide “I really have to stop drinking”, you have reasons for that: “I am late to work a lot”, “my partner doesn’t like me when i drink”, “I have less motivation to do things” etc. These reasons matter enough at that moment to tip the balance and result in “I really want to stop drinking”.
But things change. In 6 months, you have been getting to work on time, your partner is not unhappy with you, and you are more motivated. In other words, some of the guns to your head have been taken away. At these moments, it is critical in maintaining change to re-look at “why am I doing this”. We do things for a reason. If I am not drinking, and if there is something in that drinking I am giving up that i liked (which is 100% true), then I had better have current and important reasons for doing this, and be adding other rewarding behaviors into the mix.
Again, be specific. The reasons you have for making the change need to make sense to YOU personally, not be generic (e.g., “you’d be crazy to return to drinking”), because the pull of the older, more practiced behavior, can be strong. Knowing that the landscape will change, and that your relationship to the new behavior will change (e.g. the novelty of a good night’s sleep has worn off) allows you to regularly check back in with yourself and recalibrate. Take time to re-evaluate and check-in why you are working toward the goal (e.g., “I am STILL not getting to socialize at the bar, which I miss, but it is also now important to me that I get up early and exercise, which I don’t do when I drink”). Some reasons for the new behavior may remain over time, but it is always helpful to make sure they are still important to you, as well as to examine any other reasons for this change that may have emerged.
So if you’re in the mood to “make a change”, we suggest getting some clarity and understanding why it matters to you. Try to get your head around the fact that it will take time and stumbling while you are adding in new behaviors, know you will miss the old behavior, and plan how you will cope with those stumbles. Last, do an attitude adjustment periodically to make sure the change you are working to make is still something you want. And hang in there!