Most of us have some understanding that in order for our situation to improve something will have to be adjusted, amended, eradicated, enhanced. . .changed. While the fact that nothing changes without change is no doubt stating the obvious, when applied to our complicated lives filled with infinite distractions and rotating priorities our ability to do so is not so simple. Our society expects us to be experts at immediate and long lasting improvement by simply reading the latest self-help book, trying the newest fad, listening to this or that podcast, or buying the latest product. Platitudes such as ‘Just do it,' ‘just say no’, ‘pull yourself up by the boot-straps,' ‘snap out of it’, and other well meaning sentiments can be unhelpful if we do not know what to do. Even when faced with powerful reasons for change such as medical/health reasons, to save a relationship, legal pressures, and even spiritual/religious experiences: why is it still so difficult to sustain the changes we desire so much? It can be beneficial to explore the possibility that while we are indeed experts at bringing successful and beneficial change to many areas of our lives, there are some areas that are consistently resistant to our efforts.
How does one change?
The ‘recipe’ of change can be thought of as containing three vital ingredients:
Think of something right now that you have been wanting to change about yourself, but have been unsuccessful at achieving or sustaining. In order to make a long lasting change it has to be important to you. . .really, really important. This is often the first ingredient that we achieve: a realization that something is not the way we want it to be. Unfortunately this is also where most of us stop our preparation for change: if something is really, really important to us, we should just be able to do it, right? Willpower does not work for everything. Tragically, people can spend years battling with themselves using willpower to change, only to find themselves back at square one over and over again. This fallacy is based on the misguided principle that if we want something bad enough, no matter what it is, we can achieve it.
We need to know how to do it as well. This is where coping skills, support, accountability, and new routines comes into play. A specific strategy. . .new daily habits that support your new goal. Understanding the ‘how’ of change gives us confidence that we can achieve our goal. Without confidence related to practicing new healthy habits and skills; change remains a mysterious thing that only other people seem to be able to achieve.
The third ingredient of change is often the most difficult to navigate as it has at its very core the thing that so often thwarts the promises we make to ourselves: distraction. The hardest part of this is a distraction that is actually also really, really important. Take the thing earlier that you have wanted to change about yourself, something important that has been so hard to make work. How often does something seemingly more urgent or important ‘pop’ up in your life that you tell yourself is a momentary exception to your new routine? A holiday or special event that puts your new healthy eating plan on hiatus, a stressful or tragic event that justifies just one drink, the promise of exercising tomorrow instead of today, your spouse doing the one thing that you asked them not to do giving way to frustration and argument, etc. This list is infinite and different for everyone, but one thing is consistent: the new goal or change loses priority over some other person, place, or thing. This is so hard because these other person, places, or things are often the things we value the most. Working with another person that you can trust is a critical aspect of maintaining healthy change as a priority. Prioritization of our new goal is not always all or nothing, this or that; it is however necessary to have objective feedback so as not to inadvertently fall back into old routines.
A good counselor, among other supportive people, can help you identify and resolve the inner conflict that keeps you stuck in old routines.
When we find ourselves struggling to realize a goal via self-help, perhaps it makes more sense to apply ‘Just Do It’ specifically to reaching out for support.
* Concept from the counseling approach of Motivational Interviewing, in part developed by clinical psychologists Professor William R Miller, Ph.D. and Professor Stephen Rollnick, Ph.D.