Sky with clouds that spell "change" and an arrow pointing to the right

Behavior Change is Hard. How to Make it Easier and Make it Stick.

Summary: Behavior change is always hard, especially during tumultuous times like these. But there are things you can do to make change easier and more likely to stick. Here are eight steps you can take to make your desired change a reality.

Behavior Change is Hard. How to Make it Easier and Make it Stick.

“Action expresses priorities.”― Mahatma Gandhi 

Maybe recent events have inspired and energized you to consider changing your life in some way. In a previous post, I provide questions you can ask yourself and steps you can take to determine if a change in habit or priorities is right for you.

Or perhaps you have no choice; life circumstances require you to alter your habits or adopt a new priority whether you want to or not. Either way, the real question is: once you commit to making a change, how do you make the change “stick” as a permanent part of your life?

Successfully changing a habit or adopting a new priority means altering our behavior. Behavior change is difficult in part because we are affected by things we aren’t aware of or can’t easily control. For example our truest desires may conflict with the change we say we want to make, or deeply ingrained behaviors may have to be altered, or we’re in an environment that works against us. Perhaps we’re dealing with all three. 

Woman pointing at her temple

Either way, the real question is: once you commit to making a change, how do you make the change “stick” as a permanent part of your life?

Because of the impediments, successful behavior change takes careful planning. After all, “a goal without a plan is just a wish,” says writer Antoine de Saint-Exupéry. There’s no point expending time and energy to make a change if you aren’t going to set yourself up for success.

How do you put together a change plan that works?  Here are 7 strategies that can set you up for successful behavior change. 

Gain clarity.

Understand your true motivations for making the change. Keep in mind the more personally motivated you are by the idea of this change (as opposed to making a change for an external reason), the more likely you’ll succeed. Also, consider the circumstances in which you’re attempting to change. This helps you realistically frame the scope, steps, and timeline of your change plan. (Read this post for specific questions you can ask yourself to get the answers you need.)

Start small and start right away.

It’s tempting to think that the most accomplished among us have become so by regularly crossing big things off their to-do lists, but often this isn’t true. Many successful people have become masters at identifying and taking small steps that lead them towards a bigger goal. Behavior change is often achieved is small increments, not big leaps.

Entrepreneur Marie Forleo says, “Even upgrading your behavior in small pockets of time – five minutes here, fifteen minute there – will give you small wins to build on, the cumulative effect of which creates miracles. Ten minutes is better than no minutes.” Identify small and specific steps that put you on the right path, and commit to taking one or two of them every day.

Read this link for small step inspiration and tips. 

“Environment is the invisible hand that shapes behavior.” – James Clear

Make your environment your ally.

Habit experts tell us that a supportive environment is key to making desired change. This might mean putting your workout clothes out where you’ll see them so you’re more likely to exercise, or organizing your laptop and job hunting supplies in a visible and comfortable work space so you’ll be more likely to polish up your resume or complete that job application. Or perhaps you need to devise a sleep routine that encourages you to relax so you can get the shut-eye you need.

Use extrinsic motivation to gain intrinsic rewards.

In behavioral science, extrinsic describes motivation that comes from outside the individual while intrinsic refers to internal motivation. Sometimes we really want the rewards of accomplishing something of deeply intrinsic value (being a good parent, for example) but have difficulty motivating ourselves to take the sometimes difficult or boring steps that lead to this reward (exercising patience when your kids are on your last nerve).

In that case, more immediate rewards that are outside the scope of your ultimate goal can help you accomplish the thing that has deeper personal meaning. For example, if I run and watch what I eat (things that are difficult and require lots of self-control) and then immediately give myself a small reward for performing these behaviors, I will be more likely to keep up the behaviors. If I repeat the behaviors enough, I will eventually be in better shape and lose weight, which will give me the deeper sense of personal satisfaction I’m really after. (As long as that reward isn’t a brownie, of course.) These incremental changes, can lead to behavior change over time.

Gold stars: not just for kids!

Gold and red stars scattered on construction paper

Here’s another example. . . Over the years, as I’ve stumbled my way through both successful and unsuccessful change attempts, I’ve learned that I’m a “gold star” kind of girl. If I know I’m getting immediate recognition for performing an unpleasant behavior, I’m much more likely to do it.

To this end, I have a chart in my office where I give myself a gold star for accomplishing small, unpleasant tasks that accumulate towards a larger, more meaningful accomplishment. Watching the stars stack up motivates me, and I’m further inspired by the fact that when I reach a certain number of gold stars (and have therefore accomplished a certain number of hard steps) I give myself a small reward – perhaps a few hours to read a favorite book or a small purchase. 

Friends high-five

Eventually I’m able to reap the deeper reward (for example, finishing a big project that I find difficult but deeply satisfying) and the satisfaction I get from this makes the small hard steps (and the rewards system that encouraged them) totally worth it. 

Sure, we’d all love to have iron-clad willpower that allows us to set a goal and march towards it unflinchingly until it’s been met, but who are we kidding? Rather than wait for that personality transplant, you’re more likely to have success if you find a way to use external and more immediate rewards – like a “gold star” system – to motivate you to take steps towards the bigger goal. 

Enlist support.

Join a Facebook group. Watch interviews of those who inspire you. Find a change buddy who will support you and perhaps even challenge you to make this change.  Read books by experts who have experience with the change you are hoping to make. You don’t have to go it alone.

Pair new behavior with an existing activity.

Use an existing activity that’s already ingrained in your behavior as a new behavior “partner”. For example, to become better educated on the topic of racial injustice, I’m using the time I walk my dogs to listen to books and podcasts on the subject. 

Adopt a no-fail frame of mind.

Reframe your change journey so that there is no such thing as failure; there is simply starting over, again and again if necessary. For example, if:

  • you forget, remind yourself tomorrow
  • you don’t successfully follow through this morning, try again later in the day
  • the behavior change strategies you tried this week didn’t work, try new ones next week
  • it’s important enough for you to start the change process, it’s important enough to keep trying until you succeed

Change is always hard; it’s especially so right now when just following our regular routines is difficult enough. But change – voluntary or not – also offers an opportunity to transform your life for the better. Your chances of success are greater if you put together a thoughtful and deliberate plan. I hope the strategies you find here help you find the fulfillment you want and deserve.

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