Make Behavioral Changes Last

What’s the most significant change in behavior you’ve made as an adult? For some, it’s quitting smoking or drinking, or making healthy changes in eating and exercising. For others, it’s becoming a better listener, a more effective manager, or a nicer partner or spouse.

No matter what changes you’ve made, whether physical, social, or work-related, almost everyone agrees that lasting change is hard. It requires determination, motivation, vigilance, persistence, and long-term commitment. Most would agree that asking for help from a trusted friend, mentor, or professional coach helps.

Yet even with high motivation, support, and ideal conditions, it’s still hard to break bad habits. For example, two-thirds of smokers who say they’d like to quit never even try. Those who do usually need six attempts before they succeed.

Six Seconds to Set Up Change
Here’s a six-second tool you can apply at any time to assist you make any behavioral change: take a long, deep breath. This allows you to step back from reactive habits and initiate a new, healthier response to any situation.

A six second breath is a way to pause, gain awareness, gather energy, and make a preferred choice of action.

Knowing Isn’t Doing
The guidelines for changing habits are pretty simple:

  • If you want to lose weight, eat fewer calories than you burn up, and do it over a length of time until you reach your goal weight.
  • If you want to quit smoking, pick a quit date, get rid of cigarettes and smoking triggers, and don’t smoke no matter what, until the urges stop and the chemicals are out of your system.
  • Same with alcohol: don’t pick up the first drink; get social support with recovery groups.
  • To get fit, go to a gym or learn a sport, practice every day, get some coaching or training, and track your progress over a length of time.

None of these programs are complicated. But simplicity doesn’t necessarily beget easy. All humans resist change; we’re susceptible to fallibility when making plans and sticking to them.

If we understand human nature enough, we should be able to anticipate resistance and circumvent unhealthy reactions that sabotage our efforts.

Why Change Is So Hard
Even when we will reap huge benefits by changing habits, we are geniuses at inventing reasons to avoid change. We have mental urges to maintain the status quo. We fall back on a set of beliefs that triggers denial, resistance, and self-delusion.

Executive coach Marshall Goldsmith writes about this “self talk” in his book Triggers: Creating Behavior That Lasts–Becoming the Person You Want to Be (Crown Business, May 2015).

  1. If I understand, I will do.
  2. If have strong willpower, I won’t give in to temptation.
  3. Today is special, it just won’t count.
  4. “At least I’m better than…”
  5. I shouldn’t need help and structure.
  6. I won’t get tired or depleted; my enthusiasm won’t fade.
  7. I have all the time in the world.
  8. I won’t get distracted and nothing unexpected will occur.
  9. An epiphany will happen and suddenly change my life.
  10. My change will be permanent and I’ll never have to worry again.
  11. My elimination of old problems will not bring on new problems.
  12. My efforts will be fairly rewarded.
  13. No one is paying attention to me.
  14. If I change I am “inauthentic.”
  15. I have the wisdom to assess my own behavior.

Faulty Self-Evaluation
While we believe other people consistently overrate themselves, we think our own self-assessment is fair and accurate, even in the face of evidence that shows we’re entrapped by overconfidence, stubbornness, wishful thinking, confusion, resentment, and procrastination.

If that weren’t enough, we underestimate two of the biggest obstacles to change:

  1. We don’t take into account how much energy levels vary during the day or recognize that depletion of energy brings loss of self-control. It’s easier to just say “no” early in the day than late at night.
  2. We forget to factor in the strong pull of external triggers in the environment that pop up unexpectedly to throw us off track. We don’t prepare for these obstacles, and once we give in, we give up.

Change Requires Follow-Up
The tools for making any behavioral change aren’t complicated, but they do have to include a system for follow-up if you want change to last.

The simplest way to follow-up is to answer a list of daily questions with a friend or coach. This allows you to track progress and see what’s working and what’s not. Marshall Goldsmith has written previously about his system of Daily Questions.

Now he suggests that instead of tracking whether you’ve taken an action or not, ask yourself if you did your best to make it happen. This tracks your efforts, not your results.

“Did I do my best today to…?”

  1. Make a spread sheet listing your desired behavioral changes. At the end of each day, answer: “Did I do my best today to…?” (exercise, eat healthy, listen to others, etc.)
  2. Use a 5-point scale from no (1), somewhat (2), average (3), good (4), to excellent (5). Alternatively, you can color code each answer using red, yellow, and green marks.

The key here is to record your progress and effort rather than results. This helps you avoid getting discouraged when outcomes are slow to materialize. It puts the appreciation where it belongs: on your efforts to take action.

Success comes from getting back on the horse after a fall and taking more steps forward than back.