Understanding Change: 3 Critical Success Factors for Preparing for Change

It’s resolution season. The season of change.  The season of saying “I am going to do it differently this year.” Every year around this time people make commitments to change their behavior, especially their health behavior. It’s a new year, a clean slate, and “this year is going to be different!” I thought it might be helpful this week to look at different ways to understand and think about behavior change. There are different theories in psychology about how and why people change and there has been a lot of research about what works and doesn’t in terms of behavior change. I think that the more information you have and the more you can understand what works for you, the more successful you can be with your own behavior change.

Understanding behavior change is important because it actually is one of the most difficult things you can do. Most health behavior change has an 80% relapse rate: diet, exercise, smoking cessation, quitting alcohol—all the big ones -- 80% at best.

These are not great odds. But most people head into these changes without much information or support. And most people don’t understand that behavior change requires different behavior and support depending upon where you are in the lifespan of the change.

So before you even begin your change plan, let’s look at 3 things you can do to support your efforts before you even begin to tackle your new year’s resolution in earnest.

1. Monitor. WRITE IT DOWN. Or take pictures. Just Keep Track!

Whatever you want to change. First find your baseline. Take a week and just pay attention to the behavior. What are you currently doing? Where are you starting? How many times a day or week are you doing it (or not doing it). Use a sheet of paper, a spiral notebook or a cool app to track your behavior. Research shows that the method of tracking your baseline or your behavior change doesn’t have an impact—so paper or high tech will work the same—the main agent of change is the self-monitoring itself. So whatever helps you do that is the best tool for you. When they have done research on behavior change, those people who kept track of the behavior they were trying to change actually were way more successful than those people who didn’t write it down.  Even if both groups were doing the same thing and had access to the same cool behavior change program from experts.

Once you actually start your work on changing—then you will continue to track. Monitoring helps you with your awareness because most things we try to change are habits of one sort or another and it is often hard to catch yourself in the act of a habit. So monitoring is really a self awareness exercise—because you have to be aware of it enough to track. And it can also be a self-management exercise because it can force you to slow down enough to write.

2. Social support. Birds of a feather change together.

Social support—relationships that support our change—are one of the biggest factors in behavior change. Whether it’s a group dedicated to the change you are trying to make, like a smoking cessation group, or an on-line forum, or colleagues from work you are sharing your goal with: you are more likely to not only reach your goal, but also maintain your change if you have support doing it. The best athletes have a team of people who support them.  Team Lemond. Team Nyad. Everyone needs a team to take on a big challenge. Whether you are trying to change your diet or trying to heal from trauma, or both, everyone would benefit from a team. The team can be real, or virtual. You can talk to them, you can create a FaceBook page, you can send them email. You can find a group, or you can create a group.

3. Motivation. What is motivating your change? What’s the driving force? Why change? Why now?

It’s really important before you launch into action to really have a deep well of motivation. Why do you want to change? How will the change impact your life? What are the benefits of the change? What might be some losses? How will the change help you with other things in your life? Your relationships? Your work? Your passions? Your goals? How is the change you are trying to make connected to your values? Your mission? How will it serve your bigger goals in life?

Really play with these questions. You can play with them imagining a future if you were successful with the behavior change. And you can play with them imagining if you didn’t change anything in your life.

Play with the questions to locate the source of your motivation so you can use that power and energy to sustain your efforts as you go through the change process. 

© Gretchen L. Schmelzer, PhD 2016