• Barry EIchenbaum, Psy.D.

Giving change a chance

“Beep, beep, beep, beep…” That's the sound of your alarm alerting you that its time to get up in the morning. Luckily, you have a snooze button so you promptly hit it and go back to sleep. The process repeats itself several times before your realize that it's a half hour past your designated wake up time. You awake in a frenzy and realize you have to get moving if you want to stand a chance of making it to work on time. So you groggily rush out of bed, frantically get yourself dressed and bolt out the door to your car. While this routine does allow you to get a few minutes of extra sleep, it can also come at a cost. You might arrive late to your morning meeting, have to skip breakfast, or need to rush through an assignment. At a certain point you decide that this behavior isn’t workable for you so you try to make a change.

How good are people at making changes? Lets take a look at what happens every year on New Years Day. In addition to the festivities and partying that are traditional for this day of the year, many people use the freshness of a new year to make resolutions to achieve certain goals or change certain undesirable behaviors. The prospect of a new start often aids in people’s motivation to begin the process of change. This motivation may be why most people are often successful in sticking to their resolutions at the very beginning. However, as time goes on, it becomes increasingly harder for people to remain committed. In fact, studies show that only between 9-12% of people who make New Years resolutions end up keeping them long term. This highlights just how difficult it is for people to make changes. Why aren’t people very good at making change?

The reason why New Years resolutions typically fail is probably because they are often not well planned out. In those moments, when we feel inspired to change and make resolutions, we might believe that any sort of change is within our grasp. This overconfidence often blinds us to the real obstacles that we are likely to encounter in the change process. In fact, one study found that while 52% of the participants were confident that they would keep their resolutions, only 12% actually were successful. This might be because our initial burst of inspiration generally fades over time and we come back down to Earth and realize that there are real obstacles to making changes. In addition to setting yourself up for failure, neglecting to plan ahead for inevitable obstacles means that you may entirely give up if you don’t meet your expectations. You might erroneously conclude that you can’t change. But that’s incorrect . You can change, but maybe not without seriously considering the obstacles you are bound to face in the process.

While there are numerous obstacles to change, lets discuss some of the common ones. First, an important thing to consider is the pace of our goals. We might have an ideal endpoint in mind, but it may just be too difficult to jump there on our first try. While going right for the gold can be very appealing, its often more of a dream than a reality. Instead, by breaking our goals into smaller and more attainable steps, we give ourselves an opportunity for success. In our prior example, thinking that you’re going to jump out of bed the moment your alarm goes off is probably not going to work for you. So maybe you set your short term goal on getting out of bed after one or two snoozes and gradually work your way down. The increased chances for success which you can experience with this approach also help motivate you to make even greater changes in the future.

Second, we often overlook how decreasing or eliminating certain behaviors will impact the rest of our functioning. While a particular behavior may be negatively impacting us in various ways, its likely serving some positive purpose as well. So if we eliminate the behavior without adequately accounting for the change, we’ll lose the positive impact of the behavior. Not giving ourselves a suitable alternative can actually increase the chance that we will slide back to our old ways. Lets go back to our sleep example. The reason why we reflexively hit the snooze button might be because we aren’t already getting the sleep that we need. Bypassing our alarm, while harmful in other ways, is actually a really great way of getting that much needed slumber. So to help us in our quest to wake up earlier, we need to be aware of the consequence of arising earlier, and address this in some other way in our daily schedule. Maybe that means setting an earlier bedtime or (less ideally) having a nice cup of coffee waiting for us to help us start the day.

Finally, lets acknowledge that the road towards change can be challenging! Sometimes we take two steps forward and then one step back. Experiencing difficulty with change is completely normal. When we don’t meet a goal that we have set for ourselves, we may experience feelings of shame and failure for not living up to our own expectations. These painful feelings can often make us feel like we can’t change and so we throw in the towel. But consider a different perspective. Why don’t we use the inevitable setbacks as opportunities to learn something new about ourselves? Maybe a setback means we need to modify our expectations to a more realistic goal, or maybe it highlights an obstacle of which we were previously unaware. Whatever it is, we can view setbacks not as failures but as opportunities to better equip ourselves for our future success.