One of the most challenging things that we humans do is to change dysfunctional behavior. Yet, it’s something that successful people must accomplish regularly. If you want to move forward, it is imperative to recognize problems in your life, address them, and fix them.
I believe that most of us know this, but many contemplate the need to change without ever acting on making a change. Others force themselves onto a radical path of change, and like a flash fire, they burn brightly, and then they flame out. An example of this is the classic New Year’s exercise resolution, “I need to exercise more.” Drive by any gym during the first week of January, and you see that the parking lot is bursting at its seams. If you want to get a good parking spot, just wait a few weeks for the resolutioners to fall back on their old behaviors.
As a therapist, I often saw patients who claimed that they wanted to change. In some instances, what they wanted was for other people to adapt to them so they could continue their dysfunctional actions. They wanted the world to change for them (good luck to that). However, I also treated individuals who sincerely wanted to take responsibility for their lives and were willing to put forth the effort to make change. It was then my job to teach them the tools to accomplish their goals. Naturally, there are many ways to elicit change so that I would customize my approach based on the person’s needs, personality, and behavioral style.
Today I would like to share with three “generic” change approaches that you might consider. I’m going to do this by citing some examples from my own life.
Pairing a new behavior with things that you enjoy.
I hated exercise. When I was morbidly overweight, I sought the help of a weight-loss specialist. She was a thin wisp of a young girl who appeared to be very physically fit. I wondered if she could relate to me and understand the plight of an old fat man.
She did some quick calculations of my weight and BMI and then scribbled a few numbers onto a pad of paper. Her approach was to talk to me about my need to exercise. Of course, I knew that exercise was important, but any past attempts on my part quickly failed, and I explained that to her.
She was unmoved and told me that I needed to exercise for an hour and a half a day vigorously. By vigorous exercise, she was referring to a cardiovascular gym routine. She didn’t stop there; she also wanted me to do non-vigorous exercise for several hours a day. The non-vigorous activity would include things like walking, swimming, and biking. I tried to explain to her that I had difficulty climbing even a single flight of stairs. I told her that I knew that I needed to exercise, but I hated it and just couldn’t get myself to do it. I told her that I was working 60-80 hours a week, and didn’t have hours to spare during my day. She was unmoved, and instead of understanding me, she told me an “inspirational” story of a client of her’s (a former athlete) who had adopted her strategy and lost weight.
If you are or have been a fat person, you will understand what I am about to say next. I listened to her and felt even more hopeless about my plight; I gave up. On the surface, it appeared that I was paying attention as I nodded in false agreement. I left the appointment feeling worse than when I went in. I never adopted her exercised advice.
Fast forward to 5 years ago. My friend Tom was on his fitness journey and mentioned to me that he would buy me a coffee if I walked to the local Starbucks the next morning. I liked spending time with Tom, and so I was motivated to attempt this request. Further, one of the few exercises that I did like to do was to walk. With that said, I was uncertain if I could withstand the trip, and so I walked the route the night before, just to make sure.
That was five years ago, and I now exercise on (almost) a daily basis. That exercise has varied over time, and for the last several years, I have resumed my early morning walk to Starbucks. I look forward to talking this 3.5 mile round trip for several reasons. First, I love walking in the quiet of the early morning. I think, pray, meditate, and problem solve during that time. It isn’t uncommon for Tom to surprise me with a Starbucks visit, and of course, I enjoy that. However, I now know other regulars at the shop who greet and chat with me, as do the baristas. I bring along a computer on my walks, and I write most of these blogs at Starbucks. Starbucks is where I also write letters and emails to friends and family. By combining exercise with several other things that I like to do, I have transformed a negative into a positive. I certainly can now climb a flight of stairs without feeling like I need to call 911.
Learning from past mistakes.
If you read my last post, you know that I’m currently on a spiritual fast. I have been on many restrictive weight-loss diets, and I have also tried a couple of spiritual fasts in the past, and so I had quite a bit of data to draw on to explore what kind of a fast that I could do that would have the greatest success of completion.
Before I started this fast, I did a mental review of what worked, and just as importantly, what didn’t work with prior attempts to modify my eating. Based on this information, I devised a fasting plan that I thought would be challenging but doable. I’m now at the midpoint of this fast, and so far, I’m reasonably on target.
This technique goes beyond personal growth; it can be applied to all levels of a human’s life. Does it always seem that you are getting the short stick when it comes to relationships? Look at the data. Is your career not moving the way you want it? Look at the data. Are you feeling like others are always taking advantage of you? Look at the data… and so on.
Explore the weaknesses in your behavioral patterns and find workable solutions to change them. If plan A doesn’t work, find a plan B. Reassess both your behavior and progress regularly, and modify as indicated.
Eating the elephant
One of my favorite sayings is, “How do you eat an elephant? One bite at a time!”
The home that I have lived in for thirty years has both a basement and crawl space. Both have become “junk magnets” over the decades, with the crawl space being the more pathological of the two. Any object that we no longer used but still seemed useful was buried there. The only things that we did need to store there were our Christmas decorations, and these items occupied a small portion of that vast space. The rest was filled to the brim with boxes, bags, and loose items.
It is difficult to get into the crawl space, and once inside, you have to stoop down and crawl on very rough concrete. The idea of cleaning the area out was not only overwhelming to me but also my wife. It was just easier to pretend that it didn’t exist.
However, now that I’m retired I have the time to tackle such a project, but I didn’t want to do it. I don’t like the feeling that I have something hanging over my head, and I don’t like feeling guilty. With that said, it seemed like an impossible task.
What I needed to do is to come up with a plan. What could I do to solve this problem? I wasn’t dealing with a deadline; I had as much time as I needed. My idea was to remove three significant objects from the crawl space every week. An object could be a big box, a large item, or a garbage bag filled with loose pieces. To make it easier for me to navigate the crawl space, I found my old knee pads and my headlight. I place these items by the entrance to the crawl space, so they were at the ready, making my explorations easier.
The purging process went on for months, but doing it was simple — one box per trip, three boxes per week. Since I only had three weekly items, it didn’t even add a lot of work to my “garbage night” haulings.
Instead of thinking about how much more I had to do, I would celebrate that one less box was in the crawl space. I would pat myself on the back for accomplishing my job, which often only took a few minutes. Each “bite of the elephant” seemed trivial, but eventually, I ate the whole elephant.
Some changes in life must be done immediately and wholly. If you want to stop smoking, you need to apply total abstinence to increase your chance of success. However, many changes can be made gradually. Just have a real plan and direction.
So there you have it — three ways to change behavior. There are more ways that I may share with you in another post.