Real Behavior Change: How to Break a Habit

Real Behavior Change: How to Break a Habit

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By Shelle Rose Charvet
Motivation, Reinforcement, Support and Accountability

Behavior change is not merely a matter of knowledge or skill. If that were true, then all the information campaigns on how to improve your health would have made behavior-related illnesses a thing of the past. And birth control information would prevent teen pregnancies. Sadly, many people fail to create lasting change in their behavior and will repeat their failures over and over again in their lives. Have you ever tried to break a habit?

Organizations, like people suffer from the same difficulty in shifting their behavior. And it’s not because they do not know HOW to do it. There are innumerable management development books explaining what to do and methodologies for implementing change. Sometimes the methods speak to organization development, sometimes to culture change, but they are really aiming to create change in behavior.

The key to creating and maintaining real behavior change is in getting and staying motivated.  Some people start lifestyle changes that last at best for a few weeks.  Checking the attendance figures in January and February at your local health club will show you the people who began by being very motivated but then lost their passion.  Other people wish they could do something, but never manage to work up the required motivation to get started.

Remember comedian Totie Fields’ famous book; I Think I’ll Start on Monday: The official 8 1/2 oz. mashed potato diet. She also said: “I’ve been on a diet for two weeks and all I’ve lost is two weeks.”

Can Crisis Motivate Change?

Conventional social work theory suggests that the highest potential for change is during a crisis. This seems logical, since during a crisis, nothing is normal; everything is up in the air and as a result there is now the opportunity to make important decisions about the future. Organizations often try to make radical shifts when they are facing financial ruin or other disasters.
*But if crisis really is the highest potential time for change, then why do 90% of coronary bypass patients fail to make long term changes to their behavior after surgery?

Breaking a habit requires both short term and long term motivation strategies.  When a crisis is the trigger that gets someone to want to do something differently, it can be effective for the short term.
**This Motivation Trigger is call Away From Motivation because the person or the organization is motivated to move away from a situation they do not want.  A person can’t breathe and feels sick so they decide to quit smoking.  Someone can’t fit into their clothing and goes on a diet.  A company is facing the arrival of a lower cost competitor and starts looking for costs to cut.

Away From motivation can get you started! The problem is that it loses its power once you are on your way. Consider this example: A therapist I know had a client who said his problem was that he had been a millionaire four times. At first glance, the problem isn’t obvious. But if he has been a millionaire four times, that means he lost his millions at least three times.

The therapist found out that he had an extreme Away From pattern about his work. He was motivated to move away from poverty. If he is highly motivated away from poverty, at zero revenue, he is very motivated. But his motivation level declines as his revenue increases. Once poverty was not an issue, he would neglect to finish work on contracts, or he would forget to submit quotes to potential clients, or procrastinate and not follow up. Whereas whenever he is threatened by poverty (whatever that means to him), he is highly motivated to do whatever it takes to generate revenue.

How can you stay on track after the Away From Motivation has waned? There are a couple ways to maintain a high level of motivation if the original trigger to change was Away From. You need a constant reminder that you don’t want be fat, unfit, unhealthy, boring, poor or out of business. This takes a lot work and the effects of maintaining a state of fear or disgust are far from healthy. The other option is to add to the Away From Motivation by also having something to move towards.

Since Away From Motivation is really only effective for short periods of time and most behavior or habit changes take a significant amount of time, you need a mechanism to maintain motivation.  You can do this when you also have a goal that you deeply want to achieve to replace the problem you want to avoid.  This goal represents what we call Toward Motivation. The Away From Motivation can get you started and gives you a push. The Toward Motivation draws you closer and closer to what you want instead. This way you get the benefit from push energy to move away from what you do not want and pull energy which entices you toward what you want.

In my experience, the problem with only having a Toward Motivation Trigger is that if you are beginning far away from your goal, the idea of starting is in itself demotivating. If your goal is to run a marathon and you get out of breath walking briskly around the block, it is easier to put off running until tomorrow. If you only have Toward Motivation, with nothing to kick-start you into action, you may procrastinate.

Reinforcement:  Habits are like water running downhill

But Away From and Toward Motivation are not always enough. Habits, like cactus are hard to kill. They are like water running downhill; it takes no effort to maintain a habit; even a bad one. Habits are typically rituals that you perform without thinking; they are procedures, to which you are psychologically committed. Sometimes they are like stimulus-response Pavlovian formulas. Sit in arm chair in front of TV; feel “hungry”; get food. Sit back in arm chair in front of TV; feel “hungry”; get food (again).

So there’s the secret. A good system is one that is easier to follow than not follow. If you want something to become a habit, put it inside a procedure that you normally do. To remember to take your vitamins, put them in front of your coffee pot, instead of hiding them in the cupboard, hoping you’ll remember to take them out in the morning.

I cannot stress enough the importance of placing your new behavior inside your normal procedure; it builds your commitment right into what you do. When your new behavior is part of a standard procedure that you follow without having to decide each time, you will find that it gets reinforces so that it gradually becomes like that water running down hill.

What you see is what you get

From a research project on quitting smoking, researchers found that people were more successful at becoming non-smokers if they could visualize the state the wanted to move away from and the state they wanted to move towards. Verbal affirmations are rarely compelling enough to trigger and maintain your motivation.

But visualization is nothing new. People have known this since the original Power of Positive Thinking. It’s just that when you can see both what you want and you don’t want it becomes more real than merely telling yourself something. Compare the idea of being at the right weight or fitness. It’s easier to imagine when you can see yourself in your favorite ‘skinny’ outfit or running 3 miles effortlessly.

Support and accountability

***Dr. Dean Ornish put heart patients on a year long holistic health program, including quitting smoking, a vegetarian diet, yoga, mediation, relaxation and aerobic exercise. After three years 77% of the patients had stuck with their lifestyle changes. While the changes were huge, they kept with the program. Why? Ornish provided a twice-weekly support group to help them maintain their motivation.

In my company Success Strategies, we have been considering the problem of maintaining motivation around behavior change for some time. While we used to conduct communication and influencing seminars for our organizational clients, we have now gotten out of that business. People loved our trainings, but rarely did it make a real difference on the job. Most people haven’t got the time to stop what they are doing and integrate a series of new behaviors when they are already struggling just to get everything done. Clearly Dr. Ornish’s idea of providing on-going support was instrumental in getting his patients to maintain the huge change in daily rituals. But in the world of our clients, time is the scarcest resource. There would be a revolt if we proposed that all our participants checked in twice weekly!

Our strategy is certainly to provide support, but more importantly, once everyone is motivated we want them to feel accountable for implementing their behavior changes. We teach people some of the influencing skills they need for their work and then they report back in small groups on the results they have achieved. The group approach helps keep people motivated to follow through partly because they don’t want to look bad in front of their colleagues. We meet in person or on the phone in short bursts to reinforce motivation and to deepen and continue the learning.

****Beliefs, values and who you are

If you don’t believe it’s possible to change a habit, none of the motivation strategies listed above will work. Look for an example where you have already made a significant change somewhere in your life. Notice that probably all or most of the motivation strategies were present. If you can do that, isn’t it possible that you could do this? There is only one way to find out, isn’t there?

How important is the change to you? If it’s not frequently on your radar screen, perhaps you don’t really care enough about it to make the shift. Why is changing this habit important to you? And why is that important?

What kind of person believes this change you desire is worthwhile pursuing? Is this the kind of person you wish to be? How are you already like this?

When you have identified the beliefs, values and identity that will enable you to imagine this behavior change is really possible, hold them inside your heart and allow them to take their place from there, spreading throughout your physical, emotional, intellectual and spiritual self.  Repeat this morning and night, as part of your morning and evening rituals until it feels natural.

Miracle Cures are not the motivation

Real behavior change is possible when you have the strategies to start and maintain your motivation, when you can see what you want, have placed the new behavior inside a ritual you already do, belief it’s possible, value the new behavior and think you are the sort of person who does that.

No wonder miracles cures don’t last.

Insert: Your Motivation Inventory
Do you have a behavior change project that is important to you?
Here is checklist with a fill in the blank to make sure you have all your Motivation Triggers in place.

Away From: I do not want ________________________________________.

Toward: What I want instead is ____________________________________.

Negative Consequences: If I don’t succeed, what will happen that I don’t want? ________________________________________________________.

Positive Consequences: When I do succeed what will happen that I want? __________________________________________________________

I can see in my mind’s eye an example of each of the above.
I have put this new habit inside this procedure that I already do naturally. __________________________________________________________

I am regularly accountable to _______________ for completing my goal.

I believe it is possible to do this because: __________________________________________________________.

I have already succeeded at something like this in my life when I __________________________________________________________.

This is important to me because ________________________________.

The kind of person who does this is __________________________________________________________.

I am that kind of person because _______________________________.

*Quoted from Dr. Edward Miller, Dean of Medicine at John Hopkins University
**Motivation Triggers are fully discussed in my book Words That Change Minds: Mastering the Language of Influence, 2nd edition revised, 1997 Kendall / Hunt Publishing Company
***Dr. Dean Ornish, Professor of medicine at the University of California at San Francisco and founder of the Preventative Medicine Research Institute, quoted in “Change or Die” by Alan Deutschman, Fast Company Issue 94, May 2005
****Robert Dilts elaborated the Neuro-logical Levels which serve to indicate where a person is operating. The levels are environment, behavior, capability, beliefs and values, identity and spiritual connection.

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