Saturday, January 8, 2011

Make a Change - It's All In Your Head

I may be a goal-oriented person, but the thought of New Year's resolutions intimidates me.  Maybe it's because I'm a perfectionist and I know that most resolutions are broken almost immediately.  Personally I think the reason people (myself included) cheat on their resolutions is that they make goals that are too extreme or don't fit into their lifestyle.  Making a change or breaking a habit can take some time, a few attempts and failures, before reaching success.

This week, I came across a couple articles involving the mindset behind making changes...

"The If-Then Solution" by Heidi Grant Halvorson, Ph.D.
January/February issue of Psychology Today (a fascinating magazine!)

Halvorson recommends making a plan using the "if-then" technique, which helped her meet her goal of exercising three times a week in 2010.  An if-then equation makes your resolution specific and helps you build good habits.  Simply structure your statement:

"If X happens, then I will do Y.  X can be a time and place, like Monday at 9 A.M., or it can be an event, like the arrival of the dessert menu at a restaurant.  Y is the specific action you will take whenever X occurs."

The great news is that people who employ this technique are two to three times more likely to succeed than those who don't.  And it works for all kinds of goals and behaviors, not just exercising or eating right.

Why does it work?  First, our brains are wired to think in the "if-then" sequence since we use it all the time to unconsciously guide our behavior, so when we set up an "if-then" plan, the situation (X) and the action (Y) become linked in our minds.  Secondly, that X situation becomes "highlighted" in our minds, so without even being aware, our brains are "looking for" X to happen and Y can then follow automatically.  With this process, we don't have to use a ton of willpower and self-control since we have already decided what action to take in a certain situation.

If you want to read more, Halvorson talks about this topic in a recent blog post.

"Nurture the New You" by Kelly McGonigal
February issue of Yoga Journal

In reading this piece, I learned that using self-compassion, rather than berating yourself, can be more effective in changing one's behavior.  As the article states,

"... Self-transformation doesn't happen overnight, but you can overcome negative patterns one step at a time.  If you are gentle with yourself and accept your setbacks with compassion, you can change your life for the better."

When I don't check everything off my to-do list, or when I don't eat well or go to bed early enough, I usually get mad at myself internally.  This article says those negative internal thoughts indicate that I am mixing up my behavior with who I am, blaming myself or putting myself down rather than seeing that behavior simply as a pattern or habit I want to change.  Just because I act on a negative habit or don't complete a goal doesn't mean I am a bad person.  In the studies referenced in the article, people who were more self-compassionate "were less upset by failures and less likely to obsess about them.  They were less defensive and more willing to take responsibility for the outcomes."

I loved this part of the article: "When you're self-critical, you treat yourself in ways you would never want to treat someone you love: beating yourself up for every imperfection, punishing yourself for any weakness, and discouraging yourself from going after what you really want.  Self-compassion provides the supportive emotional environment necessary for change. ...Without the usual guilt, shame, and self-doubt, you can look at yourself clearly, make conscious choices, and take the right steps."

So how do you cultivate self-compassion?  When you find yourself thinking negatively, replace the thought with something positive.  Start viewing your behaviors as something you do, not a part of yourself that you need to "fix."  And when you slip up, don't criticize youself and let it spiral into giving up completely.  Instead, acknowledge how you can change your behavior in the future.  Take responsibility and then take care of yourself.  Self-compassion will give you the strength you need.


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