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The Golden Rules Of Effective Change

By Hara Estroff Marano
From eDiets - The online diet, fitness, and healthy living resource


The New Year always brings with it a cultural tradition of new possibilities. We see it as a chance for renewal. And, when we think of possibilities, we put ourselves right in the middle of the picture. We begin to dream of new possible selves. We design our Ideal Self: an image of ourselves that is in various ways different from what we are now.

For some of us, we roll that dreamy film in our heads just because it's the beginning of a new year, but we aren't serious about making changes. The cultural atmosphere simply prescribes such fantasies at that time of year, but they don't resonate with any impulse deep within. We make some half-hearted resolution, and it evaporates after a week or two.

For some of us, however, the intentions to enact change are driven more from within, and we use the season of new beginnings as the gatepost to which we hitch our good intentions. Should these falter, we walk away a bit damaged. The experience registers on us, chips away at our sense of self and makes us feel less successful. We think we aren't very good. It leads us to discount our ability to change in the future.

Golden Rules of Change The difference between good intentions and failed intentions comes down to one thing: the recognition that self-change is one of the most difficult things we can do. Between us as we are now and us in the image of our ideal self stands the bulldog fact of our ingrained habits.

It's not that change is impossible, it's that it isn't likely to last unless our resolutions are fortified with lesson plans for implementation. We have to detail exactly how we are going to achieve things. We have to make our intentions manageable by detailing the specific steps that will carry us to our goal.

  • First, says Timothy A. Pychyl, Ph.D., associate professor of psychology at Carleton University in Ottawa, you have to choose personal projects that have meaning for you. They have to embody your values, resonate with your identity, hold some enjoyment for you.
  • Then you have to focus on making the change manageable. Say your resolution is to start running. You have to get specific about exactly what you are going to do, where you are going to do it and at what time.

    "As runners always point out, the biggest thing about running is just to get outside," says Dr. Pychyl. Once you get out the door, you are more likely to go for that run.

    Making change manageable means that you have to structure your personal environment to facilitate your goal. So, you set up your surroundings to get you out the door to run first thing in the morning. The night before, you lay out your running clothes right next to your bed, so that they are as easy to reach for as your toothbrush. They become your cue to go downstairs and get out the door.

    In the language of psychology these steps are called implementation intentions. They take the place of habits until the new behaviors lose some of their unpleasantness and become more attractive in their own right. After all, running is difficult in the beginning when you are out of shape, even though making the effort feels good and makes you feel good about yourself.

  • Build in a little leeway in your new effort at self-regulation. "We should expect to fail at self-regulation at times," says Dr. Pychyl. What you really have to guard against is what is formally known as "the what-the-hell effect."

    Say your goal is to lose weight by dieting and cutting out sweets. But one night you just have to have a cookie, and you know there is a bag of your favorites in the pantry. You want one, you eat two, you check the bag and find out you've just shot 132 calories. You say to yourself "what the hell" and polish off the whole bag.

    Then you begin to draw all manner of unpleasant conclusions about yourself. To protect your sense of self, you begin to discount the goal; you think something along the lines of, "Well, dieting wasn't really that important to me, and I'm not going to make it anyhow."

    So you abandon the goal. Instead, expect to "mess up" from time to time. And just get right back on track.

Hara Estroff Marano is Editor-At-Large of Psychology Today magazine and Editor-In-Chief of Psychology Today's Blues Buster, a newsletter about depression. An award-winning writer on human behavior, Haras articles have appeared in publications including the New York Times, Smithsonian, Family Circle and The Ladies Home Journal. She lives in New York City.

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