This post describes a step-by-step approach for changing your behavior to meet your goals and improve your life. You can use this to create new habits or get rid of old ones. You can use it to meet big personal or professional challenges. The process is hard work, but doesn’t depend on high levels of willpower or motivation, or any particular personality type.
You are the world’s leading expert on your own life. This process will help you take that expertise and use it to change yourself. Let’s get started.
- “You need a lot of willpower to change your behavior.” Nobody has enough willpower in every area of their life. Any plan that counts on willpower alone isn’t likely to work—but we’ll walk through what successful behavior change plans do to avoid relying on willpower.
- “I want to make a change, but I can’t because I don’t have the motivation.” The best motivation is kind you feel after you’ve started making changes and tasting success. We’ll figure out how to start small enough for any level of motivation, and then use your early wins to build the motivation to meet your goals.
- “I just want to get rid of some bad behavior because it’s not serving me—I don’t have to create a whole new routine.” Your unwanted behaviors are fulfilling some need—they don’t exist in a vacuum. You can’t easily get rid of these behaviors—but you can find a way to replace them with behaviors you want instead.
Every life is different, but every person wants to be happy. Although a lot of our happiness is out of our control—heredity and life circumstances make up about 60% of the variation—we can control the remaining 40%.
To make ourselves happy using our behaviors, we PACK: we take on projects that help us Acquire or Keep good things, and to Prevent or Cure negative things.
Although your specific project will be unique to you, here are some categories of self-change projects that people often choose to pursue:
|Interpersonal||Get along better with Ellen at work|
|Spend more time with my family|
|Academic||Complete my thesis|
|Get a high SAT score|
|Work||Get a promotion|
|Speak up in meetings|
|Intrapersonal||Be more extraverted|
|Recreation/Leisure||Get better at basketball|
|Run a marathon in every state|
|Health||Lose 10 pounds|
|Take my pills every day|
|Maintenance||Don’t let garbage pile up in the kitchen|
If you’re reading this, you probably have some ideas about what you’d like to accomplish. How do we take these life desires and transform them into a concrete behavior change plan?
We’re going to set goals and subgoals for your behavior change.
Goals are what you want, but you often can’t impact them directly. An airplane can’t affect its altitude or direction directly, but it can affect the throttle of the engines and the angle of the flaps, which can together affect altitude and direction. We’ll refer to these intermediate targets that we can control as subgoals.
If you want to lose weight: Your goal should be to affect some weight and body fat percentage, but you can’t affect those directly. Your subgoals might describe when, where, what, and how much you eat, exercise, and supplement. For instance:
- I will only eat within a certain window of time during the day
- I will only eat from a limited set of healthy foods
- I will meet certain macros (carbs, fat, proteins)
If you want to improve your grades: Your goal should be to positively improve your grades, including your test scores and homework, but you can’t affect those directly. Your subgoals might describe when, where, what, and how much you study and practice. For instance:
- I will go to the library, start a timer, and not leave until I have put in 90 minutes of focused studying
- I will do 2 practice tests before each real test
A great subgoal is:
- Process oriented, not outcome oriented.
- Short-term enough to produce quick wins.
- Attainable but challenging.
- Specific but flexible.
- Easy to measure with a count, duration, or true/false.
I know my goal, but I can’t think of process-oriented subgoals.
If you brainstorm good process-oriented subgoals but can’t think of any yourself:
Ask your friends. This sounds like obvious advice, but they might have helpful ideas.
Ask someone who’s good at this what their process is. If you’re looking to get better at basketball, for instance, asking someone you know who’s better than you are might lead to helpful and unexpected answers.
Imagine what someone who’s good at what you’re trying to do would do. If it’s hard to get the advice you need, you might imagine what a role model would do.
I know what I have to do, but it seems too challenging to be attainable.
Try baby steps—a process called shaping. Go to the gym and don’t work out. Run around the apartment 3 times, before walking around the block 3 times, before running around the block 3 times, and so on. There is no first step that’s too small, and there’s no incremental step that’s too small, either. If you have to run around the living room 4 times, and then 5, before getting to run around the block once, it’s all okay. You’re the expert on your own life.
“Why would I go to the gym and not work out?” You can work out if you want, but the goal is to secure little wins to promote your motivation. Even if you show up to the gym and you don’t work out, you scheduled time, got dressed, and travelled to the gym, walked in, and signed up. If you start this and still can’t motivate yourself to do a full workout, you can slowly walk on the treadmill for one minute or lift one dumbbell. Nothing is too small.
What gets measured gets managed. The single most important thing to do is to start measuring your target behavior. When something happens that you want to track, write it down, and write it down right away. Your memory is bad. Use an app so it’s always with you.
You should focus on quantitative and qualitative measures.
Good quantitative measures can be broken down by count (how many cigarettes, how many times at the gym, etc.), duration (how long did I study, how long did I run, how long was my fast), or true/false (did I eat junk food today, did I call my parents this week, etc.). They should happen in a reasonable timeframe, too.
Qualitative measures—writing down things like circumstances, how you felt, and what happened—can also be important. If you ate the cake you said you weren’t going to eat, or smoked that cigarette you said you weren’t going to smoke, or went out instead of studying, write it down. Where were you? How did you feel? What went wrong? These will be helpful clues for your behavior change plan.
You should make sure to write down successes, not just failures. Did you get to the library and study? How did it feel? What went right? Are there things that you want to remember for next time?
Unsurprisingly, sometimes just starting to measure something is enough to solve the problem. People often behave differently when they know they’re being monitored. For instance, if your goal is to stop swearing, just being mindful that you’ll be logging it could be enough.
Is that a problem? No way. Your goal was to stop swearing, right?
Of course, goals and subgoals are just ideas. In real life, we find ourselves in situations, in which we have to put our subgoals into practice. Here are a few situations where you’ll actually have to apply behavior change to meet your goals:
- I’m trying not to overeat, but my aunt keeps offering me slices of her delicious pie. In addition to enjoying the pie, I’m afraid to offend her by saying no. But she keeps insisting…
- I’m trying to improve my grades and I know I have to study more. I procrastinate because I don’t particularly like studying. Just as I’m sitting down to study, my friends tell me they are going out, which sounds like a lot of fun…
- I’m trying to save money, but I online shop when I’m stressed. When I see a limited sale, I get really excited because it’s something I need. But my closet is full and my bank account isn’t…
In any behavior change program, your goal should be to change a thought, action, or feeling during a particular situation. Each situation has an Antecedent, Behavior, and Consequence. We’ll be focusing on changing our antecedents and consequences in order to change our behavior.
Let’s dive in.
The single best way to affect your behavior is to control your antecedents. Someone aspiring to exercise has already won half the battle if they’re at the gym wearing gym clothes. Conversely, someone kicking alcohol has already lost if they’re at the bar.
Antecedents can be physical (where are you? what’s around you?), social (who’s around you?), emotional (are you depressed, anxious, frustrated, bored, or anxious?), or physiological (have you been drinking, or are you tired?). They can be expected (going to a dangerous social setting) or unexpected (bumping into someone you don’t like or seeing them on social media). They can be universal (risk of overeating during a holiday dinner) or idiosyncratic to you.
How do you control your antecedents?
Your first line of defense: Avoid situations that lead to bad behaviors—and avoiding them earlier is better
The single most effective thing you can do to sidestep bad behaviors is to avoid their antecedents. If you overeat, don’t go to a buffet.
Sometimes, unwanted antecedents happen as part of a chain of events. For instance, “I got to the library, started scrolling reddit, soon I found myself down the rabbit hole of watching YouTube videos.” Can you study without your laptop, perhaps by printing materials you need in advance? YouTube videos—can you leave your headphones at home? Can you download an app that blocks reddit while you’re studying and enable it as soon as you leave for the library? The sooner in the chain of events you can act, the more likely you are to succeed.
If your work has common areas with a lot of free snacks, you might be tempted to go in there for water… and then soda… and then you might find yourself snacking when you told yourself you wouldn’t. Can you bring a big jug of water and only fill it up once? What if you fill it up at home? There are often creative solutions. “Don’t go into the kitchen and bring your own water” sounds extreme, but it’s easier than relying on willpower and then overeating.
Narrow the situation
If you can’t avoid the situation altogether, you might be able to narrow the situation. For instance, if you’re trying to lose weight, you can narrow your antecedents in several ways:
- Time-restricted feeding. That means that you only eat during certain hours of the day, and avoid eating otherwise.
- Only eating from a limited set of foods. That means that you choose a few foods that you eat, and don’t eat anything else.
- Only eating a limited number of calories or macros. You eat until you’ve met your allotment, and then you stop.
Reframe the situation
If you’re trying to lose weight but food where you work is served buffet-style, you might consider reframing how you think about it (for instance, “the rest of the buffet area is for the slobs, but the salad bar and the clean proteins are for me”).
You can also make something attractive seem repulsive in your mind. “Crispy, crunchy, mouthwatering fried chicken” can easily become “greasy, soggy, dirty dead bird” if you want it to.
Noticing if you’re convincing yourself to break your plan
Sometimes, you may feel tempted to rationalize breaking the plan you set for yourself. This kind of self-talk might go a few ways:
I’m going to break my plan, but I’m not responsible for it
- …because I don’t have the self-control, knowledge, or ability.
- …because I don’t have a choice.
I’m responsible for plan, but I’m not actually breaking my plan
- …because I made up, changed, or concealed facts.
- …because I deny that the facts that the facts actually violate my plan.
If you notice this happening, you may be feeling some stress. Practicing the relaxation techniques at the bottom of the post can help you slow things down. Replacing the rationalizing self-talk with positive self-talk (“I’ve got this!”) and scrutinizing what you’re telling yourself (“would my boss really be mad if we didn’t do lunch and just had coffee instead?”) can help you stick to your plan.
Precommit to new antecedents
The tactics above are really helpful if you’re trying to change a negative behavior. What if you’re trying to start a new habit, like studying?
Adding the behavior you want to your calendar, or setting reminders to do a task, is one way. By putting something on your calendar, you make and protect time for it, make it “the next thing” after another calendar event.
One way to supercharge this is to involve other people. Arranging to go to the gym or library with friends is one way to improve your odds of going.
If you already have a habit that works, you can use that to add other habits, as well. For instance, if you’re trying to take vitamins, you might consider stacking that with breakfast or dinner.
We adopt behaviors because we’re rewarded or punished for them. If you change the structure of what rewards or punishes you, you can change your behavior. (By the way, a fancy word for reward is reinforcement—and even AI models work this way using something called reinforcement learning.) For reasons we’ll talk about later, we’ll focus mostly on rewards and not punishments.
A good reward quickly follows the behavior that you’re looking to reinforce. It should also be roughly commensurate with what you are rewarding. For instance, you might reward yourself with an afternoon at the beach for a week or two of eating well, but you wouldn’t do so for skipping lunch one time.
If you’re trying to eliminate a bad behavior, it’s important to remember that the behavior is rewarding you somehow or you wouldn’t be doing it. Some examples are obvious: food is delicious and satisfying; nicotine heightens your mood, and so on. Others are less obvious. What’s rewarding about shouting? What’s rewarding about biting your nails? Introspecting about what role some behavior is serving in your life can be helpful in understanding how to replace it with a behavior that meets the need in a healthier way. Remember, you’re the expert on your life, and you’ll know the answers to this better than anyone.
Here’s how to structure the consequences of behavior to make it more likely.
Rapidly Reward Good Behavior
Did you just put in the two hours of studying you said you would? Did you avoid smoking, even though you were really tempted! Great job—celebrate it (and write it down)!
You can do something small and immediate, including some positive self-talk (”nailed it!”). You can ask people in your life to call out the behavior when they see it (”you really avoided eating that junk food—well done”).
A helpful variant of this is to use Premack reinforcement, where you make a more frequent behavior contingent on a less frequent behavior.
Examples of this:
- I only get to play video games if I go to the gym.
- I only get to listen to music if I finish studying for an hour.
- I only get to eat dessert if I have a full course of veggies for dinner.
This rule is simple and a little obvious but effective nonetheless (there’s a reason it’s also called Grandma’s Rule). Note that more frequent can mean something you enjoy, but that doesn’t have to be something that’s heavy or bad for you. I like listening to podcasts around the house. That’s not some massive reinforcer, but “you may not listen to podcasts around the house unless you are doing—or have done—your chores” works.
One piece of advice: don’t reward yourself with something that you’re actively trying to discourage. For instance, if you do well on your diet, don’t reward yourself with junk food.
Consider a Token System
Sometimes there can be gaps in time between when you take an action and when you get a reward. Or maybe you have many small steps you’d need to reward, and it’d be cumbersome to directly reward yourself for each one (fold the laundry, take out the garbage…). In this case, you can create a point system and reward yourself based on points. For instance, you can give yourself 10 points for taking out the garbage, 30 points for folding the sheets, etc. You can exchange points for things you want (100 points could be watching an hour of TV, 1000 points could be buying something nice, etc.).
If this system sounds familiar, it’s because the whole economy relies on tokens. At a job, you get a token called ”money,” which can be exchanged for goods and services.
Feel free to get imaginative: you can get points for individual tasks, but also bonus points for a perfect day or a perfect week. Token systems can be helpful when you are running several behavior change programs at once.
Reward yourself every time at the beginning, and then intermittently as your habit sets in.
When you’re at the beginning of a behavior change, it helps to reward yourself every time you do something good. As your behavior change continues, though, you want to make it resistant to disappearing when you eventually separate the reward from the behavior. One way to do this is to roll a die and use the result to decide if you reward yourself. For instance, if you roll a 6-sided die, you might decide to reward yourself unless you got a 6. Once you’re in the flow of things, you can reward yourself unless you get to 5 or 6.
By the time you’re down to rewarding yourself less than 25% of the time, it’s time to start considering if you should remove the reward entirely.
Punishment: Use Very, Very Carefully
Should punishment be part of your behavior change plan? The most recent thinking is “no.” Once you start punishing yourself, you create perverse incentives to lie, avoid, or escape punishment by weaseling your way out of your goals. You can go a long way with just positive rewards.
If you insist on punishing yourself, consider a “time out,” for instance: “if I stop measuring myself, I can’t go out for a full week.” Again, if you must use this tool, use it cautiously and sparingly.
What will make you happy? To best PACK (acquire and keep the good stuff; prevent or cure the bad stuff, as described before) in the good things in life, here are 14 behavior change ideas associated with happiness, as adapted from Fordyce’s 14 fundamentals:
- Keep busy and be more active
- Spend more time socializing
- Be productive at meaningful work
- Get better organized and plan things out
- Stop worrying
- Lower your expectations and aspirations
- Develop positive, optimistic thinking
- Become present oriented
- Work on a healthy personality
- Develop an outgoing, social personality
- Be yourself
- Eliminate negative feelings and problems
- Close relationships are the number one source of happiness
- Put happiness as your most important priority
Christian Jarrett’s wonderful Be Who You Want: Unlocking the Science of Personality Change has some useful ideas for how you can actually change your personality to be, for example, less neurotic, more self-disciplined, or less shy.
If you’ve read this far, though, you probably have a few behavior change ideas in mind. That brings us to…
What’s the issue, exactly? Go deep. Ask “why.” Ask “why” again.
I want to lose weight. Why isn’t my weight where it needs to be? You can build a table like this:
|Why isn’t my weight where it is?||Because…|
|Because I overeat junk food at home||That’s what I buy at the store|
|I order unhealthy foods in instead of making food at home|
|Because I snack||I get stressed or bored at work|
|I need to stretch my legs and the kitchen is where I go|
|Because I see my friends over meals||That’s what we’ve always done|
|Because I don’t work out||I haven’t started|
|I never learned how|
Logging things is your friend—remember, you want to record things in a qualitative and quantitative way. Are you about to eat something that you don’t want to eat anymore? Write down what’s going on. What happened before? What did you do? What happened?
Now it’s time to set your goal and subgoals. Given a goal, we’ll set a few subgoals and then figure out:
- What’s the subgoal?
- How will we measure it?
- Is it attainable but challenging? If it’s not attainable, lower the initial challenge using shaping, discussed earlier.
Here’s one plan, inspired by Lyle McDonald’s PSMF, that I’ve used to lose body fat without losing too much lean muscle mass. Note that I’m listing this as a plan, not offering or suggesting diet or nutrition advice:
Goal: Lose body fat while losing the smallest possible amount of lean body mass over 6 weeks
|Subgoal||How I’ll measure it||Attainable? (scale 1-10)||Notes|
|Only eat within 6 hours per day, starting no later than 3pm||True if I avoided eating outside of that window, false otherwise||8||This is an easy way to narrow the antecedent. After 12pm will be the hardest. I can brush my teeth after dinner so I’m not tempted to eat again.|
|Eat 1.25 grams per pound of lean body mass||True if I ate at least that much protein; false otherwise||7||Sometimes it’s hard to get enough protein, so it’ll be a good idea to eat some yogurt promptly at 3pm. I’m not so worried about eating too much—with the foods I’m choosing from and the time window, it’ll be hard to overdo it.|
|Only eat the following foods: leafy greens, 0% fat Greek Yogurt, lean protein sources (tofu, turkey, chicken), cherry tomatoes, low calorie balsamic vinegar, whey, casein, 0 calorie beverages and sweeteners||True if I ate from only those foods; false otherwise||4||I’ll add more variety as I become more successful at this—I can add mushrooms, garlic, onions, etc. next.|
|Utilize up to 3 “free meals” per week, with no more than 2 platefuls of food||Count of free meals||7||Free meals are regular meals. Sometimes they may be socially required (dinner with work colleagues or friends) or psychologically helpful (a break from the monotony of this diet). The challenging will be limiting it to a normal-sized meal.|
|Measure weight at least 4 times per week||Count of times I measured my weight||9||It can feel stressful to weigh yourself, especially when you plateau. I want to make sure I’m capturing—and rewarding—this subgoal. I chose 4 days per week instead of 7 to preserve flexibility.|
This plan is specific enough to measure on a daily basis, it is challenging, and it’s clearly tied to the goal. The free meals also explicitly add flexibility into the plan.
You’ll notice that I’m limiting the variety of food that I’ll allow myself to eat. This is about the least amount of variety I’m willing to accept without it being too challenging. Later, I can introduce more variety as a reward, as we’ll see later.
You’ll want to set up the metrics you’re tracking on a habit tracking app. There are plenty, ranging from the Notes app on an iPhone to something more structured or sophisticated. Don’t worry too much about which one because you can always change it. Pick something basic and go from there.
As a reminder, once you’ve set your goal, you should pretty much forget about it except to measure it and to see if the actions implied by your subgoals are leading to results. Any rewards we set up on this plan will be around these four subgoals, not weight, body fat, or lean mass.
Next, we want to create a ranked list of situations in which problematic behavior is likeliest to occur, from most challenging to least challenging. For each situation, we’ll want to list out a few tactics we’ll plan to use when these situations come up, and how we’ll practice them before they come up so we’re comfortable doing what we have to do.
Remember, you can’t really replace an unwanted behavior with nothing—you always want to decide what you’re replacing the unwanted behavior with. One good idea is to find an incompatible behavior that makes it hard or impossible to do the unwanted behavior. Feeling anxious? Go for a run. Biting your nails? Start grooming them consistently so you’re not tempted to bite them. Have a problem with yelling? Try singing.
Here’s my list for the diet plan above:
|If this happens…||I will…||And to practice, I will…|
|I feel really hungry in the middle of the day||Drink 20 oz of water with electrolytes
Set my stopwatch and see if I can avoid food for 30 more minutes
Find a way to distract myself by going on a walk, doing work, calling someone, or by reading something long on my phone
|Try each of these things when I’m not hungry so I’m comfortable doing them when I am|
|I’m too busy or distracted to buy food at the grocery store and end up at mealtime with no food at the house||Avoid: Schedule a shop every Sunday and Wednesday so there’s always plenty of food in the house
Cope: Before eating food, place an Instacart order for basic ingredients
Have an “emergency standby meal” at a local restaurant (for instance, grilled chicken or rotisserie chicken)
|I’ll find my “emergency standby meal” in my Doordash cart already so I’m not shopping hungry
I’ll have my Instacart order ready in case I need to use it
I’ll put the shop on my calendar, and schedule it before or after something I already know I have to do
|Friends or family invites me over and makes lots of food||Avoid: Utilize a cheat meal if I can
Avoid: Say no, but ask if they’d like to get coffee instead
If not: Tell them in advance that I’m really craving healthy food, or go to a restaurant where I can order healthy food a la carte
Avoid: Drink water and eat a snack in advance so I don’t overindulge
Tell them firmly and politely that the food is delicious but I’m taking a break from eating a lot of food and can’t eat more
If someone continues to push food, change the subject
|Role-play difficult conversations before I have to have them
Role-play what I’ll tell myself when I try to convince myself that it’s “just this one time”
|I end up eating something I’m not supposed to in the middle of the day as part of a cheat meal, and it results in my binging for the rest of the day||Avoid: Keep free meals to a la carte meals
Narrow: Prefer to schedule free meals as dinners
|Keep my first few free meals with friends who know what I’m doing and will make sure I’m ordering the right amount—2 plates or fewer|
|I slip up
Note: this should be part of every situation list for reasons I’ll describe soon
|I’ll give my friend, who is aware of my plans, a call and explain what happened. They’ll help me diagnose what went wrong so I don’t slip up again, without judging me or giving me a hard time about it.
I’ll give my brother $100 and ask him to give it back to me if I continue logging, update my plan, and get back on it within the next week.
|Role play what I’ll tell myself and do when I slip up|
Now it’s time for the fun part! What will you do when you succeed in your subgoals?
Remember the principles for consequences: rewards should be timely and consistent with the actions that earned them. For weight loss, I want to make sure that I’m rewarding on a daily, weekly, and program-wide basis.
- Reward for a perfect day: getting to watch an hour of TV.
- Reward for a perfect week: adding variety to the diet. This could be with low-calorie ingredients like non-starchy veggies (Brussels sprouts, broccoli, onions, garlic) or no-calorie condiments (like mustard)—but I want to earn them, so I’ll add in 2 each week. Note that this isn’t exactly rewarding food compliance with food, since I’ve artificially withheld these foods from the early parts of the program so I could use them as a reward.
- Reward for a perfect 6 weeks: buying something nice, like a bag for my bicycle.
After 6 weeks, I’ll revisit the program to start adding in more carbs, fat, and calories, to transition to something sustainable while still keeping free meals, time, macro, and food-based restrictions.
You will slip, at least once. It’s okay. Expect it, figure out what went wrong, and adjust your plan accordingly. It’s important to remember that any plan that relies on willpower or motivation is at risk of failures, so slipping is just new information about what can go wrong.
Write yourself a note, print it out, and put it in an envelope:
- A slip isn’t unusual. You haven’t failed or lost control over your behavior.
- You probably feel guilty and will blame yourself. That’s normal.
- You have willpower. You are not hopeless.
- This is an independent event, a single incident on the journey, and the journey is not over.
- Emotional distancing: don’t focus on the negatives, just move to the next subgoal.
- Don’t compare with other people.
- You’ve made plenty of progress so far.
- Remind yourself of how far you have to go.
- You’re developing a skill, which takes time and mistakes are a part of it.
- How can you look upon this as a learning experience? What led to the slip? How could you have avoided it or coped better?
If it feels awkward to write a letter to yourself, you can use ChatGPT to help. Here’s what I got after inputting a bit about my plans and what I’d like to hear when I slip:
Dear [name], I know that you’re working hard to stick to your diet and it can be tough at times. It’s completely normal to have a slip-up every now and then, and it doesn’t mean that you’ve failed or lost control. In fact, it’s a completely normal part of the process. I know that you may be feeling guilty and blaming yourself right now, but try to remember that this is just a temporary setback. You are not hopeless and you have the willpower to get back on track. It’s important to remember that this is just a single incident on your journey and the journey is not over. Don’t focus on the negatives and try to emotionally distance yourself from the slip-up. Instead, focus on your next subgoal and keep moving forward. It’s also important not to compare yourself to other people. Everyone’s journey is different and it’s important to focus on your own progress. You’ve already made plenty of progress so far and should be proud of yourself for that. As you continue on your journey, remember that you’re developing a skill and it takes time. Mistakes are a natural part of the learning process, so try to look upon this slip-up as a learning experience. What led to the slip-up and how could you have avoided it or coped better in the future? Finally, remember how far you have to go and all of the progress that you have already made. You can do this, and I believe in you. Sincerely, [Your Name]
As part of Step 5, where you ranked, planned, and rehearsed situations, you should always include a plan for when you slip up. Remember, you should think of it as when, not an if. You should decide in advance what you want to do. Will you call someone? How will you make sure that you keep measuring and get back on your behavior change program?
As with all situations, you should rehearse it.
The single most important thing when you slip up is to continue tracking. This may be emotionally challenging. It can be hard to see your weight go up after seeing it go down, or notice yourself smoking cigarettes when you said you wouldn’t, or see that your study time has gone to zero. Keep tracking.
How are you feeling? Are you ready to go? You’re probably contemplating some big changes—how are you feeling about them? Are you confident that you can get started?
Before you get started, it’s helpful to take a moment and actively consider why you’re making these changes, and the tension that will cause between your short-term and long-term wants. Yes, you would enjoy that bag of M&Ms now—but it might make your other health or aesthetic goals harder. Yes, you’d enjoy watching TV now—but it might mean getting low grades or not completing your work.
Being explicit with yourself about the tension between your short- and long-term desires— “I’m studying so I can have a more fulfilling personal and professional life,” or “I’m giving up smoking now so I can have a longer life”—will be helpful in situations when you’re tempted to not stick to your plan.
You might feel nervous or emotional about your subgoals. The change might be scary or way beyond reach.
Here’s the good news: just because you’re emotional doesn’t mean that you can’t do it or that you’re getting ahead of your ability. Take another look at your goals and subgoals. If the program seems too hard, make it easier for yourself through shaping. Consider a warm up project to remind yourself that you can do this. And remember that the whole point is to focus on the process, not the goal.
So far, you’ve identified how your desired behavior change matters to your live. You’ve identified your goals, subgoals, what you’re measuring, and your situation plan. You’ve acknowledged the trade-offs between short- and long-term goals.
Write this all down. Turn this into a contract with yourself. Sign it, and if possible, print it and put it somewhere you’ll see it.
Now that you know what you want to change, you can start measuring your behavior in a normal week, before you implement any behavior change. As before, you’ll want to make quantitative observations about what’s going on, as well as qualitative ones.
Quantitative: I had 2 cigarettes on Monday, 2 on Tuesday, and 6 on Friday.
Qualitative: “Wednesday: felt like having one but didn’t. Maybe it’s because I was so busy getting ready for the big meeting that I was able to distract myself? Friday: I had 6 cigarettes when out with friends. Everyone was doing it and I felt like I wouldn’t fit in if I didn’t smoke.”
If you are introducing a totally new behavior, like going to the gym or library for the first time, good news: your benchmarking is already done for you, since you’ve done the behavior 0 times before. Get started.
You’re going to learn a lot as you implement your behavior change. Make sure to update your plan as you learn what’s working and what doesn’t. It might help to put a few minutes on calendar once per week when you begin a behavior change, and then update once per month as you find yourself maintaining your behavior change.
When you’re in a situation and feel pressured to cave into desire—like eating that cake or smoking that cigarette—it can be helpful to know how to distract yourself. Here are several ways to distract yourself.
When you’re emotionally upset or physically stressed, you’re at risk of doing the behaviors you’ve been trying to avoid. The body scan meditation is a quick and simple way to determine if you’re stressed, and to relax you if you are. Here are a few variations on how to do it.
Throughout your behavior change journey, you may feel upset or dissatisfied with yourself. Here some ways to practice self-compassion.
Your behavior changes throughout your whole life. According to one model, we progress through a series of behavior and personality changes, with each stage building upon the last: Newborns need to learn to feed and trust their environment. Young children potty train. Preschoolers explore. School-aged children learn and play. Adolescents form friends and groups of friends. Young and middle adults do productive work and form relationships and families. And generative late adults are work to create positive changes that benefit other people.
You have the opportunity to change it for the better. Remember, you’re the world’s greatest expert on your own life, and you have everything you need to make the changes you want.
Get started, and good luck!