Why are commitments regarding behavior change so much easier said than done?
Most mornings start off so enthusiastically. You commit to practicing healthier lifestyle behaviors only to end most evenings with regrets and the hope to start fresh tomorrow morning. Why are these verbal commitments so difficult to implement long term?
In my 25 years of counseling, I have concluded that there are at least six reasons why this happens.
The first reason is that life gets in the way. Whether you are a mother, father, sister, brother, daughter or son, worker or caretaker, I'm sure that every moment of each day could be filled with tasks. These responsibilities take up so much time and energy that it’s not surprising that there are days that you have very little energy for anything else. After all, a day only has 24 hours.
I am convinced about the second reason. You may not be as passionate about the "process" of reaching your goal even if you know how great the results feel. The journey takes effort. Without natural passion and drive, the amount of brainpower it takes to motivate yourself make cause more anxiety and stress than you feel it's worth in that moment.
Sometimes, avoiding action has a deeper meaning that only your subconscious is aware of. That's reason number three. Let’s say, your goal is to improve your relationship with your body and food, however, feeling confident and proud of yourself is something you have always felt is wrong or bad. Your subconscious may sabotage your efforts to avoid these uncomfortable feelings.
The fourth reason why implementing behavior change is challenging is because the process never ends. Staying healthy by improving behaviors is a lifelong process that requires determination and persistence. It is not uncommon for you to become frustrated by the amount of ongoing effort this requires and give up.
The fifth reason why long term change is difficult is that your emotions may go through highs and lows at different points of your life. On days that you feel optimistic and hopeful taking action may seem simple and effortless. However, on days that you feel defeated, self care may become extremely difficult to accomplish.
Finally, and I believe the most challenging of all reasons, is that you actually may be enjoying the feeling of your "comfortable heart rate". How many times have you said I am definitely exercising today only to keep putting it off because you are resting on the couch? The thought of those first 15-20 minutes when your resting heart rate re-calibrates itself to a higher exertion level to accommodate the exercising muscles may seem uninviting to you. Yet, if you make it past this recalibration you most likely will reflect back on the experience as a great one. For my clients who “must” exercise daily out of compulsion and need to decrease their need for physical activity, I realize how trying to “avoid your exercise routine” can also be challenging. The endorphin rush from exercise and the heart pumping is so powerful that not achieving that daily "high" is depressing and anxiety producing. But learning to sit with your uncomfortable feelings of stillness for you is the action needed to produce a successful behavior change.
So how can you increase the probability of turning your verbalized goals into action?
First, you must not forget that you are your own best friend. Be compassionate to yourself about all of the roles you play in your daily life, but never forget about how important "you" are. I think we often forget that. Taking care of yourself is often misunderstood as a selfish act. It is not. I’m not saying that a mother who neglects her family on a regular basis to participate in her own self care is acting appropriately. But a person who never includes themselves in any part of their schedule is also not balancing their daily routine either. In my years as a counselor, I feel confident to say that people who take care of themselves in a balanced fashion are usually more confident, more efficient and happier people.
Convincing yourself to engage in activities or behavior changes that you do not feel naturally passionate about, it is always going to be more challenging. By nature you seem to find time for the things you have to do or really want to do. In contrast, if it really doesn’t interest you, or serve a purpose you desire, you will find a thousand excuses to not do it.
Ways to "Take Action"
Address the inner "bratty child" in you that wants to do only what you want to do and not what’s necessary for the better good of your goal. We all know that humans spend the majority of their time doing things that they have to do versus what they would like to do. That inner bratty child can’t wait to get her way and find any excuse that allows you to avoid implementing positive behavior change. You must parent that inner voice and wisely direct it to action based solutions.
There is a wonderful exercise that when practiced routinely is beneficial. It is called “opposite action”. Any automatic or negative thoughts that interfere with performing a beneficial activity, you do the opposite. For example, I'm to tired to prepare a healthy meal for myself. Opposite action implies that you step out of your comfort zone and prepare that meal right away. For many of my clients with anorexia, bulimia or binge eating disorder, this is a wonderful tool to accomplish any of the goals that you are working on. When the mind starts with willful (self-defeating) excuses, I encourage you to attempt opposite action and fulfill your goal you set out for.
Learning the “pros and cons” game is another way to implement actions. Ask yourself what are the pros of taking action? What are the cons of taking action? Are there any "pros or cons" to not taking action?
Write yourself a values list and record everything that you truly value in your life. If your current behaviors do not support those values, reconsider your efforts. Ask yourself how you want to feel at the end of the day? Do you want to feel accomplished? Were the goals you set out for achieved? If not, how can you try to achieve them tomorrow?
At the end of the day, the saying “Just do it” appears to be the only three words that can make change. Each excuse, every mental negotiation only increases the chances that you will allow yourself a way out of implementing a behavior change. Take a deep breath and move towards the action, not allowing any other voice in your mind to have a say in the matter.
Lastly, I want to discuss the body’s natural desire to stay in the mode its most comfortable with. I know that I am not alone when I say it is easier to just give up. Remember,you can’t get change with only verbal promises. Real change takes action.
Practicing these exercises is also considered an action. It is very easy to say you will practice them and never actually do so. I recommend setting realistic expectations as well. I have been practicing these tools for years and still lose many times to those strong willed excuses. Stay determined though. I am confident that the percentage of times you win each time you practice increases with time.