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How to Make a Change That Will Last

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Seth Gillihgan, PhD - Blogs
By Seth J. Gillihan, PhDClinical psychologistJanuary 8, 2019

It’s a lot easier to start a positive change than it is to stick with it. That’s why your gym is packed in January, and then by February the crowds have thinned out.

It’s not easy to make improvements that last, in part because our minds are designed to be stimulated by change. For example, dropping that ten pounds you’ve been wanting to lose feels amazing and motivating, but maintaining your target weight for weeks feels unexciting, like you’re doing nothing.

I’ve found that a few key principles can help make lasting changes:

Choose Your Goals Carefully. It’s hard enough to follow through on a realistic goal that we deeply care about, so it’s next to impossible if the goal is beyond our reach, or when it’s based on what we think others expect of us. You probably aren’t going to go to the gym seven days a week (at least, not past the first week); and if you’re resolving to lose another five pounds just because you feel you like you should, your motivation probably won’t be strong enough to go the distance.

Ask yourself: Is the change I have in mind attainable? Is it something I truly value?

Make a Commitment. Probably the number one reason we slip back into old habits is that we think we can rely on will power to maintain our progress. However, the problem isn’t our lack of motivation—it’s that we don’t change our lives in ways that will support our new behaviors. The man who wants to stop drinking alcohol once and for all, for example, might think the “wake-up call” he got will be enough to sustain his sobriety. Unfortunately most of the time, raw inspiration will get you to the start line, but it won’t sustain your journey or carry you to the finish line. Real commitment requires structuring your life in a way that makes it easier for you to make the right decision, like joining an exercise class so your instructor will be expecting you, or finding an AA meeting to attend at the time your friends are gathering for happy hour.

Ask yourself: What changes can I make that will keep me on track when my motivation inevitably flags?

Make It Part of Your Identity. Along the same lines, begin to see yourself as someone who does what you want to be doing. Say to yourself, for example, “I’m someone who goes to the gym in the morning”; “I’m a person who chooses foods that leave me feeling healthy and satisfied”; “I’ve decided that I don’t drink alcohol”; or similar statements about what’s important to you. Think of it like being a vegetarian—you don’t want to have to decide at every meal, “Should I eat meat?” Making decisions takes effort, so take the work out of it by making it part of who you are.

Ask yourself: What will I tell myself about my new identity?

Mind Your Thoughts. The things we tell ourselves can help or hinder our efforts to make lasting changes. Pay attention to your thoughts and how they might be influencing your actions. For example, notice “permission-giving” thoughts that encourage poor decisions, like, “I’ve had a long, stressful week—one beer probably won’t hurt anything.” Catch these often subtle tricks of the mind, and counter them with more realistic thinking, like, “That’s exactly what I told myself the last time when I ended up in the emergency room with alcohol poisoning.”

Ask yourself: What is my mind likely to tell me that could lead me astray, based on past experience?

Practice Acceptance. Any change worth making is going to be difficult at some point. If it were easy, you would have made the change already and stuck with it. And remember that maintaining the changes you’ve made is going to take an ongoing input of effort. When you’re prepared for what’s coming, you’re more willing to accept difficulty and hard work to stay true to your intentions.

Ask yourself: What will I need to accept to support my new identity?

Take some time right now to write down the principles you’ll need to keep in mind as you move toward your goals. Then see what happens as you provide yourself with the right conditions to nurture your growth.

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About the Author
Seth J. Gillihan, PhD

Seth J. Gillihan, PhD, is a licensed psychologist and clinical assistant professor of psychology in the Psychiatry Department at the University of Pennsylvania. He is co-author with Janet Singer of Overcoming OCD: A Journey to Recovery and author of Retrain Your Brain: Cognitive Behavioral Therapy in 7 Weeks and Cognitive Behavioral Therapy Made Simple. Dr. Gillihan maintains a private practice in Haverford, PA, where he specializes in treating OCD, depression, anxiety, and insomnia.

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