Seven psychological tips for making change that lasts

December 31, 2019

Last month, you may recall, I wrote about how to feel better about yourself if you hadn’t achieved all you wanted to as we approached the end of the year. This month, as we contemplate a new decade and you might want to do things differently, I’m looking at what psychology tells us about making changes that stick.

1. Focus on actions not outcomes

Many people set very high level resolutions for change – get fitter, be happier, have a better work/life balance – which fall by the wayside because they have no tangible actions attached to them. I see this as akin to a business having a high level strategic objective – double revenue, develop an export market – but not putting anything in place to achieve it. They’re not likely to succeed and the research suggests the same is true for individuals. If you set a specific intention, “I’m going to do this on that day” and can picture yourself doing it, you are more likely to make progress.

2. Think in terms of habit formation

Much of the time when we’re trying to make personal change, we’re either creating new habits or breaking old ones. I’ve been very taken recently with Atomic Habits by James Clear, which has many good tips for creating new habits. One of his recommendations is to start so small that you can’t fail. If you want to get fit, for example, start with one press up a day and build from there. Get 1% better every day. So try 90 seconds of mindfulness or going home two minutes early when working late.

3. Limit your decision making

Some estimates suggest that we make around 35,000 decisions a day. Which socks? Toast or muesli? Shall I reply to that email right away? It’s exhausting just thinking about it. Many of the decisions we make are about what we should do next – open that email or make a coffee; get back to report writing or have look at Twitter? Our intentions for change get snagged in these shall I/shan’t I moments.

If at all possible, decide once. Make it a rule. This works best for changes that just require a shift in mindset and where you’re not likely to succumb to temptation. For example, a year ago I decided to stop buying new clothes for ecological reasons. I already own loads of clothes and I love scouting out second-hand and vintage gems. It’s been liberating. When I pass a shop with something eye-catching in the window, I no longer have to decide whether to go in. I keep walking (unless it’s a vintage shop and then I go nuts).

In a work context, you could create a rule that says “I always delegate this type of work to my team” or “No matter how much work, I go home by 6pm/keep my Sundays free”.

4. Create defaults

It’s not always possible to create hard and fast rules, so defaults can help. An example of where this is and isn’t working in my own life illustrates this. I say that “I try to run two or three times a week”. The word “try” lets me off the hook and “two or three times” is vague, so it’s not surprising then that I generally don’t run as often as I intend to. I almost always run on Sundays with my husband as we’ve made that a default. Something significant would have to happen to get in the way. But the rest of the week is up for grabs because my work schedule is unpredictable. I can see, however, that if I were to say “I run on Tuesdays and Fridays” then that could become a default and if work got in the way, I’d be looking to reschedule my ‘Tuesday run’. I’m going to give that a go.

In a work context, a default diary can help keep things on the radar that might otherwise slip; making Wednesday your networking and business development day, for example.

5. Don’t rely on willpower

It’s tempting to think that your success depends on willpower and you need to just grit your teeth and get on with it. Obviously, it helps if you can keep yourself motivated but should you rely on it? The research is a bit mixed here. There’s a whole area of research on ‘ego depletion’ which sees willpower as a limited resource. If you’ve used it all up resisting chocolate, for example, you’ll find it harder to knuckle down and finish that report. More recent research has suggest that this may not be true. In fact, it may be that if you believe willpower is a limited resource, you’re more likely to run out of it.

But regardless of whether it’s limited or not, everyone’s willpower waxes and wanes. Trying to force yourself to do something is a surefire way of making it harder. It also gives you a reason to beat yourself up if you fail, which, as I discussed last month, isn’t helpful. Instead try the next suggestion…

6. Create a path of least resistance

As humans, we tend to run along default lines and follow the path of least resistance. Designing your world so that the path of least resistance leads you in the right direction means you’re less reliant on willpower. For example, if you arrange to meet a friend at the gym, you’re more likely to go so you don’t let them down. If your smartphone is out of reach, you’ll waste less time mindless scrolling through social media. Work out what you need to do and then how you can make it as easy as possible to do it. For example, if you struggle to fit in 1:1s with your team, schedule them in so you have to fit other work round them, not the other way around.

7. Have a plan for failure and temptation

It is inevitable that you will fail from time to time when trying to make changes, especially in deeply ingrained behaviour. Have a plan for what you’ll do in those circumstances. Two things to not do are a) be really really hard on yourself and b) give up altogether (“Now I’ve eaten that doughnut, what’s the point? I’ll never stick to this”). Be kind to yourself, accept that you’re only human and work out what will make it easier to stick at it next time.

One way to do this is to work out what triggers the behaviour and have a plan to mitigate it. If you know, for example, that you’re likely to want to smoke after a stressful meeting, plan something else you’ll do to calm down after the meeting. The trigger may not be what you expect it to be. I am incredibly easily distracted and can lose huge chunks of time on line. I assumed it was triggered by by boredom until I noticed that I’d spent a dull afternoon inputting expenses and sorting out my VAT return without once being lured away. When I observed myself more closely I realised that I get lured into the world wide wonderland not by boredom but by the slightest mental block. As soon as I’m momentarily stuck while writing, I seek distraction. I don’t think this is ever going to change so my workaround is to write everything of substance – reports, proposals, this article – on paper and then type it up. It seems like a waste of time but I know it prevents me from wasting even more time.

So there you go, it is possible to change and you may not need to grit your teeth to do it. If you’d like some support with changes you’re making at work, I’d be happy to have a chat:

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Marwa Morgan

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