Unless you’re one of those viscously dedicated people who never deviate from your goals (on behalf of the entire human race: too good mate), chances are you’ve set out to change a behaviour and have been unsuccessful in doing so. Whether it’s to increase your levels of physical activity, eat less MnM’s on a nightly basis, or to snap out of the endless scrolling on social media, there’s an abundance of behaviours we engage in on a daily basis that we can never seem to be able to alter . Whilst there are well-known tools that we can utilise to help us with our behaviour change, no matter how many times we seem to try, it seems inevitable that we will fall back into old habits and routines.
As you have probably noticed, behaviour change is incredibly difficult. This is particularly the case if the behaviour you are engaging in offers some immediate and clear reward, such as feeling pleasure when consuming delicious chocolate, or receiving a like on an Instagram post. Although there are obvious benefits in resisting the over-consumption of chocolate and abstaining from scrolling on your phone, unfortunately we have a tendency to focus on the immediate feelings of pleasure and satisfaction, and overlook the long-term benefits and rewards. Changing a certain behaviour will also be challenging when it has become an ingrained habit that you don’t apply conscious thought when engaging in it. For example, most of us have a habit of coming home from work or Uni and mindlessly scrolling on our phone. It may be because we are tired from a gruelling day, or we feel stressed or dissatisfied from the preceding day, but no matter what the circumstances are, it seems most of us have habituated this action of scrolling inadvertently on our phones. It is only when we become consciously aware of what we are doing, and how it is making us feel, that we may snap out of it and hopefully do something more productive.
For me personally, I have managed to develop long-lasting routines and adapt my behaviour in a way that has improved my life significantly. Previously, I used to sleep-in until ten minutes before I had to get ready for work. After snoozing my alarm for two hours, I would jump out of bed in a panic, throwing on whatever clothes I could find and scoffing down a piece of fruit. I would arrive at work feeling rushed and energy-depleted, spending the day with a distinct lack of drive and motivation. My lunch was often bought from nearby cafe, and in my break I would lay in the park across the road from the office and try and nap before trudging my way back for the remainder of the day. I put very little thought into what I would cook for dinner, and I would either feel so full I could barely breathe, or hungry enough to eat two desserts. That isn’t to say I was a particularly unhealthy person, and in fact i’d say overall my diet was pretty good. However, there was certainly room for improvement and I recall how I struggled to feel satiated with the food I was eating, and how such little thought was put into it. After dinner, I would spend a few hours scrolling through my phone, searching for something that could fulfil me but always coming up short. I’d jump into bed late and repeat the process again the next day.
The picture of my life today is a very different one. I wake up at 5:00am every morning, sometimes almost leaping out of bed with enthusiasm (I know, what an unacceptable sentence that is). I journal and meditate whilst sipping slowly on my warm cappuccino. I go for a walk whilst listening to an educational podcast, and then prepare myself some delicious french toast or pancakes. I have my lunch prepared the previous night, and my high protein and fibrous snacks are ready to go in containers. I have a stand-up desk at work in which I stand up for half an hour every 1.5 hours, and every lunch break without fail I take myself outside for a 1 hour walk. When I arrive home, I cook dinner with ingredients I purchased on the previous Sunday, and I read my book, consume a satiating dessert and make my way to my room to study, read a book, or, yes, scroll on my phone (unfortunately I am neither perfect nor immune to addiction). I have managed to implement these behaviours for a considerable amount of time to the point that I barely think about them with much depth. Above all, my happiness levels have improved dramatically.
Based on my successful path to behaviour change, I believe there are certain tools you can implement which will assist you greatly in altering your behaviour in a meaningful and enduring way. Although there are several theories of behaviour change which provide a more scientific and technical framework for facilitating behavioural change, such as the Transtheoretical model or the Health Belief Model, here I will endeavour to draw upon the least scientific evidence – anecdotal – (i.e. my personal experience) to assist you in changing your behaviour to live a more productive and fulfilling life. Here are 5 helpful tips, obtained through my direct experience which may help you achieve your goals.
In my seemingly successful path to behaviour change, the most fundamental component of it was awareness. Firstly, awareness of (1) what specific behaviour I wanted to change; (2) understanding of how I go about enforcing this change in my routine behaviour (3) Awareness of how I felt once I engaged in the behaviour and thus reinforcing this positive feeling when deciding what behaviour I wanted to engage in the next time. I consequently became motivated by intrinsic feelings, and this encouraged me to continue with the positive behavioural change. This will be discussed below. But, firstly, back to awareness.
Previously I was under the impression that because I had a lot of thoughts swirling around my brain that this meant I was a “mindful” person. It wasn’t until I realised that it’s not the amount of thoughts that’s important, but rather how these thoughts are directed which matters. Throughout the mess that was 2020, I began immersing myself in self-help books and podcasts which all seemed to bang on about “mindfulness” and “awareness”. At first I was a little dismissive because of the nebulous nature of the discussions surrounding minfulness, however when I began digging a little deeper I became aware (pun, intended) of the profound impact that mindfulness can have on my life. In my interpretation, and indeed in the context that is used in this article, I believe mindfulness boils down to a sustained awareness of your thoughts, feelings and emotions, as well as the stimuli directly in front of you, at the present moment. Prior to reading about mindfulness, I feel like I was living my life with wool drawn over my eyes – never truly seeing or experiencing what was in front of me. This lack of presence and inability to articulate and decipher what I was truly feeling facilitated the repetition of maladaptive behaviours that were ultimately impeding my ability to progress and lead a more fulfilling and pleasurable life.
Nowadays, I don’t ruminate on the past and never have a single thought directed beyond this very moment. Just kidding, obviously. I am still your typical over-thinker, with a rare ability to recall shameful or emotional memories from 20 years ago and have them interrupt my pleasant mood, as if the people from my memories are still laughing or criticising me and not, you know, thinking about their email to a boss or grocery shopping. But I am constantly improving and at the very least can see the fundamental importance of focussing on the present moment, how what I am doing can impact my future feelings and what decisions will best serve me in the long-run. Previously, when I wasn’t endeavouring to be as mindful as possible, I often didn’t think too deeply about the impacts that my behaviour was having on how i felt, but rather chose to engage in actions because of their immediate reward, or because I was so habituated in my behaviour patterns. For example, previously when I would wake up at 8am, I didn’t pay attention to how it made me feel to rush around like a headless chook, and how this chaotic and hurried morning would affect me throughout my day. By contrast, waking up earlier and making time to journal, meditate, exercise, and get ready for work in a measured and calm manner, I felt far more energised and fulfilled throughout the day. This discreet understanding of what actions increased my overall positive feelings, and what decreased them, allowed me to stick to my newfound routine and ultimately change my behaviour in a sustained way.
2. Tapping into intrinsic motivation
There may be several factors that are driving your desire to alter your ingrained behavour. You may want to stop snacking late at night because you want to lose weight to improve your physical appearance. You might want to wake up earlier because you want to squeeze in a gym session before work so you receive compliments when you’re wearing new items of clothing. Both these forms of motivation can be categorised as “extrinsic motivation”, because you are encouraging yourself to do something by receiving an external reward. In my experience, this type of motivation isn’t long-lasting, and provides the impetus for short bursts of behaviour change, as opposed to sustained habits. External motivation isn’t strong enough to provide the on-going and consistent motivation that we require to really kick our ingrained behaviour.
On the other hand, I found intrinsic motivation to be effective in changing and implementing a desired behaviour. When faced with the difficult choice of whether I should resort back to comfortable and previous habits, or engage in the the new behaviour, I found asking myself the question “how will I feel after I make this decision?” greatly assisted me in choosing the path that was aligned with my new goals. Because my answer was always that I wanted to experience feelings of accomplishment, fulfilment and joy in the long-run, and with the knowledge that only through choosing this new behaviour that I would be able to achieve these feelings, then the answer was always pretty simple really. I also became hooked on these positive and content feelings, and it was this positive feedback loop which further motivated me to continue engaging in these new behaviours. Let’s take my nutrition, for example. Initially, I was motivated to eat healthy so I could lose weight and improve my physical appearance (i.e. I was motivated to change my behaviour because of external factors). This did not provide me with the sustained incentive that I needed, and I was inevitably unsuccessful in maintaining a “healthy” and nutritious diet when my sole source of motivation was to look a certain way. It wasn’t until I began to notice and truly appreciate how eating certain foods made me feel, i.e. energy-filled, devoid of bloating and digestive issues, and generally just satiated and fulfilled. It was only when I experienced these positive emotions intrinsically in which my newfound and desired behaviour was reinforced and thus repeated.
3. Surrounding yourself with people with similar goals
I think I have heard the phrase “you are the product of the five people you hang around” in at least every self-help podcast or book that I’ve stumbled across in the past year. Like most cliches, however, arguably this phrase is actually pretty accurate. I have found that the more I expose myself to people who are tirelessly committed to improving their life and changing their problematic habits, the more motivated I feel to stick to my new productive and fulfilling behaviours. Whilst you can’t exactly force your housemates to wake up at 5.00am and start sprinting in the backyard with you, you can curate your life in a way that means the people you expose yourself to have similar interests, goals and outlooks on life. Instead of listening to the inane chit chat of sub-par radio announcers in the car, you can pop on an inspiring audiobook or podcast which discusses the topics that are aligned with your desired goals and values. If you want to start running every morning at 5am, listen to a fitness podcast which talks about the physical and psychological benefits of exercise. Even better, sign up to your local park run, join a running group, or even start a running group! If you want to change your nutritional habits, watch Supersize me 50 times in a row and start selling juice-detox diets for the price of your soul. Just kidding, but you can join online forums with people who discuss the optimally nutritious foods you should be consuming, or have a coffee with a friend who you think is interested in the topic.
Your positive outlook on life and zeal for progress and achieving goals can also have an effect on your close friends and family. You might inspire them to live a healthier and more mindful life, in which they change their nutritional or exercise habits because they are used to hanging around you. For me, I did what every 25 year-old does whose going through a quarter-life crisis – I signed up for a six week fitness challenge and started my own fitness instagram. It was cringey and embarrassing at the start, but the people that engage with me on the platform are all incredibly friendly and encouraging, and everyone has the same goal to improve their life through healthy eating and exercising religiously. By creating this instagram, I was able to curate a feed which motivated and inspired me to stick to my goals, and at the same time, receiving education and exposure to helpful and free content. Whilst consistently exposing myself to these people wasn’t the sole reason for my successful behaviour change, it was definitely a noteworthy contribution and can be particularly useful when used in conjunction with other factors.
4. Set up your environment to facilitate change
Whilst we all like to think that our intentions and desires are what solely influences our behaviour, it might be surprising to note that our surroundings play an integral role in shaping our ingrained routines. A simple and effective method for creating habits that sticks is through creating an environment which makes it easy to do so. It can be dishearteningly easy for us to resort back to our preceding behaviours and habits because of how ingrained they have become. Our previous habits were easy to adhere to because we did them without applying any conscious thought. A trick that I utilise often to ensure I don’t slip back into old habits is to ensure that my surroundings and external environment are set up in a way that even if I am feeling particular “weak” or vulnerable, it would actually be difficult for me to resort back to my previous behaviour.
For example, if i want to kick my habit of scoffing down two chocolate bars at 9pm at night, then the simplest solution is to not have any chocolate in the house. Whilst I could very easily drive to the nearest service station, this would require significant effort compared to staying at home and simply not eating the chocolate. By creating this extra barrier, it increases the chance of us adhering to the behaviour we ultimately want to. The same goes for exercise, if you buy a gym membership that is near your work which doesn’t require much effort for you to attend, you will be more likely to stick to this behaviour of attending the gym due to the mere convenience of it. This, used in conjunction with awareness of how good you feel after a gym session, will put you in a far better position of adhering to your goals than if your environment was not set up in a way to facilitate an easier adherence.
5. Focus on long-term picture, not just the immediate benefits
Ultimately, the behaviours that we are trying to change will be difficult to kick because of the immediate rewards we experience. Let’s face it, we wouldn’t be continuing to engage in maladaptive behaviour if there wasn’t some type of reward associated with it. The dopamine hit we receive scrolling through instagram, and the feelings of pleasure we feel when consuming a cheeseburger make it difficult for us to choose an alternative behaviour that may not have such an immediate and obvious benefit. The ability to resist immediate temptation with the expectation of a more valuable and fulfilling reward later on is known as delayed gratification. If you can momentarily overlook the short-term and transient sensations of pleasure, and focus on the long-term rewards, you will find that you might be less inclined to resort back to the behaviour you are trying to change. Rather than using mere willpower and deprivation tactics, a useful approach may be to reiterate to yourself that the long-term rewards you experience, such as increased self-efficacy, achievement of goals, and the reinforcement of fulfilling behaviour, will be far greater than any immediate and brief feeling of pleasure you that experience.
Used in the context of healthy eating and fat-loss, delayed gratification can be particularly useful to help facilitate positive behaviour change. By resisting over-eating and adhering to your planned diet, the benefits are far greater than if you said “stuff it, give me the chocolate bar” and feeling only momentary satisfaction. Having the knowledge that you can resist immediate temptation and not resort back to your previous dietary habits, increases your inner confidence and self-efficacy, as well as bringing you closer to achieving that ultimate feeling of satisfaction and fulfilment that stems from achieving challenging goals. Whilst the long-term impact of adopting this new behaviour (i.e. resisting the temptation) can be fat-loss, the ultimate reward is the positive and elated feelings associated with adhering to your intentions.
Arguably this technique does require the use of willpower and perhaps an acceptance of feelings of slight discomfort in the short-term. There are tools that you can rely upon that can help assist you when your willpower might be weak or you feel somewhat glum about the prospects of not consuming the Kit Kat like you previously would have. In my opinion, by employing mindfulness (the beast is back!) regularly and asking yourself how hungry do you actually feel in the present moment? Are you bored and unfulfilled instead? Could your desire to eat the chocolate bar be directed somewhere else, which is more aligned with your overall desire and goals? Again, by simply checking in with yourself and really thinking about your feelings and behaviour provides you with that space you need to think more objectively about the overall picture, and not just about your immediate desires.
Our habits and behaviours can often seem insignificant on a day-to-day basis when we are caught up in the daily minutiae of life. What does it matter if I snooze my alarm, or skip my daily journalling practice that I really wanted to get stuck into it, just one time? Of course it’s completely fine to be imperfect and not do everything right all the time. However, the attitude of “just this one time” can inadvertently lead you down a repeated cycle of maladapted behaviour and a complete lack of progress and behaviour change. As soon as I realised the importance of my daily decisions in shaping the trajectory of my entire life, I became committed to choosing the behaviours that would ultimately serve me better overall. This understanding was borne out of a newfound awareness of my thoughts, feelings and behaviours, and how they were impacting my life. I am becoming acutely aware of what actions lead to positive feelings due to their alignment with my goals and values, and what ones cause me to feel as though I am regressing back to my unhappy ways. I also understand that it is not merely our internal mechanisms that promote behaviour change, but also our external environment which provides the basis for a more successful and smooth adherence to a desired behaviour. Finally, the consistent focus on the overall picture and my long-term goals helps me make decisions in moments where my immediate desires are influential, and I might feel the desire to slip back into old habits. Ultimately, the goal of progress and constantly bettering myself allows me to stay committed to my behaviours.