A Healthier U

Making Behavior Change Stick

Almost everyone has heard the experts’ recommendations for living a healthy life: Getting enough sleep, managing daily stress, not smoking, eating a colorful and varied diet and engaging in regular physical activity. A wealth of research and studies, self-help books, trendy diet and celebrity endorsements bombard us with different tactics for making positive changes to our lifestyles. So why is it SO HARD to make behavior changes that stick? Experts who study behavior change agree that one problem may be some of the common motivators to change—a sense of fear, guilt, or regret. A British research group, the Economic and Social Research Council, released findings on 129 behavior-change studies in 2006 and reported that the least effective strategies involved participants who felt regret or fear related to making a change.

Understanding that behavior change is a process (not a one-time event) can go a long way in managing your expectations. How long it takes to make a change depends on the individual, the circumstances, and the change taking place. A relatively small change may take several weeks, while a more challenging habit may take months or years. In other words, prepare to practice patience and gentleness with yourself as you strive to change your habits.

Some effective strategies for long-term behavior change include the following:

  • Be realistic and ready for change: Experts agree that behavior-change works best when the individual is self-motivated and rooted in positive thinking. Take a look at the well-known and relied upon Transtheoretical Model of Behavior Change for more details regarding readiness for change.
  • Set specific goals: Studies show that setting specific goals (“I’ll walk 20 minutes every day” versus “I’ll exercise more”) makes them easier to reach.
  • Limit your number: It appears that having too many goals at once will inevitably limit your ability and time to devote to making a lasting change.
  • Include a plan: Turns out having a goal isn’t usually enough motivation to change… you also need a practical plan in place to achieve it. For example, if your goal is to increase your hydration, plan to keep a water bottle with you at work or set a timer to remind you to hydrate throughout the day.
  • Expect set-backs: The behavior-change path is rarely linear. Relapse is so common some experts claim it is inevitable. Realizing this is part of the process (and not letting it derail you) may help you see set-backs as a way to gain new insight about yourself. If you adopted a strategy that isn’t working for your lifestyle, you can adapt it slightly for a better fit.


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