Changes that Last

How to Make Changes That Last

The new year is a natural time to make changes and create new habits. We love the idea of making a fresh start in January, but most of us end up frustrated and disappointed just a few weeks into the new year.

We all know from experience that putting ourselves on a radical budget or diet starting January 1st rarely works. So, how do we make lasting changes? Why do the vast majority of resolutions fail? Why do we revert back to our old behaviors so quickly?

Change is hard

Self-improvement is a good thing, but we need to set ourselves up for success. It doesn’t matter if you call it a new year’s resolution, an intention, a goal, or even a theme to reflect the changes you want to make — there’s nothing magical about January that makes change easier.

Repeatedly failing to achieve self-improvement goals has turned many people off from making new year’s resolutions (hence the trend toward intentions or theme words). In other word’s new year’s resolutions are laden with our past failures. So, we start out discouraged and doubtful about our ability to follow through.

You can’t rely on willpower

Many of our self-improvement plans are based on willpower and self-discipline. The problem is that we have a limited supply of willpower.

If you’ve ever been on a diet, you know that your willpower and resolve are highest at the beginning of the day. It’s easy to pass up the donuts at your 9 AM meeting, not too difficult to make a healthy choice for lunch, but increasingly tough to pass up the cookies your kids are enjoying after dinner.

We all have a limited amount of willpower, so it becomes harder and harder to resist temptation after exerting self-control all day (or all week).

When we try to make radical changes, like giving up sugar or never eating out, we are using more willpower than if we make small or moderate changes. So, we deplete our willpower more quickly. We end up discouraged more quickly. And we give up more quickly.

An alternative, that works for many people, is to make small, incremental changes.

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Making small changes is motivating

Often, we’re so eager to change that we want to do it all at once. Maybe you decide you’ll get healthy – you’ll give up your soda habit, go to the gym five times a week, eat only salads for lunch, and meditate daily. And even though these are specific goals, it’s a lot to ask of yourself all at once. As I said, when our willpower and planning fail us, we become discouraged and more likely to quit.

And if we do succeed in making massive changes quickly, they’re hard to sustain, and we drift back to our old patterns – again, leaving us with a sense of failure, and perhaps shame.

In contrast, making smaller changes increases our chances of success, which keeps us motivated for the long haul. In her book Better Than Before, Gretchen Rubin writes, “Keeping changes modest can make it easier to stick to a new habit and to avoid the burnout that can hit when we try to make big changes all at once” (Broadway Books, 2015, p. 39).

Large problems or goals feel more manageable when we break them down into small pieces. If you read my blog regularly, you’ve probably noticed that I frequently encourage you to think of one small change that you can make today and then build on that. It’s important to feel successful early in the change process as this encourages you to keep going.

Set goals so small that you can’t possibly fail

According to Caroline L. Arnold, the author of Small Move, Big Change (Penguin Books, 2014), the first rule of setting micro-resolutions is they must be easy. They have to be so specific and doable that you’re certain you can achieve them. The easier the better.

For example, if your goal is to keep your house neat, choose one small change you can make, say sorting your mail immediately rather than letting it collect on the kitchen counter.

It’s tempting to want to set your sights higher fearing that a small change like recycling the junk mail won’t result in any significant change in neatness. Well, perhaps at first it won’t. But making small changes creates a success mindset that will help you set and achieve more and more small goals.

Make Changes with Micro-Changes

Small changes make a big difference

In addition to giving us a sense of success, small changes can really add up! Once sorting your mail becomes a habit, you can easily add hanging up your coat and putting away your shoes to your routine. Then you might add putting your dishes in the dishwasher straight away rather than leaving them in the sink.

With practice, these new behaviors become automatic and you’ll be doing them with little thought or effort.

Aim for progress, not perfection

Focusing on small changes is also a great way to get away from all-or-nothing thinking – labeling things as a success or a failure. In my book, The CBT Workbook for Perfectionism, I discuss how our rigid, perfectionist thinking makes it hard for us to see that many of our endeavors are what I call “partial successes”.

For example, if your goal is to have a tidy home and all you accomplish is getting the mail off the kitchen counter, you might look at the jackets and shoes strewn about, dirty dishes in the sink, and piles of clutter, and conclude that you failed.

Alternatively, you could see tackling the mail as a step in the right direction, something worth doing even if other areas of your house remain messy. A goal, such as having a tidy house, doesn’t have to be measured as a complete success or a complete failure; there’s lots of space in between for “partial successes” because ultimately, change is about progress, not perfection.  

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©2018 Sharon Martin, LCSW. All rights reserved.
Photo by Miguel Bruna on Unsplash.

The CBT Workbook for Perfectionism by Sharon Martin. Overcome perfectionism workbook #perfectionism #cbt

Ditch Your Rigid, Perfectionist & Self-Critical Thinking

Do you hold yourself—and perhaps others—to extremely high standards? Do you have a nagging inner-critic that tells you you’re inadequate no matter how much you achieve? Do you procrastinate certain tasks because you’re afraid you won’t carry them out perfectly? If you’ve answered “yes” to one or more of these questions, chances are you’re a perfectionist. And while there’s nothing wrong with hard work and high standards, perfectionism can take over your life if you let it. So, how can you find balance?

To see sample pages or purchase a copy on Amazon, click HERE.

Sharon Martin, DSW, LCSW is a psychotherapist and author specializing in codependency recovery. For the past 25 years, she’s been helping people-pleasers, perfectionists, and adult children overcome self-doubt and shame, embrace their imperfections, and set boundaries. Dr. Martin writes the popular blog Conquering Codependency for Psychology Today and is the author of The CBT Workbook for Perfectionism and The Better Boundaries Workbook.

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