How to change behavior for the better. (Weight loss example)

This week I have had a lot more alone time and bicycle riding time than usual which means I have had more time for deep contemplation. This morning while on my bike, I was able to clearly think of each part of making positive changes in life.

A (positive) change in behavior includes the following parts:

  1. Acknowledge a problem exists.
  2. Research and communicate.
  3. Have a desire to change.
  4. Have the willingness to change.
  5. Write down (specific) measurable and reasonable goals.
  6. Evaluate goals over time and make adjustments.
  7. Repeat and continue the process.
For the specifics of each part, I will use weight loss as an example simply because most people can relate to this in one way or another. Even if you have never tried to lose weight, you probably know someone who has. These steps are all applicable to ANY type of behavior or attitude you wish to change.

Acknowledge a problem exists

Acknowledging a problem exists has two parts. Internal awareness and external awareness. 

Being internal aware means that you are aware you have a problem without any outside influences. Perhaps you are walking up a flight of stairs, and after two stories you are completely out of breath and unable to move. At this point you may think to yourself or realize that you may have a weight problem. 

External awareness happens when someone or something tells you of a problem that you have. Perhaps you are walking up the flight of stairs for a doctor's appointment that you have, and when you meet the doctor he tells you that you are overweight. You now know that someone else thinks that you have a problem. 

Many times we choose to ignore our internal awareness of a problem until we are reaffirmed by external awareness. We might look at our belly and think "Oh, it is not THAT big," then step on a scale and realize that it is 30 lbs more than the last time we stepped on it. We might show up to work late everyday and think "oh, this is not a problem, no one minds," until our boss says "if you are late one more time, you are fired!"

We choose to ignore problems many times because it is difficult for us to admit that we have them. A positive change in behavior will only happen when we have admitted to ourselves we have a problem. If we do not think we have a problem, then we simply will not change what we are currently doing.

Research and communicate

Just because we acknowledge that a problem exists, does not necessarily mean that it is indeed a problem. Many times we are too harsh on ourselves and make up a problem that does not really exist. Many times other people are harsh and exaggerate a problem or make up a problem that is not there. This is why research and communication is so important. There is no need to change something that simply is not a problem. Sadly, many people suffer from anorexia because they fail to adequately research and communicate with others about a problem they think exists. Completing the other steps in this article without fully completing this one could possibly be detrimental.

Let us suppose again that I have have walked up the stairs and am completely out of breath. I am now internally aware of my problem. Without doing any research, I might simply conclude that it IS in fact an obesity problem. However, if I were to do some research about BMI and measure my own weight, I may realize that I don't have an obesity problem after all, but it is the fact that I am a chain smoker that has led to my out-of-breathedness. Research is important for verifying the existence of a problem.

Perhaps you are a young school girl named Susie and this mean kid Calvin comes up to you and says "Susie is a fat face!" This could be heart breaking. You are now externally aware that there is a problem. Fortunately, when you do some research, you find out that you are fine; you don't have a problem. Calvin is simply trying to get your attention because he has a mad crush on you. 

This is where communication comes into play.

In the above example, we just have a kid who is being mean. What does Calvin know? He gets all his knowledge from a stuffed tiger. There is no need to communicate. This is just someone being rude.  What do we do when a loved one says we have a problem though? First we do some research. Maybe Susie IS overweight and her mother tells her so. First Susie should do her research. If she finds that she is not overweight and that her mother is wrong, she should communicate with her mother. The reason for this is not for Susie's benefit, but for the benefit of her mother. If this were the case, then most likely her mother is the one with the problem (being too critical) and is the one who needs to change behavior. 

Now if Susie does research and finds out that she IS in fact a bit overweight, she still needs to communicate. Admitting externally that you have a problem (especially to the person who pointed it out) will give you more power to change because now you have outside influences who can help. If you are told that you have a problem by a loved one, they are (hopefully) doing it out of love. When you communicate and admit to them that you have a problem, they will almost always be willing to do whatever they can to help you overcome your problem.

Communication is empowering.

Have a desire to change

After you have realized you have a problem and verified through research that it is indeed a problem, you must have the desire to change.

This part is the easiest part to changing behavior but although this part is necessary, it does nothing to actually make you better. 

If you are overweight and don't want to change, you won't.
If you are overweight and simply have a desire to change, you still won't.

Willing something to happen does not make it happen. Wishing on a star. Blowing out birthday candles. Holding your breath while going over a bridge, or lifting your feet while going through a tunnel.... none of these "wishes" changes anything. Even prayer requires action (faith) if we want it to be answered. 

Desire is only a seed. Without being planted it will continue to remain dormant and will eventually die. If you expect or hope for change, you will have to do something and it will have to be something different from what you are already doing.

Have the willingness to change

While very similar to desire, willingness is not quite the same. Desire requires a passing thought "oh, I wish I was skinny;" While willingness is a state of being; "I want to be lose weight, so I will do what it takes accomplish this goal."

Willingness requires proof. Desire does not.

Telling someone you want to change does not show willingness, it simply states a desire (which you may or may not actually have). Exercising when you usually would not, or eating less than you normally do shows proof (to some extent) that you are willing to change. This is willingness.

Willingness is measurable. Desire is not. You can demonstrate how willing you are to do something by past and present actions. Desire is something you just have to take someone's word on. When someone states their desire to do something, it becomes a willingness when they have actually done an action that indicates they are willing.

If I say I want to lose weight, it is only desire up until the point I start exercising or change my diet. At this point it becomes more than just a desire, it becomes a willingness. Change only occurs when we are willing to change and we prove our willingness to change by actions we make. If we are too lazy, proud, or set in our ways, any desire to change will prove fruitless and no change will be made.

Write down (specific) measurable and reasonable goals

One thing that we can do to demonstrate a willingness to change is to write down a reasonable and measurable goal. 

A reasonable goal is something realistic that we can accomplish. A goal for me to lose 200 lbs is not realistic because if I lost that much weight, I would be dead. A goal for 20 or even 2 lbs is much more realistic.

A measurable goal is a goal where we can prove whether or not it has been accomplished. Most goals can be measurable as long as they are specific. The goal "Attain my ideal weight" is not a good goal until it is more specific. With research, we could find out that my ideal weight is anywhere from 160 - 180 lbs. At this point I could say "attain a weight of 160 - 180 lbs." Now my goal is specific and measurable. I could make it even more specific by saying something like "lose five pounds this month." Each time I step on a scale, I can see if I am getting closer to my goal or further from it.

Weight loss is an good example because it is very easy to measure weight. What about things that are more abstract? I could set a goal of being nicer to my family members. While this is in fact a good goal or desire to have, it needs to be more specific to be measurable. At this point I could say something like "smile every time I see a family member," or "give my family all the money I have," or simply "tell my family cryptically through a blog post that I think they are awesome." These are all measurable goals. It can be observed whether or not I did these things.

A goal not written down or performed is simply desire. When we write it down, it turns into a willingness to change; when we accomplish and measure our goal, it becomes changed behavior.

Evaluate goals over time and make adjustments

Measurable goals do us little to no good if we don't evaluate them. We need something to sustain our desire. If we have a goal to lose weight through exercise and healthy eating and look at our belly at the end of the week to see if it has changed, we will notice no difference and will lose desire and fall back into old habits. This is because looking at one's belly is not a very good measurable goal. If we contrast that however with looking at a scale and noticing that we have lost a pound, this would be a lot more encouraging and sustain our desire for changed behavior. 

Any goal that is measurable should be sustained for a significant amount of time in order to be measured. If we find that no changes have been made after a certain amount of time, then adjustments are in order. Adjustments should be made until goals are accomplished. There is no point in trying something repeatedly that does not work. 

Repeat and continue the process (Conclusion)

When a goal is accomplished, the cycle of behavioral change is repeated. If I set a goal to eat more healthy food and exercise, then see weight loss at the end of the week, my desire is sustained, my willingness is increased, and my goals can be adjusted and improved after additional research. 

Change is something that can be very difficult; it does not come naturally. People find comfort in regularity and repetition. Doing something new or different can at times be very difficult. If you find yourself unable (or unwilling) to change, you should evaluate your desire. If the desire is there, prove your willingness by writing down what you intend to do. Stick with it. Change is a lifelong progression. There are instances where we will all fail. When we do, evaluate why, reset the goal and try again. We do not all have the same skills and abilities, but we are ALL capable of change. We are all successful in life when we make the changes to become the person we desire to be.

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