6 Secrets to Successfully Make Any Change in Life
Most people believe that the bigger the change, the more resistance they’ll feel.
However, people are welcoming babies and the amount of effort it takes to raise them, and yet, they can’t seem to devote 30 minutes every day to workout.
So what makes some changes easier than others?
Today, you’re going to learn how to successfully make changes in life by mastering the three keys to change: Situation-Mind-Heart.
Ready? Let’s dive right in!
Change The Situation
A Cornell University study revealed that when moviegoers were served stale popcorn in big buckets, they ate 34 percent more than those given the same stale popcorn in medium-sized containers. (1)
In fact, portion size can influence intake. Large packages and containers can lead to overeating foods even if we do not find appealing.
In other words, what looks like a person problem is often a situation problem.
1. Change Your Environment
We’re incredibly sensitive to our environment.
36 percent of the successful changes were associated with a move to a new location.
Smokers, for instance, find it easier to quit when they’re on vacation because their homes, is an environment loaded with smoking associations. Even when you remove lighters and ashtrays, there are still ashes in the clay pots, an ever-present scent of smoke in the car and the closet, etc.
By changing their environment, they have more chances to quit their smoking habit.
This doesn’t mean that every change requires a move, or that you need to drastically change your environment in order for you to change.
Even the smallest environmental tweaks can make a difference. Rearranging your office at work can help you boost your productivity and get things done.
2. Look For Your Action Trigger
Changing your situation isn’t just about changing your environment. Even an “action trigger” can change your situation.
If you want to start going to the gym, you associate that action (going to the gym) with another already established habit (right after dropping the kids at school).
These triggers create instant habits and protect your goals from tempting distractions and bad habits.
Influence The Mind And The Heart
Many believe that if you want to change someone’s behavior, all you need to do is change that person’s environment. If you send an alcoholic to rehab, the new environment will help him go dry, but when he leaves you can’t guarantee he won’t go back to his old ways.
This is why change requires more than changing the environment. You need to influence the mind (our rational side) and the heart (our emotional side) too.
For example, your rational side might want to get up an hour earlier so you can have time for a quick jog before you start your day. However, your emotional side might refuse to wake up in the darkness of the early morning and snooze the alarm for a few more minutes of sleep.
If your emotional side tends to win this internal debate, then change can be hard for you.
This is not to say that your emotional side is an obstacle that is standing between you and your desired life. Quite the opposite. This instinctive part can be a key to make major changes in your life. If the rational side is responsible for contemplating a change, it’s the emotional side that gets things done.
In order to make progress toward your goal, you need the energy and drive of your emotions. When you feel the pleasure of making progress, you’re more motivated to keep on practicing.
In short, if you want to change things, you’ve got to appeal to both. Your rational side will provide the planning and direction, and your emotional side will provide the energy and drive.
3. Direct Your Rational Side
Your rational side has many strengths. It thinks, plans, and can plot a course for a better future.
However, when your rational side isn’t sure exactly what direction to go, change can be hard.
In other words, what looks like resistance is often a lack of clarity.
You don’t have to figure out every action that needs to be taken for the next five years. All you need is to figure out the critical actions that need to be taken now.
You need to set SMART goals-goals that are Specific, Measurable, Actionable, Relevant, and Time-bounded.
Two health researchers, Steve Booth-Butterfield and Bill Reger from West Virginia University, were trying to find ways to persuade people to eat a healthier diet. (2)
From past research, they knew that recommending people to “eat a healthier diet” was not going to get any positive results.
They knew that people were more likely to change when the new behavior expected of them was crystal clear.
They found out that most Americans drink milk. It’s a great source of calcium. But milk is also the single largest source of saturated fat in the typical American’s diet. In fact, if Americans switched from whole milk to skim or 1 % milk, the average diet would immediately attain the USDA recommended levels of saturated fat.
Suddenly the intervention became razor-sharp. If you want to change the drinking behavior, all you need to do is change the purchasing behavior.
Reger and Booth-Butterfield launched the 1% milk campaign in two communities in West Virginia, running spots on the local media outlets (Tv; newspaper, radio) for two weeks.
Results showed that before the campaign, the market share of low-fat milk was 18 percent. After the campaign, it was 41 percent. Six months later, it held at 35 percent.
This is why if you want to change successfully, you must provide a crystal-clear direction.
Deciding to “act healthier” isn’t a specific goal that will get you moving.
Self-control Is An Exhaustible Resource
In 1996, Roy Baumeister conducted an experiment that examined the effect of a tempting food challenge on the willpower of the participants. (pdf)
In the first part of the experiment, Baumeister kept the 67 study participants in a room that smelled of freshly baked chocolate cookies. On a table in the center of the room were two bowls. One held a sampling of chocolates, along with the warm, fresh-baked chocolate-chip cookies they’d smelled. The other bowl held a bunch of radishes.
The subjects in the experimental condition, whose resolves were being tested, were asked to eat at least two or three radishes, but no cookies. And the other participants were asked to eat cookies, but no radish.
Despite the temptation, everyone ate what they were told to eat, and none of the radish-eaters snuck a cookie. That’s willpower at work.
At that point, another group of researchers presented the participants with a series of puzzles that required them to trace a complicated geometric shape without re tracing any lines and without lifting their pencils from the paper.
The puzzles were designed to be unsolvable, but the researchers wanted to see how long the participants would persist in a difficult, frustrating task before they finally gave up.
The results revealed that participants who didn’t have to resist eating the cookies earlier spent 19 minutes on the task before giving up. The radish-eaters, on the other hand, gave up after only 8 minutes, less than half the time spent by the cookies-eaters.
Why did they quit so easily?
They ran out of self-control.
Studies like this one have also revealed that self-control is an exhaustible resource. Shopping can also deplete your self-control. Studies have shown that the focused decisions you have to make while you’re shopping actually sap your self-control. (3)
Self-control isn’t just essential to fight temptations such as smoking, binge eating, drinking alcohol, etc. You also need self-control when you’re being careful and deliberate with your words or movements. Situations such as giving negative feedback to an employee, fixing something around the house, or learning a new skill, require self-control.
In other words, exercising too much self-control can be draining and hold you back from changing successfully.
4. Motivate Your Emotional Side
Much of our daily behavior is more automatic than supervised. Driving down a familiar road or going over your morning routine doesn’t take much thinking or deliberate action which is a good thing because, as we argued above, it will your self-control fresh for more important decisions.
Here’s why this matters for change: When you want to change things, you’re usually changing behaviors that have become automatic such as smoking or binge eating when you’re stressed out.
Changing these behaviors require self-control. The bigger the change is, the more self-control you’ll need.
When you exhaust your self-control, you exhaust your mental muscles needed to think creatively, focus, and persist in the face of frustration or failure.
In short, you exhaust the mental muscles needed to make big changes.
People who are complaining about how hard change is, have actually worn themselves out.
Many also believe that change happens in this order ANALYZE-THINK-CHANGE. You analyze the problem at hand, you think of a way to change it, and then you change. Even though this might work perfectly for some minor changes, for big changes, however, you’ll need to follow another process.
Because of the uncertainty that some changes bring, no amount of analytical arguments can help you overcome your reluctance.
A decision such as getting married will take more than talking up tax advantages and rent savings.
The change needs to appeal to your emotional side too.
The best way to make a change is to see the problem or the solution in a way that influences emotions and not just thoughts. It could be a disturbing look at the problem or a sobering reflection of your current habits. Whatever speaks to your emotional side.
This is why the sequence of change is not ANALYZE THINK-CHANGE, but rather SEE-FEEL-CHANGE.
In order to successfully make a change, you need to make sure that these conditions are respected:
- Change The Situation. What looks like a people problem is often a situation problem. By changing your environment you pave the way for change to happen.
- Direct Your Rational Side. What looks like resistance is often a lack of clarity. So provide crystal-clear direction.
- Motivate Your Emotional Side. What looks like laziness is often exhaustion. So limit your choices and decisions in order to save up for the more important ones.
5. Ask Yourself The Miracle Question
In classical psychotherapy, you and your therapist explore your problem. What are its roots? Does it trace back to something in your childhood?
This therapy might take five years of work, with sessions once or twice a week, only to discover five years later that it was all your mom’s fault.
Solutions-focused therapy, invented in the late 1 970s, is radically different from traditional therapy. It doesn’t dig around for clues about why you act the way you do, and it doesn’t care about your childhood. All it cares about is the solution to the problem at hand.
One of the most common techniques solutions-focused therapists use is the Miracle Question.
It can go something like this: “Can I ask you a sort of strange question? Suppose that you go to bed tonight and sleep well. Sometime, in the middle of the night, while you are sleeping, a miracle happens and all the troubles are resolved. When you wake up in the morning, what’s the first small sign you’d see that would make you think, ‘Well, something must have happened. The problem is gone!’?”
The Miracle Question In Practice
Here’s how one couple in marital therapy answered the Miracle Question posed by their therapist, Brian Cade of Sydney, Australia: (pdf)
WIFE: I’d be happy, feeling at ease at last. I’d be more pleasant to Bob, not jumping down his throat all the time.
CADE: What will you do instead?
WIFE: Well, there would be more understanding between us. We’d listen to what each other was saying.
HUSBAND: Yes. At the moment, we don’t really listen to each other. We just can’t wait to get our own point in.
CADE: How could you tell that the other was really listening?
WIFE: In the face, I think. We’d perhaps make more eye contact. (Pauses, then laughs.) We’d nod in the right places.
HUSBAND: Yes. We’d both respond to what the other was saying rather than just attacking or ignoring it.
By asking the Miracle Question, the therapist is focusing on the sings and not the miracle itself.
In other words, they’re avoiding the overly grand goal “My bank account is full, I love my job, and my marriage is great.” And focusing on the small attainable goals that will help them make the change.
After helping patients identify specific signs of progress, they move on to the second question, the Exception Question: “When was the last time you saw a little bit of the miracle, even just for a short time?”
By asking this question, the therapist is trying to demonstrate that his patient is capable of solving his own problems.
When you ask yourself The Miracle Question, you give directions to your rational side. Then when you ask yourself the Exception Question, you motivate your emotional side to take action on the change.
6. Shrink the Change
A local car wash presented its customers with a loyalty card program. Every time they bought a car wash, they got a stamp on their cards. (4)
The first set of customers needed to fill up their cards with eight stamps, to get a free wash.
The second set of customers got a slightly different loyalty card. They needed to collect ten stamps to get a free car wash-but they were given a “head start.” Their cards already have two stamps.
The “goal” was the same for both sets of customers: Buy eight additional car washes to get a free wash. But the psychology was different. One group started from scratch, the other is 20 percent of the way toward their goal.
Results revealed that a few months later, only 19 percent of the eight-stamp customers had earned a free wash, versus 34 percent of the head-start group.
This why the fund-raising campaigns don’t go public until they’ve already raised 50 to 70 percent of the money. People find it more motivating to be partly finished with a goal than to start from scratch.
So if you want to motivate yourself to make a change, consider how you’re not exactly starting from scratch. That you’ve already started your journey.
You are Already An Exerciser
If you want to lose weight and start exercising, consider that you’re already exercising. Your daily activities (cleaning, walking, food shopping with cart…) are already burning calories.
Exercise isn’t just something we do on a treadmill in a gym.
In 2007, two researchers, Alia Crum and Ellen Langer published a study of room attendants and their exercise habits. 84 female room attendants working in seven different hotels, were told that their work (cleaning hotel rooms) is a good exercise that can help them lose weight. They were given estimates of the number of calories they burned doing various activities. (5)
Four weeks later, the informed room attendants showed a decrease in weight, blood pressure, body fat, waist-to-hip ratio, and body mass index, compared to other room attendants.
Becoming aware of the calories-burning activities that they engage in every day gave them a head start. Realizing that they were already exercisers, they may have started cleaning more energetically than previously, adding more walking and using the stairs to lunch rather than the elevator.
Shrinking the change and giving yourself a head start will help you reach your goal faster.
We love hearing from you. Please share your thoughts with us in the comments below.
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Portions of this article were adapted from the book Switch: How to Change Things When Change Is Hard, © 2010 by Chip Heath and Dan Heath. All rights reserved.