Kathryn Britton, MAPP '06, former software engineer, is a coach working with professionals to increase well-being, energy, and meaning in their work lives (Theano Coaching LLC). She is also a writing coach, facilitator of writing workshops, and teacher of positive workplace concepts at the University of Maryland. Her own books include Smarts and Stamina on using positive psychology principles to build strong health habits and Character Strengths Matter: How to Live a Full Life. Full bio. Kathryn's articles are here.
There are many articles in PPND about how to change — from my first PPND article two years ago about how to keep a New Year’s Resolution to Sherri Fisher’s article two days ago about changing yourself as a way to change others.Comment: The images in this piece represent repetitive effort. Each piece involved many many hours of handwork. In my mind, that’s a good metaphor for the effort it takes to build a habit.
Other articles cover self-regulation, habits, mindfulness, exercise, diet, relationships and so on.So how do we decide what to change? I could come up with a long list of candidates for myself.
In terms of health, I could sleep more, have more variety in my exercise, do shoulder rehabilitation more regularly, meditate regularly, or drink more water.
In terms of social connections, I could call my mother and godmother every week and meet friends more regularly.
In terms of work life, I could be more focused — perhaps even use some of the mechanisms that Caroline described in an article about hard work instead of The Secret.
You get the picture.Most changes like these involve changing habits, a process that requires effort, persistence, and intention. Neuroplasticity holds great promise that we can rewire our brains in new ways, but doing so requires repeatedly performing new behaviors, over and over, and repeatedly stopping the reinforcement of old behaviors that had become automatic. People tend to have a small budget of energy for intentional change so they need to be selective. Working on one change at a time was good advice when my children were small. It still makes sense. Two big questions go into the selection.
- What will have the biggest impact on your life — your own well-being and the well-being of the people around you?
- Where are you most likely to be successful, so you can reinforce your perceived self-efficacy in making needed habit changes?
These questions lead to lots of other questions:
Leverage: Will a particular behavior change make other goals easier to achieve? For example, Ratey explains that exercise puts people in a physical state where learning is easier. Meditation and exercise contribute to a state of calm that makes many other things possible. Practicing mindfulness enhances other forms of behavior regulation.
Context change: Several researchers have demonstrated that context changes, such as moving to a new home or starting a new job, create windows of opportunity where habit change is easier. If you have just made a major context change, how can you take advantage of it to make a desired behavior change? Or could you create an artificial context change to open a window of opportunity? One set of friends started eating in the dining room instead of the kitchen to support new eating patterns. Two couples sold the second family car, creating a context change to supported new transportation and exercise habits.
Perceived self-efficacy. Do you believe you can make the change? Can you remember similar changes you’ve made successfully in the past? Do you have friends or role models who have made a similar change? If it’s something you’ve tried without success, is there a different way you can look at it to get away from the association with failure? For example, could you stop thinking in terms of losing weight and instead think in terms of developing healthy eating habits? The first is an illusory goal since it sounds like something that you can achieve and be done with. The second more accurately reflects the ongoing behavior change that is required. Is there some other change that you could make first to increase your self-efficacy before embarking on the more difficult change?
Belief in one’s efficacy to exercise control is a common pathway through which psychosocial influences affect health functioning. This core belief affects each of the basic processes of personal change—whether people even consider changing their health habits, whether they mobilize the motivation and perseverance needed to succeed should they do so, their ability to recover from setbacks and relapses, and how well they maintain the habit changes they have achieved. Albert Bandura, 2005, p. 143.
Social support: Some changes are easier to make if you aren’t the only one. Are there other people wanting to make the same change with whom you could set up mutual accountability? For example, a group of friends have a daily call to report out pedometer readings to encourage each other to walk more. Perhaps there is a company program for addressing health habit changes, such as the one that Bandura describes in clinical trials:
For each health habit, people are provided detailed guides on how to improve their health functioning. They monitor their health habits, set themselves attainable short-term goals, and report the changes they are making. The computer mails personalised reports that include feedback of progress toward their subgoals. The feedback also provides guides on how to manage troublesome situations, and has participants set new subgoals to realise. … A single implementer, assisted with the computerised implementation system, provides intensive, individualised guidance in self-management to large numbers of people. Bandura, 2005, p. 248.
Lots of questions to consider. Now a question for you: How have you selected your most successful habit changes?
Bandura, A. (2004). Health promotion by social cognitive means. Health Education & Behavior, 31(2), 143-164.
Bandura, A. (2005). The Primacy of Self-Regulation in Health Promotion. Applied Psychology: An International Review, 54(2), 245–254.
Brown, K. W. & Ryan, R. (2004). Fostering healthy self-regulation from within and without: A self-determination theory perspective. Linley, P. A. & Joseph, S. (Eds.). Positive Psychology in Practice. pp. 105-124. New York: John Wiley & Sons. ⇒ Discusses the affect of mindfulness on behavioral regulation.
Davidov, E. (2007). Explaining habits in a new context. In Rationality and Society, 19(3), 315–334. Sage Publications, http://rss.sagepub.com, DOI: 10.1177/1043463107077392.
Doidge, N. (2007). The Brain That Changes Itself. New York: Penguin Books.
Neal, D. T., Wood, W. & Quinn, J. M. (2006). Habits—A Repeat Performance. Current Directions in Psychological Science, 15(4), 198-202.
Ratey, J. (2008). Spark: The Revolutionary New Science of Exercise and the Brain. New York: Little, Brown and Company.
Shaar, M.-J. & Britton, K. (2011). Smarts and Stamina: The Busy Person’s Guide to Optimal Health and Performance. Philadelphia, PA: Positive Psychology Press. (Added later)
Verplanken, B., Walker, I., Davis, A., & Jurasek, M. (2008). Context change and travel mode choice: Combining the habit
discontinuity and self-activation hypotheses. Journal of Environmental Psychology, 28, 121–127.
Wood, W., Tam, L., & Witt, M. G. (2005). Changing circumstances, disrupting habits. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 88, 918–933.
All images are photographs taken by Edward G. Britton.