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Choosing Changes

written by Kathryn Britton 7 January 2009

Kathryn Britton, MAPP '06, is a former software engineer and executive coach. She is now a writing coach and editor with a focus on helping people write books, blogs, and articles that contribute to the greater good (Theano Coaching LLC). She has been facilitating writing workshops since 2013. Her own books include Sit Write Share on how to get writing done well, 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.

Rya Rug with Golden Rectangle Pattern

Rya Rug with Golden Rectangle Pattern

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.

  1. What will have the biggest impact on your life — your own well-being and the well-being of the people around you?
  2. 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?

Aunt Anna's Quilt

Aunt Anna's Quilt

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:

Aunt Anna's 2nd Quilt

Aunt Anna's 2nd Quilt

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.

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Senia 7 January 2009 - 8:14 pm

Hi Kathryn!

Thanks for this article! I think about this quite a bit – which change to make next.

I try to change the smallest thing that may have the biggest impact – I know exercise will change not only exercise, but also my eating habits and my alertness in general. And especially my enthusiasm towards things.

Most importantly, needing to get up early for exercise will change my bedtime for the better – the earlier.

So I’m doing exercise now in 2009, and loving it so far.

It also REALLY HELPS me to not have to think about it – for example, going to a weight lifting class is MUCH EASIER for me than going to the gym to decide what weight lifting routine to do. I like the instructor giving us the workout for the day. No thinking needed, and I will definitely finish it. No excuses.

Thanks for the question. After going through the analysis, what have you chosen to change?

I love the woven images.


Scott 7 January 2009 - 9:11 pm

Thanks for the thoughts on choosing what to change. I agree with Senia, my immediate inclination is to choose the smallest change that will make the biggest impact (one of my favorite David Cooperrider quotes.) Your breakdown of the questions can be helpful for those who choose to change.
What struck me personally from your article is when do we stop? What I mean is that at a certain point can we accept, love, embrace who we are without continually changing? My MAPP class knows that I’m fascinated by greatness. But there has to come a time in everyone’s life when they just stop and enjoy who they are, where they are, and what they’ve accomplished without trying to be better. Or maybe some people can love themselves and enjoy the challenge and journey. Or maybe, as my friend Louis keeps reminding me, it’s about balance.
As for me, I’m taking a year off. I’ve challenged myself for long enough. Perhaps it is because I’m heading into the mid-fifties, but this year I’m choosing to take myself a little less seriously. So I guess I’m still choosing to change. But this resolution will be fun to keep. Thanks for your thoughtfulness on this.

Jeremy McCarthy 8 January 2009 - 10:08 am

I recently read a great sci-fi book, “Childhood’s End” written in the ’50s by Arthur C. Clarke. Aliens come down and create Utopia on Earth so that everyone basically has everything that they need. A group of people decide to remove themselves from the utopian society and form an artist colony on a small island. In describing the life on the colony they say:

“Everybody on this island has one ambition, which may be summed up very simply. It is to do something, however small it may be, better than anyone else. Of course, it’s an ideal we don’t all achieve. But in this modern world the great thing is to have an ideal. Achieving it is considerably less important.”

Clarke, A. C. (1953). Childhood’s end. Ballantine Books.

I think it is in our nature to not want to accept things as they are but to always be striving for something better both in and for ourselves.

Kathryn, I like the concept of working on one change at a time, which is also echoed here, along with other great tips for creating change:


Sherri Fisher 8 January 2009 - 2:18 pm

Hi, Kathryn-

I love this idea and use something like it, especially with clients I see with who are on a behavior plan or token economy system, or who don’t have easy “access” to the signature strengths such as love of learning and self-regulation that make school more appealing:

You said… “People tend to have a small budget of energy for intentional change so they need to be selective.”

The idea of budgeting what you do have is very helpful. Thanks for that one special word that makes a great analogy even more effective! Put more into some parts of the budget and be able to invest the results 🙂


Kathryn Britton 10 January 2009 - 9:35 am

My choice: building habits to increase mindfulness — awareness of thought without judgment. That includes meditation, using Wayne Jencke’s Resilience Builder to practice, and labeling negative emotions rather than trying to talk myself out of them.

I can’t seem to get emotionally attached to mindfulness as living in the present moment. I like remembering the past and anticipating possible futures — though I do like the expression, “Don’t borrow trouble. The interest rate is too high.”

Thanks for posting your chosen change. Now we’ve gone public!


Kathryn Britton 10 January 2009 - 9:45 am


I don’t see a conflict between accepting ourselves and actively choosing which habits to build, augment, or replace. We aren’t stationary creatures. Change happens whether we will it or not. So it is more a matter of being intentional about some of the changes.

There’s also the Carol Dweck growth mindset idea to keep in mind — that we aren’t just discovering day to day who we are, we are also creating who we are.

I do understand what you are getting at, though. When I was a software engineer, I several times took new assignments that were really uncomfortable for me. Sometimes after a few months, I’d feel like I’d grown into them. Other times I concluded I’d never grow into them and asked to do something else. I always gave it a few months, though, because it is not easy to tell the difference between the discomfort of climbing a steep learning curve and the discomfort of being on the wrong learning curve altogether.

I love your choice of taking yourself less seriously. I think that regularly laughing at oneself in a fond way is a great way to increase well-being.


Scott 10 January 2009 - 4:45 pm

If you think about it, I am still choosing to change. Maybe it is the human thing to do. We develop and grow until we eventually die. But in the interim, we really don’t stop changing. Guess there is the mindful change and growth toward full humanity, the dangerous change of trying to be more and more perfect, and the reluctant change of being dragged kicking and screaming into the next part of life. Either way, taking myself less seriously is turning out to be a good choice.

Kathryn Britton 11 January 2009 - 8:02 am


Thanks for your pointer to Childhood’s End. I have the feeling that the message of the book would have meant more to me when I was much younger — when the idea of doing something better than anyone else would have been a much bigger driver. I am at least trying nowadays to have a more internally directed set of goals. But that would make a topic for an interesting article.

Thanks for the pointer to the zen site as well.


Kathryn Britton 11 January 2009 - 8:07 am


Thanks for your response. I like the idea of a budget, too, because days seem to go by very fast with the habits I had already formed — many of which are good ones. Working on one thing at a time seems possible, not overwhelming.

I think something else we should do is give ourselves credit for existing good habits — like many good things, easily taken for granted.



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