Throughout your life, how many things about yourself have you wished were different? Your hair? Your salary? Your home? How many of those things have you legitimately had control over? Truth be told, our thoughts and behaviors are some of the few things we do have complete control over. So what do you do when you identify a behavior that you would like to change? Check out these 8 steps for changing a behavior:
1. Define the behavior that you would like to begin, stop, or change. While this may seem easy at first, you may find that the specific behavior you originally define needs more detail. Of course, each step will be different depending on the behavior you are intending to change. For example, say the behavior that you want to change is quit nail biting, or taking the time to read more. Creating a goal to stop biting your nails sounds relatively straightforward. On the other hand, “reading more,” is somewhat of an abstract idea. What does “reading more” mean? Reading 50 pages a day? For 30 minutes a day? A few chapters each day? It will be up to you to define your behavior.
2. Monitor the behavior. Creating a daily log of the behavior that is already occurring will act as a baseline period, or a period of behavior against which your progress will be compared. When you are recording your goals, you also want to be looking for triggers, or actions, thoughts, situations, or other behaviors that may push you to fall back on the old behaviors you are wishing to change. You may note that some people who smoke cigarettes only smoke cigarettes when they are with other people. These “social smokers” may actually be triggered by the situation of being with other people who smoke. Realizing that certain situations, feelings, thoughts, even times of the day or year have an effect on your behavior will help you to become aware of the times when you are more likely to fall back on your old habits, and help you to prepare accordingly. You will want to collect at least 2 weeks’ worth of data that includes how often you performed the behavior you defined, how you felt (a scale of 1-10 is great for this), and a synopsis of the situation or day. At the end of your baseline period, review your data and look for patterns of thoughts, feelings, and behaviors that influence the behavior you are trying to change.
3. Look at all behaviors, new and old! Often, nail biting is an unconscious response to stressors or triggers. Although you may change the behavior, the stressors and triggers will remain. If these stressors are not addressed, you may find that other negative behaviors, like smoking cigarettes, or avoiding stressors altogether, may occur. For this reason, it is important to decide upon a positive behavior with which to replace the negative. As an example, say you are trying to quit biting your nails. After two weeks of data you have found that there are several situations that lead you to bite your nails: talking to strangers, after you have had coffee, and when you are watching TV. You suspect that talking to strangers leads you to bite your nails because it causes your stress, drinking coffee leads you to bite your nails because the caffeine makes you feel anxious, and that you bite your nails absent mindedly while you are watching TV. Now that you know some situations that lead you to bite your nails, what can you do instead of biting your nails when these situations arise? Brainstorm all of the actions you could take instead of biting your nails, no matter how silly they may seem. Some ideas might be putting your hands in your pockets, braiding or twirling your hair, playing an instrument, finger painting, filing your nails, petting an animal, writing in a journal, or squishing your face with your hands until you look like a fish (I said no matter how silly). Pick your favorites and move on!
Approaching a goal such as “reading more,” may be a bit trickier. For goals such as these, you should look at the behaviors you are already doing instead of reading. For example, you may find through your baseline data that you have 2 hours of free time each day and that you spend this time playing games, exercising, and watching TV. It would be up to you to decide where you would like to fit reading into your schedule, and what behaviors may have to change to accommodate your new habit.
4. Outline your goal. ON PAPER. Physically writing your goal down on paper will not only help you to visualize your goal, but also serve as a place of reference when you feel lost or simply can’t remember what to do next. Create a journal or binder that includes your goal behavior, your reasons for changing your behavior, pictures and quotes that motivate you towards your goal, the information from your baseline data collection, the behaviors that you are encouraging as well as the ones you are discouraging, and information from the rest of the steps taken.
5. Decide upon a series of smaller goals that will help you to achieve your larger goal. Going from biting your nails down to stubs every day to growing long, strong, (and real!) nails overnight is not only unrealistic, it’s impossible! And if you are trying to go from reading one magazine article a day to 5 chapters of a novel every day, you may find yourself burnt out pretty quickly. In order to avoid this, you need to break down your final goal into smaller, easier goals to reach. An initial step to take towards not biting your nails might be not biting your nails while you’re watching a half hour TV special. During this time, use a different, positive behavior to achieve your goal. For example, you might pet an animal while watching TV so that your hands are busy and you can’t bite your nails. Each smaller goal should challenge you, but not so much so that your goal becomes impossible to reach. Don’t forget to continue recording your behaviors!
6. Create a system of rewards. Each step you take, each goal you reach should be celebrated! As you continue to accomplish your goals, the rewards that you present yourself with will reinforce the hard work that you are doing. Pick your rewards carefully, as they should be rewards that you want but not things that you need. Your rewards should also be treats for your behavior, and should not be awarded unless your behavior is appropriate. For example, you should not reward yourself with food, because food is necessary to your survival and you should not deny yourself something necessary to your survival if you don’t meet your goals. An exception to this might be a trip to the ice cream parlor on Saturday afternoon for having met your reading goal Monday through Friday of that week. Again, be sure that you only treat yourself to ice cream if you met your goal!
7. Expect to make mistakes. No one is perfect, and you are human. You might have days where you can’t stand to look at a book. You might have days that are so stressful you bite all of your fingernails down, despite weeks of progress. This is okay. This is expected. With each bad day, take note of what was happening, how you felt, who you were with, the moments before, during, and after your mistake. But don’t give up! These failures are chances to learn more about yourself, your triggers, passions, and fears, and, if you let them, they will make you stronger.
8. Monitor, monitor, monitor! Monitoring your behavior will be crucial to your success. Writing down your actions, thoughts, behaviors, stressors, feelings, and the situations you face daily will help you to learn the most about what is affecting you. It will help you become adaptable to the situations around you, and it can help keep you honest and excited about reaching your goals and reaping the rewards. In time, you may find that you will not need to reward yourself as often, or at all, as your new behaviors become integrated into your everyday life and become a part of who you are.
In a world where so much is out of our control, remember that you have power over yourself. Take charge of shaping who you are and choose to empower yourself every day!
Written by Savannah Achor