Although many have argued that a time of global pandemic and other sources of shared anxiety and uncertainty might not be the best time for self-improvement, many of us still make New Year’s resolutions with the hope of changing our behavior and well-being for the better. And, when we do this, many of us find out by this point in January how difficult lasting behavior change is. The ambitious workout schedule isn’t going to plan, that book you meant to read is still on the shelf, you’re falling into your existing spending or cooking habits, and you’re on the brink of tossing the whole project out the window!
The human mind is vulnerable to many thinking errors, and one that sometimes upends efforts at behavior change is called (in fancy terms) the abstinence violation effect. A more intuitive way to think about it might be the “F it” effect. After you break a self-imposed rule, you overestimate the importance of your lapse, and figure that you may as well indulge in as much of the behavior you’re trying to avoid as possible. Maybe you’re trying to go to the gym every day and miss a day, so you figure you may as well skip the whole week and start again Monday. Maybe if you’re trying to eat less processed food, you have one candy bar and then figure you may as well eat fast food all weekend. But, of course, the things that happen after “F it” still matter, and this cycle leads to discouragement and sometimes feelings of shame. How can we prevent it in the first place?
A spin on an old saying can help turn this thinking error on its head: “Anything worth doing is worth doing poorly.” If we give up on perfection and embrace making progress amid the mess of real life, we open ourselves up to realistic goals and prevent the “F it” effect. If it’s important to you to take better care of your body, or to learn something new, or to be more present with your family, doing it 50% of the time is almost always better than doing it for 0% of the time. Going for a 10 minute walk might not be as effective as an hour at the gym, but it’s still much better for you than sitting on the couch all day. Reading a book for five minutes when you would have been on your phone isn’t finishing a book a month, but it’s still five minutes doing something you value.
Here are some additional ways to set yourself up for success when you’re trying to change a behavior:
Be realistic and flexible. Overambitious goals for behavior change are often doomed to fail. Rein in your enthusiasm and start small. And, if something isn’t working, problem-solve what’s going on and think about how you can adjust.
Work with behaviors you already have. If you want to start doing something, figure out how it will work into your existing routine. For example, if you want to read more, put a book in a spot where you normally sit while watching TV or using your phone so that the visual reminder is there.
Set positive goals. Make your goal about the behaviors you want to do more, rather than things you want to deny yourself. Try to notice what you find immediately rewarding about your new behaviors, in addition to their long-term payoffs. Maybe exercising makes your body feel better, or cooking a meal at home gives you time to unwind and be creative. Avoid making changes that make you feel persistently deprived, if you can avoid it.
Practice self-compassion. We sometimes think we can beat ourselves into shape with negative self-talk. This doesn’t usually work. Try to treat yourself with patience and caring.
Do it imperfectly. Give yourself credit for little victories, and persist!
Feel like you need some assistance from a therapist to help you make changes in your life? Reach out today for a free consultation!