New research claims that the often-repeated assertion that 21 days of consistently following any new behavior will build a new habit may not be true after all. This research raises many questions (among others: the role of the degree or kind of motivation or the significance of the task, experience with accomplishing change, the ages of the test subjects, and use of non-standardized tasks for the research) that limits how applicable this finding may be. However, we do know that change is difficult and maintaining a high level of motivation is essential for success. So let's look at techniques that to maintain high motivation for making changes.

Factors that support motivation for change include:
Clarity about why the change matters, why you want it, and the difference it will make in your life

• Organizing your home or office environment to encourage carrying out your resolutions, make doing the right thing as easy as possible, and make doing the wrong thing as hard as possible

• Arranging support to get through weak moments, build you up, and cheer you on

Reminders to keep your desire for change foremost in your mind so that the distractions of everyday life do not undermine your goals

Planning your activities to support the desired change

Clarity means deeply understanding the difference that any change in behavior or habit would make in your life. Whether you are trying to end a bad habit or start a good one, sinking back into the old behavior is very easy. The old behavior is already a “well worn groove” in your brain, your life is set up to facilitate it, and you don't have to struggle to maintain it. To change, you must wear a new groove into your brain, re-organize your life, and make repeated efforts to go in another direction. The old behavior will constantly be there “calling” to you, so you need many reinforcements for the new behavior.

Becoming clear about the difference that change will make requires inspecting your life closely and honestly facing the reality of what will probably happen if you do not change. It is also important to thoroughly look at everything you can  gain by changing. Reading or talking with knowledgeable others about the effects of various behaviors might prevent glossing over bad outcomes or reinforce why good habits are beneficial.

This means arranging your physical setting, whether home or office, to encourage acting on good habits that you want to establish and to discourage bad habits. Some examples of ways to do this are:
* put things that will help you carry out the desired behavior as close as possible to where you would do that action, such as putting exercise equipment by the TV where you might watch work-out videos, or putting file folders in the file cabinet (or where you might sit to sort papers).

* eliminate items or activities that are part of the unwanted behavior, such as foods that are not on the meal plan you want to follow, games that eat up productive time, watching re-runs or TV shows you don’t really care about, or spending time on emotionally unrewarding online socializing, among the many ways to waste time.

* move undermining items that you must or want to keep away from areas where they might distract you from your goal.

Everyone needs support to succeed at the challenging task of changing. Even when we are not motivated by social connection needs, getting support from others gives us feedback that prevents developing extreme practices. Social incentives for change are often the strongest and most effective. Having a buddy list of people that you can call for support may help keep your resolve high and prevent becoming discouraged. Signing up for an Internet group that focuses on the area that you want to change can be another way to get support. Sending an e-mail to people on this list asking for support with your areas of struggle may help also.

We live in a sea of distractions and demands that constantly pull us away from our intended path. It is difficult for anyone to stay on track with new desired behaviors  without many reminders, preferably from a variety of types. Reminders can take many forms:
* reading a book on the subject of your change area, even when you have read many similar books before (some messages can never be heard too many times)
* putting up signs or sticky notes in areas where you spend the most time, where you might be tempted to relapse, or where you need reminders to do the right thing

Attempts to make huge sweeping change all at once are usually doomed to failure. The magnitude of such efforts swamps limited stores of willpower and planning and organizational skills, leaving anyone feeling overwhelmed. Successful change is more likely when big changes are broken into a succession of smaller, easier-to-live-with changes. For example, you may want to lose weight, but going from living on fast food to a rigorous diet is a drastic change that would be less likely to succeed than to gradually transition to healthier food and then to a more structured food plan. Most other really important changes function the same way. Making a list of micro-steps that you can painlessly implement one-at-a-time to gradually move in the direction that you want to go is much more likely to lead to success than trying to implement large-scale change all at once.

Another aspect of planning that helps to maintain motivation is to give yourself credit for your work while staying focused on the overall goal. Looking only at the work you have already done will lower your drive to accomplish more. Looking only at the goal will discourage further efforts.

This newsletter has gotten very long so I will leave describing examples of how to use these ideas for next month. In the meanwhile, I would love to hear your stories about how you maintain motivation, areas where you struggle and would like help, and any other issues you would like to bring up. Questions always welcome.

© Gloria Valoris, 2013

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