“The easiest thing to do is nothing”.

Image courtesy of satit_srihin at FreeDigitalPhotos.net

Image courtesy of satit_srihin at FreeDigitalPhotos.net

This is something I say to my clients all the time.  And it’s true.  Here are a few examples:

  • Staying in a relationship you know is bad because it’s easier than leaving.
  • Feeling overweight but not going to the gym- or improving your diet because it’s “too hard”.
  • Not looking for a better job when you know you’re underpaid, undervalued, etc.
  • Or not pursuing some goal you have, because you don’t have the confidence or “don’t have time”.

Yes, change is hard!  But recognizing that something is wrong is the first step.

Why do people go to therapy or why do they think or talk about A, B, or C?  Because they’re not happy with the way things are…and they want change.

However, motivation tends to wax and wane like the phases of the moon.  Some days or weeks we’re ready to take on the world, and other times we just don’t feel like doing much at all.  But in situations like the examples, we’re often left with a state of cognitive dissonance.  This occurs when our beliefs and our behaviors are in conflict, leaving us with a sense of discomfort.  Simply put, we don’t like when our beliefs and behaviors don’t match.  It makes us uncomfortable, anxious, sad, angry, and so on.

How do we resolve this?  We either change our beliefs, or we change our attitudes to make them more congruent.  If we’re unhappy with our weight or physical appearance, we either exercise more and eat better, or we decide that we look “ok” or that “losing weight isn’t that important”.  If we’re in a negative, or even an abusive relationship, we either take action to change it or leave, or we decide that it’s “really not that bad” and we’re just “lucky to have someone”.  If we’re unhappy, we either decide to change it, or we might decide that we’re “just going to be happy!”

Oftentimes we work on changing our attitude- or at least minimizing our dissatisfaction, because it’s easier than changing our behavior.

  • “I don’t care about losing weight, I like my body the way it is”
  • “I know my husband drinks every night, but he’s just stressed out from work”
  • “Maybe I could really love this job if I tried a little harder”
  • “I know I have thought about starting my own business, but most new businesses fail anyway.  I’m lucky to have this job”

What usually ends up happening is that we’re still unhappy, despite attempts to change how we think.  This is because we still feel like we need to make a change, no matter how hard we try to deny it- and we may be motivated to do so at times.  I’m not saying attitude change never works, but in my experience it is often some behavior that could stand being changed.

So we may need to take some kind of action- and stick with it for however long it takes, if we’re to achieve our goals.  The second part- about sticking with it- is key, because we sometimes get motivated to make a change, but it doesn’t last (so we don’t see the results we want and then we get frustrated).  As in, we didn’t lose 10 pounds by counting calories or going to the gym for 2 days, so we give up- sliding back to our old ways.

So how do we do this?  How do we create real change that will last?  Here are some suggestions that could help you to make a change in behavior that is realistic and has the potential for success.

1. Get information.  For example, if you want to start a workout regimen or a healthier diet, read up on effective ways of doing this so you have good information to go on.  And if you have medical concerns, make an appointment with your physician.  Ask questions.

2. Find inspiration. Talk to other people who have made this change, read about some who have, or find other inspirational things that can help you to feel good about the change.  Download some new music, make a playlist… find anything that can inspire you go get going and keep going.

3. Focus on the positives.  Too often we view change as necessary to avoid some negative consequence.  For example, to lose weight “so I won’t be fat”; to quit smoking “so I won’t get cancer”; or to cut down on sugar to “avoid diabetes”.  Not that these aren’t valid reasons, because they are.  The point is that we tend to have more success with changes when we focus on the positive reasons for change, like losing weight because you remember how good you felt when you were 20 pounds lighter; quitting smoking so you can start playing more sports or go running with your partner; or reduce sugar intake so you will have more energy throughout the day.  A sole focus on avoiding negatives is hard to maintain because often the negative consequences aren’t guaranteed, or they may be years down the road.  On the other hand, positives can be more certain and immediate.  The focus is also on feeling good, not just avoiding feeling bad.

4. Get support.  Talk to your partner, a parent, a friend, or someone else who can encourage you along the way or who can help to keep you grounded when you get frustrated or experience a setback.  See a therapist, join a support group, or find people who are doing the same thing.

5. Set goals.  Be sure they are Specific, Measurable, Attainable, Realistic, and Timely- or S.M.A.R.T.!  Vague or unrealistic goals just won’t work.  For example, a S.M.A.R.T. goal could be to lose 10 pounds over the next 2 months.  A vague goal could be to “lose weight” or “be skinny”, while an unrealistic goal could be, “lose 60 pounds in the next 30 days”.  A resource for creating S.M.A.R.T. goals can be found here.

6. Make a plan.   You definitely need a plan if you want success.  Write down your ideas and try to make it as specific as possible.  Schedule time to work on your goal (e.g. for workouts, meetings, to cook, etc.), and see that you follow through.

7. Be accountable.  You should hold yourself accountable, but oftentimes it helps to let others know of what your goals are and what you’re doing to achieve them.  Hopefully this goes along with #3 (get support).  A partner, friend, parent, mentor, trainer, coach, or a therapist could help you to stay accountable for working toward your goals.

If you’re considering some change, hopefully these 7 steps will give you a good starting point with respect to what it takes to make that change possible.  Remember to focus on the positives of the change and to stay inspired, and when you start to see change happening, to keep going.  To do nothing is the easiest thing, but that’s not necessarily what will lead you to be the happiest.  Change is hard and it takes work and dedication, but you can do it.  If you think you can’t or you’re frustrated from trying and not succeeding- consider talking to a professional like a psychologist.  For a referral, click here or here.  Take care!

(C) 2015, Jesse D. Matthews, Psy.D.

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About Dr. Jesse Matthews

I'm a private practice psychologist in Chester Springs, PA. I provide counseling and coaching services to people ages 12 and up. Specialties include: depression; addiction/substance abuse; relationships; anxiety; ADHD and behavioral issues; and Autism/Asperger's.
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