Fed up of making changes that never happen? Dr Tanya Carpenter and Dr Helen Nicholas from the School of Psychology explain how we can make meaningful changes to our lives by employing psychological techniques.

How do we make changes that stick?

Tried Veganuary but couldn’t do without cheese? Gave dry January a go but lost it after a night out with mates? Want to make some changes in your life but don’t know how to make them stick? Maybe Psychology can help!

2 square pieces of cake are balanced against a small glass bottle of milk.

January is often a time when we really assess the year before and think about how we may want to make changes in our life. It often seems to start out well - we tell all our friends and family about our goals, New Year's resolutions, and they perhaps seem very impressed at our genuine intentions. But perhaps around the middle of the month, something else starts to happen. It gets harder and harder or we get lured away by that tempting night out or late-night burger. By the end of the month, it’s been 3 days since you used the shiny new gym membership, or maybe you secretly had a bit of your flatmate’s cow’s milk in your tea when you ran out of almond milk. Disappointment starts to set in, and you might start to think that perhaps you aren’t able to make this change long term.

Well, it probably doesn’t surprise you that researchers have been studying behaviour change and features of change since the 1970s. In their research, they have found that there are some key points that are useful when making goals. We need to understand some important factors in changing our behaviour in order to suceed.

Try to reflect on your own situation by thinking about the goals you have made but struggled to achieve. Having these situations in mind will help you to understand the possible reasons for you not being about to make them stick.  Let’s look at four key elements when making goals:

 The right time for the right change

 

“it’s been a long time coming, but I know, a change is gonna come” 

Sam Cooke


 

A woman wearing a lycra sport kit and sunglasses running

The first question you might want to ask yourself is ‘Do I have the resources I need to make this change in my life?’

Far too often, people set out with good intentions for the changes they want to make but have not thought about what they will need in order to make those changes. For example, maybe you set out to go to the gym 5 times a week and train for a half marathon. In theory that’s a wonderful goal, but what if you’ve decided to do that in the middle of exam season, whilst also agreeing to cover double shifts at work?

That’s a tough time to set yourself such a huge goal and you might be better off planning it for another time, or setting a more do-able goal- maybe doing a weekly parkrun perhaps? 

Fitting your goals with your values

 

“Success in life means living by your values”

Russ Harris, founder of ACT (acceptance and commitment therapy)

What do you want your life to stand for? Did you know that values and goals are not the same thing? A value is more likely to be a more long-standing principle that guides us and that we would like to uphold, whereas a goal is something you would like to achieve. Simply put, you achieve goals, but you live by your values.

How might this work for you? One example might be if having strong bonds and friendships is one of your values, then it may be necessary for you to reflect on how to maintain these relationships. For example, you might practice daily compassion towards others and yourself and develop personal qualities such as tolerance and patience. Your motivation is far more likely to increase if the goal suitably matches your value.

 Interested in finding out what your values are? Take a look at Dr Russ Harris’ website 

 Potential barriers to the change you want to make

 

“We are the change we have been waiting for.”

Barack Obama

Making changes that stick might create ripple effects through our life, perhaps friends and family will feel the impact of you choosing to study more, giving up drinking or increasing exercise. Think about how you can recruit the people in your life to be supportive and help them understand why you want to make the change and how it might benefit them too (for instance: you might be a happier, less stressed person to be around).

Not allowing the people around you to understand your changes might create barriers; your mates might feel disappointed when you aren’t drinking with them, this could put more pressure on you to cave and have a couple of drinks.

How you can recover from any relapses or failures in your goals

“Dripping water hollows out stone, not through force but through persistence.” 

Ovid

 

Sometimes we eat when we’re stressed, sometimes we like a drink or two when we’ve had a tense day, sometimes, we just want to binge on boxsets and chill when we’ve had a hard time. All of these might happen whilst we’re trying to be ‘good’. Relapses are sometimes part of change. Becoming aware of these might help you plan for how to build them in to your goal (you might decide to be a flexitarian, eating meat sometimes but primarily living as a vegetarian). Or you might have some motivational quotes to help get you back on track should you cave and have that night out with friends rather than study. 

The Words "Habits to be Made" lit up in neon"

 The key skills in all these examples are self-awareness and understanding. It is only when we know ourselves that we can understand what goals will be useful for us to implement and what barriers we need to overcome.

Think about how you can incorporate the goals into your daily life so that the change becomes longer lasting and more effective. Small changes are easier to incorporate into our lives

Remember that in order for something to become a habit, you need to do something at least 30 times.

One helpful technique when setting goals is to follow the SMART rule.

SMART stands for:

S – Specific

How long are you going to study for every night? Can you plan a study schedule that feels do-able? Can you make a back-up plan for nights when you aren’t feeling great?

M – Measurable

How will you know if your goals are working? If you aren't getting better grades or are still struggling with deadlines, then you should be able to see this and figure out a new plan of action. Keeping your goals flexible and measurable will help you to achieve them.

A – Achievable

Does this really, feel do-able? Are you really going to be able to make it to the gym 5 times a week? Is there another goal that would still make you feel that you are doing something good? Perhaps it's more realistic to begin by going to the gym 3 times a week.

R – Relevant to your life purpose

Like with values, does your goal fit in with your immediate or long-term life plan? If not, this might affect your motivation and could lead to self-sabotage. Perhaps your values are around being sociable, getting healthy and keeping finances in good order. It might not be a sensible goal to join an expensive gym. You might only be left feeling resentful about the cost and not go. You might find it more beneficial to your joint values to find a goal for exercise that is sociable and cost effective. 

T - Time-based

When do you want this change to happen? How long will it take to change? Does it need to be broken down into smaller chunks? For example, if you’re considering vegetarianism but this is a big change, why not consider non-meat days at first as a start? You can then gauge if this is a workable goal in line with your values. 

Conclusion

In summary, being self-aware and following these simple guides will help you stick to your goals. As Maya Angelou wrote “Stepping onto a brand-new path is difficult, but not more difficult than remaining in a situation” So, give change a go and see how you do. 

Remember to:

  • Make goals meaningful to you
  • Use the SMART goals technique
  • Incorporate the goals into your daily life
  • Join up with friends

Some of the reasons why we fail or are unable to keep our goals up are:

  • The goals may not be realistic
  • We may feel overwhelmed by the amount of change we have set ourselves up for
  • We may lack motivation to implement / keep the goals going
  • We may not have as much support from those around us as we feel we need
  • You may not be ready for change 

 

 Dr Tanya Carpenter and Dr Helen Nicholas lecture in the School of Psychology at the University of Worcester at an undergraduate and postgraduate level including the MSc Counselling, BSc Clinical Psychology and the BSc Counselling Psychology.