4 ways to jump-start a change in your life {stop an old habit or start a new one}

behavior-change-habit Making changes as a human is not easy. I often tell my clients it's like trying to swim against the current, because we truly are creatures of habit, and the more we do something one way, the deeper the neural pathway grooves are, and the more difficult it is to make lasting change. Our brains love autopilot, and stubbornly resist when we try to switch to manual control.

On the upside, we do know that it's certainly possible to end old habits and form new ones; and when a new behavior becomes a habit, the amount of required willpower and decision-making to do it decreases, and your new habit can become more a part of your autopilot setting. (But of course, continuing to be intentional about living your desired values and actions day-to-day is the best recipe for long-term success.)

In this post, I'll share 4 strategies that could apply to a variety of different behavior changes, offering you some tools that can help you jump-start a change you want to make in your life.

1 // Make an impact inventory. 

How is your current behavior -- the one you want to change -- really impacting your life? Often, we know that something is hurting us (or taking us further from our goals or the life we want), but we can be really good about keeping our heads in the sand about the details. Take a cue from the 12-step fellowships by making an inventory of all the ways that behavior is impacting every area of your life: physical health, emotional and mental health, financial, family, intimate relationships, career/education, spirituality, and legal/ethical. Don't just do this in your head -- write it down in as much detail as you can. I've seen over and over again how powerful and motivational this kind of inventory (part of step 1 of the 12 steps) can be for my clients.

2 // Get to the root of the function of your behavior, and how that function will be served when your behavior changes. 

This one is critical. I'll illustrate with an example from my own life: I sometimes go through periods where I waste a couple hours out of the week window-shopping online and aimlessly wandering into Target on my way home from work. I've gotten better than I used to be about actually buying stuff I don't need, but the temptation is huge, and I end up regretting the time spent that I could have used much more productively. When I notice this starting to happen, I have to take a step back and ask myself: what is going on with me? Usually, that behavior serves a couple of functions*: it allows me to procrastinate things I really need to do, and it allows me to live in a fantasy world where I look "totally put together" and everyone loves and accepts (and maybe even envies) me. So underneath that are two needs: to organize my tasks so I don't feel as overwhelmed by them, and to have meaningful connections with the people in my life who already love and accept me without all the fancy clothes or decor. Once I can identify those needs, I can take responsibility for meeting them instead of using shopping as a decoy/quick fix solution.

*The focus on function rather than "form" that a particular behavior may take is one of the reasons why Acceptance & Commitment Therapy (ACT) is one of my favorite therapy philosophies/models; the geeky scientific underpinnings are all about "functional contextualism."

3 // You need an accountability partner. 

I'm sure there are people out there who have made lasting change totally on their own, and kudos to them -- I bet they are the same ones whose morning breath smells like roses. I don't use the word "need" here lightly. Again, in the 12-step fellowship -- arguably the largest model for behavior change in the world -- one of the things that makes it so successful is the use of sponsorship. Having a sponsor as a key accountability partner is life-saving for a person newly in recovery, especially anytime they face a particularly stressful or triggering situation. Therapists, coaches, or friends who really "get" your goals and desired changes can also be great accountability partners. Having a group of cheerleaders online can be great, too, as I've discovered via a Facebook group for the online streaming barre workout service I use. I credit interaction with the group, which involves publicly committing to my goals, and a sense of accountability to other group members, as one of the major reasons I have worked out more consistently in the past few months than I have in years.

4 // Just START. 

Don't wait for the "perfect" time or to feel "ready" to make a behavior change. One of my work colleagues calls people who use this rationale "Monday people." ("I'm gonna quit smoking! I'm really gonna do it. I'll start the patch Monday." Does Monday ever come?) Ambivalence fuels more ambivalence-- but once you just get started, the power of inertia will work in your favor. You can get a rush of energy from feeling excited that you're moving in the right direction, and you can prove your mind wrong that you're incapable of doing anything different until all the stars and planets are aligned in your favor.

These are just a few ways to get you energized and motivated to make a change you've considered for a while, but needed an extra nudge to put into action.

What has helped you make lasting behavior change in the past? What mental traps get in your way? 

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Valerie Martin

Valerie Martin, LMSW, is a Primary Therapist at The Ranch residential treatment center, where she works with eating disorders, addiction, trauma, and co-occurring mental health issues. Valerie focuses on a holistic treatment approach of mind + body integration, using Acceptance & Commitment Therapy (ACT), somatic and bioenergetic therapy, Dialectical Behavior Therapy (DBT), psychodrama, 12-step, and shame resilience. She is also a Certified Sexual Addiction Therapist (CSAT) Candidate. Valerie received her Bachelor of Science degree in Communications and Master of Science degree in Clinical Social Work at the University of Texas in Austin. She is an active member of the First Unitarian Universalist Church in Nashville, and emphasizes spiritual exploration in her work with clients.