Sunday, July 13, 2014

The Magic Key to Changing a Harmful Behavior Pattern

Last week, on two separate occasions I spent time with some guy friends. They were very different people, but with one striking similarity: both were significantly overweight and had diabetes issues. And even though they had tried, they hadn't been able to change the eating habits that caused their health problems.

Changing a behavior pattern is hard.

The reason is that if you repeat a behavior enough times, the brain cells involved in the behavior will connect into a physical circuit. Over time, your brain will literally wire itself to make any repeated behavior - whether beneficial or harmful - an easy, unconscious automatic pattern.

How do you change a habit like that, when the brain has wired itself to produce it? Like I said, it's hard.

But even though it's hard, people do break bad habits all the time.

But you really gotta wanna.

Yes, motivation is helpful, but that's not the secret. Even though strong motivation is crucial, there's more to it than that. There's a magic key to changing a behavior pattern.

It starts with understanding how successfully changing a behavior pattern works. The process has four phases.

1. Unconscious incompetence. Your habitual way of doing something is harmful, but you aren't aware that it's causing problems or that there's a better way.

2. Conscious incompetence. Somehow you're made aware that what you're doing is causing problems. The issues that are a consequence of your behavior become obvious. Maybe they cause pain or discomfort. Maybe someone gives you feedback - holds a mirror up to your behavior. You haven't committed to change yet, but you're not blissfully unaware anymore.

3. Conscious competence. You've learned what you should be doing and you're making an effort to change. This effort has to be a conscious decision, because the new way isn't a habit yet. This is challenging because the old way is still an ingrained habit. And because the old way is physically wired in your brain, it won't just unconnect itself and go away, no matter how much you wish it would. The trick is to repeat the new behavior so many times that your brain wires itself for a new, more rewarding habit.

But you're not there yet. So when you're not consciously paying attention to what you're doing, the old habit kicks in automatically. Frustration, regret and discouragement usually follow. I call this the "crunch point," because when it happens most people give up and relax back into their old ways.

4. Unconscious competence. If instead of giving up, you push past your lapses and consciously try again, after a while your success rate will improve. You'll still have occasional lapses, but if you don't give up, if you keep trying, eventually your brain will wire itself for the new habit. This means that doing the right thing will begin to kick in automatically without a conscious effort on your part.

The "secret" is actually quite simple, but it works like magic. It's this: even though your failures are disheartening, don't give up. Keep trying to make that conscious choice to do what you've committed to do. Understand that lapses are an inevitable part of the process and that each time you repeat the behavior, it will make that conscious decision easier, and your success rate will improve.

It will probably take time, but if you don't give up, if you persist past your failures and keep trying, eventually the new pattern will start happening automatically. And you'll become one of the millions of people who've changed a bad habit.

Post by Dennis E. Coates, Ph.D., Copyright 2014. Building Personal Strength .

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