If you're having trouble with any behavioral change -- whether it's losing weight, quitting smoking, or limiting your drinking -- oftentimes, the problem is not planning.
Health challenges come in many forms: there are logistical ones (squeezing in gym time on a jam-packed day), social ones (another happy hour meeting, boss?), and the extremely frustrating genetic ones (thanks for the hip-swelling metabolism, pop).
And while you have to utilize self-control to tame whatever demons are the greatest threats to success, the mental challenges are typically the hardest because they’re the ones least discussed and a complex stew of emotions, hormones, feelings, and baggage that can handcuff even the best intentions—and the most well-devised plans.
“As much as we like to talk ourselves in and out of doing things, the fact is that our emotional responses are what drives so much of our behavior,” says Art Markman, Ph.D., professor of psychology at the University of Texas and author of Smart Change.
“If you can’t overcome emotional factors that prevent behavior change, all of the great planning does no good.”
Though it’s difficult to simplify something as complex as the human brain suddenly saying no to 3 extra servings of hash browns, it is worth looking at three of the more common emotional roadblocks—self-doubt, willpower, and anxiety—for some insights into the best ways to embrace mind games and create new habits as a way to overcome them.
Markman says the best predictor for whether people engage in healthy behavior change for the long-term is simple: You like what you’re doing. But, that doesn’t mean that progress is hiccup-free, and that’s where thinking about thinking can help you during those times.
Negative self-talk is something that everyone has experienced, and it oftentimes seems innocent...but it's not. Self-talk is the little voice inside that casts any shade on your ability to succeed. It sounds something like,
Why on earth would you expect yourself to ditch the cigarettes or stop guzzling 64-ounce sodas? You’ve never been able to do it before. What makes it different now? (Shut up, brain!)
“You know that something is wrong, know you should lose weight, but you don’t how to do it—that’s frustration, and you’re angry with yourself, and that’s where self-doubt comes in,” Markman says.
The goal to overcome that voice is “self-efficacy”— or having a high sense of confidence in your ability to succeed.
How to Fight Self-Doubt: Winning happens with small victories. Markman says a principle developed by Russian psychologist Lev Vygotsky called "proximal development" can help.
The concept is incredibly effective at helping children learn. At any given movement in their development, children are ready to learn the next skill (crawl, walk, run). As adults, it can work the same way. “Do the thing you’re just capable of doing,” Markman says. “That’s your recipe for success.”
The key to making it work? Just like children, you need to find someone who is more experienced to help model behavior, and then build skills in a logical way. For example, if you're learning math, you wouldn't want to go from mastering addition to jumping straight to algebra. The next logical step would be subtraction. Noticing these limitations requires self-awareness.
So, if you want to fight self-doubt, fight the root of your battle (I can't stop drinking soda), and identify when you are most vulnerable. This could look like the following for the soda example:
Vulnerability 1: I'm most vulnerable at night.
Vulnerability 2: I'm second most vulnerable when stressed.
Vulnerability 3: I'm third most vulnerable when I eat at a restaurant.
You'll want to tackle each vulnerability like you're learning a new skill (vulnerability 1 is like learning addition, vulnerability 2 is subtraction, and vulnerability 3 is multiplication). When you break down bigger goals into smaller processes, then you can more easily defeat self-doubt by replacing habits that erode your confidence.
I can resist the third piece of lasagna. I can resist the third piece of lasagna. I can resist the third piece of lasagna...Can you pass the parmesan?
Anyone who’s ever struggled with health change knows the face of temptation (and it looks an awful lot like bacon cheeseburgers) and the difficulty of willpower. Markman describes willpower as working in a stop-go system.
We “go” when we’re engaged in goals we want to achieve, and the “stop” part keeps us from doing activities that go against the goals. But, resisting the stop isn’t easy, he says.
Even the most steel-willed people are going to give in, he says. “You can’t just rely on your ability to stop yourself from doing the things that you don’t want to do,” he says.
How to Build Willpower: So you’re not constantly pumping the brakes trying to stop yourself, create environments that don’t force you to make decisions. That’s why something as simple as preparing your own lunch works so well for people who are dieting. It eliminates the choice of having to pass on pizza.
The other key: Cutting yourself some slack.
The most frustrating thing about willpower is that you have limited amounts available. The area of your brain that controls your willpower is located in your prefrontal cortex. You might remember this from biology as the area directly behind your forehead.
It’s the same part of our brain that helps with day-to-day tasks, everything from your short term memory (What did my partner tell me to buy at the store?), figuring out some simple tasks, and even staying focused. That means you're going to run out of willpower and have tough days.
“You also have to recognize that any attempt to change behavior is two steps forward and one step backward—it’s how you deal with the step backward that spells success and failure,” Markman says.
“If you treat a step back as a way to learn about what didn’t work and learn from it, then a single setback isn’t fatal for trying to make a significant change.”
If you’re serious about your health goals and well-being, you need to determine what other areas of your life should be prioritized less so that you have more willpower dedicated to the changes you want to make. Here are a few changes you can make that can help with focus and simplify your efforts.
- Creating both long-term goals and short-term goals that matter to you. This will make it easier to fight for them.
- Setting up a plan
- Creating Milestones
- Trying new ways of living
When you establish a plan and a priority, you're more likely to have the energy needed to succeed.
Anxiety is the emotion that tells us there’s something scary in the world that we’re trying to avoid but haven’t had success doing so, Markman says. With behavior change, that comes in the form of not knowing what’s going to happen when you attempt to make the change.
After all, going for a smoke break, eating big meals, or hosting wine events is what you do—and by extension, part of who you are. And changing that is hard. In addition, being public about your change can breed a related emotion because you feel like you’re being looked at and judged, which also produces anxiety.
How to Fight Anxiety: Start by surrounding yourself with supportive, like-minded people—and preferably folks who have experienced what you want to experience. Because let's be honest: it can be hard to credit yourself for progress.
When you shed 5 pounds of the 50 you want to lose, it oftentimes doesn't feel impressive, but it's still a big victory. And, if you struggle with anxiety, support can help encourage confidence and belief - both important for boosting self-esteem.
Ultimately, you want to be your own biggest cheerleader, but you shouldn't carry that burden alone (that will only create more anxiety). Instead, having a team means others can be your cheerleader when you’re a reluctant one.
“It’s important to be with people who can give you a realistic sense of what you can do to be a healthy person—and that you don't have to be a perfect person," says Markman.
For more advice from Markman, purchase his book: Smart Change: Five Tools to Create New and Sustainable Habits in Yourself and Others.