Effecting change can be a slow and difficult process. Most real behavioral change boils down to the altering of habits. While this sounds simple enough, just because it is simple does not mean it is easy. Anyone who has tried to change his habits can tell you it usually isn’t. This is due to several overlapping reasons.

First, those habits are there for a reason, they serve a purpose, or maybe we think they do, or at very least we used to think they do, and they are still lingering. But it is always hard to let go of something that has served you at one time.

Second, it is a matter of motivation. You may want to want to change. But when it comes to actually changing, you just don’t want to change yet. Take a smoker for example. He knows smoking is bad for him. Part of him wants to quit. He knows he’d be better off. But when it comes time for the hard part, he’s not quite done yet. He’s not willing to give up the high, the indulgence of ‘it’ just yet. He wants the cigarette in the moment, but wants to be free of smoking in the long run. In that moment, the lure of the smoke is much more appealing and immediate. He can always quit tomorrow. This is procrastination combined with rationalization.

Third, people give up because a lapse turns into a relapse. A lapse is a temporary one-time indulgence. A relapse is a complete breakdown in the recovery process and a return to the habitual behavior. What is the biggest determinant of lapse versus relapse? Your frame of mind. Let’s take our smoker again. He has not had a cigarette in fifteen days (poor guy), and today he is having incredible cravings. He gives in and has a cigarette. He now has two possible paths.

He can accept that this has happened, and that it is going to happen from time to time. He will toss out the rest of the pack. Today is still day fifteen in his quitting, it is just a bad day. When he wakes up tomorrow it will be day sixteen in his quitting. Day fifteen was a lapse day. He expects that he may have other lapses in the future, so they do not throw him off should they happen. But he does not let them come easily.

In the second path, he may be very upset with himself for smoking. He may get upset about having “fallen off the wagon,” and that upset provides more motivation to smoke. He is back to being a smoker. Tomorrow he will still be a smoker. This is what I would call “psychologically convenient,” because it can give him the excuse to give up. The definition of ambivalence is wanting two contradictory things at the same time. While part of him wants to quit, part of him wants to give up trying to quit, to say he can’t do it. Then he can go back to smoking. If he tried to quit smoking again, he would be at day one, which is too daunting to imagine right now, so he’ll probably be a smoker again and try quitting again some other time. He has had a relapse.

Finally, part of what helps determine a lapse versus a relapse is his sense of identity. At first, he may still view himself as a smoker who is trying not to smoke. The non-smoking still feels alien and new, like something he is trying on. He still feels like a smoker inside, even if he is not smoking. However, if he adopts the recovering or quitting as his new identity, he will be reinforcing and strengthening that behavior. Then, if he does smoke on day fifteen, he is a quitting smoker having a lapse, not a smoker having a relapse and coming back to smoking.

Habits are like a favorite song on an LP record (if you don’t know what an LP is, go ask your parent). Let’s say you love The Beatles, and your favorite song is Blackbird. You play it over and over on The White Album. What would happen? Well, if you ever had an LP, you’d know that over time, if you listen to that one song over and over, a rut starts to form in the vinyl of the record. That is like your habit. Now what if one day you decide you want to listen to I’m so tired, the song right before Blackbird? Most likely the needle would slide back into the groove, and before you know it you’d be listening to Blackbird again. That is what it is like to try to replace a familiar habit with a new behavior.

At first, you intend to perform the new behavior. All it takes is a moment of distraction, and you mindlessly slip back into your old habitual behavior without you’re even being aware that it is happening. You are so used to performing the habitual behavior that you do not need to consciously think to perform it. You can perform it on ‘auto-pilot.’ Much like you can drive yourself home without thinking about it consciously once you have done it enough times.  It is more familiar, and has become second nature. At first, it is almost impossible to stay mindful enough in your action to remember to perform the new behavior. The second your attention slips, you switch to “autopilot,” reacting non-mindfully with what comes naturally, the old habit.

But if you place the needle on to I’m so tired over and over, a new groove will start to form. Eventually the needle will stay there and you will be able to listen to I’m so tired when you want to. So, if you catch yourself engaged in the habit, you then “move the needle back to I’m so tired,” i.e., replace the old habitual behavior with the new one. The real task is not getting disheartened and down on yourself. Real change is not about simply doing the new behavior. It is about catching yourself doing the old behavior over and over, accepting and forgiving yourself, and replacing it with the new one.


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“Failure is inevitable, success is elusive.” – Steven Spielberg


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