Lessons to learn from the Psychology of Personal Change

In Spring of 2009 I developed and lead instruction for a quarter-long course called the Psychology of Personal Change. I worked with Greg Walton, a Psych professor at Stanford in the weeks leading up to the class but once it got startedI was responsible for organizing and teach all 36 of the students who signed up.

The focus of the class was on studying the research done on how people are able to initiate and sustain lasting behavioral changes in their lives. We read papers on dieters, smokers, new year’s resolvers, on self-regulation, on relapse and other topics.

The studies we read lead to a number of actionable ideas that I’ll outline here.

· Choose 1-2 behaviors, not an outcome, to control – you must pick behaviors that you believe will be the most important to achieving your outcome. Then just try to do those behaviors. Use the outcome only as a guide, the focus is on the behavior (don’t obsess over your weight, focus on the food and the exercise)

· Measure your behavior – get a baseline for the behavior, and measure EVERYDAY. Food diary, website (joes goals), iPhone app, etc.

· Get a change coach – someone in the class or out who is supporting you and someone you check in with EVERY WEEK to discuss how things are going. This person will need to answer a few questions at the end of the quarter

· Prepare for relapse – if you screw up (and you will screw up) what are you going to do to get back on track? Create a step-by-step action plan for recovering

· Model after success – find someone (better yet – multiple people) who has done what you want to do (not someone who has always been that way) and ask them for advice on changing

· Identify your focal point – comb your memory for a crystallizing moment – if you don’t have one, create one by writing down what would happen 1 year, 5 years out if you don’t make a change, and 1 year, 5 years out if you DO make a change.

· Control your environment – how can you get reminders for the bad behavior out? How can you introduce new reminders for the good thing? Throw out all the junk food, or bring fruit with you everywhere. Make stick notes all over your room.

· Develop self-efficacy – figure out ways to make yourself feel more confident that you can get this done. This is not the same as self-esteem! Spend time reading about people who have made it. Set small goals, hit them, and repeat.

· Affirm yourself – spend some time thinking/writing down things that are important to you – your values, core beliefs and your intrinsic worth as a human being. Tell your friends and family that you care about them. People who do this are better able to make changes.

· Create a new identity and/or worldview – How will you be a different person because of this change? Can you try to see the world differently that might help facilitate and reinforce the change?

· Exercise – Research indicates that exercising helps people through ANY kind of change. How can you introduce a bit of exercise into your day to help your changes stay?

· Make a firm commitment – Use a friend or a website to put money down that you’ll stick to your change. Enter in a 5k. Tell your parents, your friends and neighbors you’re getting straight A’s this quarter. Buy clothes that are will fit you when you slim down some. Commitment leads to success.

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