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5 Secrets of Behavior Change

You can overcome failure and affect real change in your life—if you can admit that you failed, edit the plan and give yourself a break now and then.

5 Secrets of Behavior Change

At some point in your life, you have probably made a New Year’s resolution. Maybe it was this year, and you set a goal to live your life differently in some way, big or small. You might already have abandoned your plans. Perhaps you have given up making resolutions because they so rarely succeed.

It is hard to make big changes in your life, and you have to enter into that process expecting that you will experience a few setbacks. What separates the people who succeed at achieving their big-picture goals from those who do not is not that they never fail. It is in their response to failure.

Everyone fails. Sometimes, you give in to temptation and do something you shouldn’t. Sometimes, despite your best efforts, other factors cause your best-laid plans to go awry.

So, how can you learn from your failures rather than giving up? Here are five suggestions that come from my new book, "Smart Change: Five Tools to Create New and Sustainable Habits in Yourself and Others." 

Check your goals.  Often, the way you state your goals can get in the way of your success. When you are on the verge of giving up, look at what you set out to do. Did you set yourself a positive goal like eating healthier food or reading more books at work, or did you create a negative goal like eating less or avoiding distractions? 

Negative goals are almost always doomed to failure, for two reasons. First, when you are constantly trying to stop yourself from performing an action, you have to ride your mental brakes, using brain systems that are prone to weakening and giving out. Second, your habit-learning system does not learn from the experience of avoidance. You generate habits when you perform an action that is related to an environment. You learn from doing. You do not learn when you don’t do something. 

So, even when you successfully resist temptation, you’re not training your mind and body to act a certain way. You have to reframe your goals to turn them into actions you perform rather than actions you are trying to avoid.

See the gray. There is a tendency for people to set up their goals in all-or-nothing terms. You may create a strict diet that you have to adhere to. You may go from being a couch potato to a daily exerciser. 

The problem with these all-or-nothing goals is that you are either succeeding or failing. In the case of a diet resolution, you are either sticking to the plan, or you have given up. Breaking the diet a little feels like failure, which can lead you to break it a lot. 

If you find that your small failures become catastrophic ones, then you need to think about whether you are creating too strict a boundary between right and wrong in your goals. Do you feel that small failures are just as bad as big ones? If so, you might consider seeing a little gray. Yes, it is bad to overeat a little, but better to admit you had a bad day and try to do better the next day than to go into a tailspin.

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