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By Nathan Bailey, MA, LPC

From time to time we become aware that we need to make lifestyle or behavior changes. Unfortunately, it’s not always easy to make changes. Why? There’s a number of reasons but one I think that isn’t talked about is that our motivation to change will go up and down. On day 1 you might be highly motivated, on day 5 you might have lost the desire altogether. 

Does that mean your original motivation wasn’t strong enough or was just a passing desire? That’s what most of us instinctively think. You might even hear others say “I guess they didn’t want it enough.” We have to recognize that as human beings, our motivation and desire for change will naturally go up and down. The trick is, how can we continue with change even when we’re not “feeling it.” We can also be more aware of why our motivation might be going down over time. 

To prepare for the inevitable up and down of our motivation, try asking yourself these 7 questions:

1. What is my motivation to make different choices with __________________?

Why are you wanting to change? Maybe you’re realizing that by not changing, you’re running the risk of harm or continued discomfort. Or, you have a clear picture of the benefits of living a different lifestyle. Having a clear reason for change allows you to reflect on it regularly and remember what’s driving you to make these changes. 

2. If I’ve tried this before, how did I do? Why?

It often takes a few tries at change before we can find traction. If we’ve made attempts before that didn’t work out (or didn’t last) let’s learn from those lessons when making another attempt. If we had unrealistic expectations or made assumptions that turned out to be false, there’s an opportunity to take a different approach. There’s an old quote that says “the definition of instantly is doing the same thing over and over and expecting different results” which may or may not have been said by Albert Einstein. 

If you attempted change and it didn’t work out, you might think “this time I’m really motivated” but as I’ve already written, it’s probably not an issue with your original motivation as much as the fact that motivation goes up and down. So let’s figure out what didn’t work and do something different. 

3. How do I think I’ll do now? Why?

If we approach change with a skeptical attitude, we tend to confirm our doubts. Guaranteed we’ll make mistakes and mis-steps but if we’re prepared for them, we can be prepared to respond from a perspective of positive expectations. Because you are working on change differently than in the past, it’s ok to expect a better outcome. 

4. What are the different choices I need to make?

See how these questions build on themselves? If something didn’t work last time or hasn’t worked consistently, what specific action steps can we choose this time? Were you able to make changes for some period of time but found yourself reverting back to old behaviors? What happened? Something worked, at least partially. Maybe the problem wasn’t starting new behaviors but maintaining them. 

5. When I think about making these changes, how do I feel?

Overwhelmed? Excited? Somewhere in between? It’s good to explore our emotional responses to these upcoming changes. If you’re feeling overwhelmed it could be that you’ve set unrealistic goals or don’t have a clear path forward. Nothing will kill motivation faster than feeling like you can’t do what you need to do. By establishing small, seemingly easy micro-goals, you’ll find yourself feeling more optimistic about your chances of success and your motivation will likely stay high. For example, instead of setting a goal of running 3 miles seven days a week, try just exercising 10-15 minutes three days a week. If it seems almost too easy, you’ve probably found a good starting point.

6. How will I measure success with this change?

Another contributing factor that can sap our motivation for change is not having good measurements for success. Going back to my example of exercise changes, someone might set a goal that says “I’m going to get in shape.” How do you know when you’ve accomplished that? How do you even know if you’re making progress? Sounds like a moving target to me. When we set clear, measurable goals, we feel good when we reach those and can continue the process forward with maintained motivation. Maybe the “re-do” is “I want to be able to jog around the block without stopping to walk.”

7. What do I do if I’m not successful in making the changes?

We should assume this isn’t going to be easy. We should also assume we’re going to make mistakes, experience some failure etc. This doesn’t mean you can’t do it, won’t do it or that you didn’t have the right motivation to begin with! What it does mean is that you need to take a step back, maybe go back through these 7 questions and develop a new plan. 

We have to be realistic, it’s unlikely that you’ll sail through the change process without any setbacks. Sure there are stories of people who felt like something “just snapped” deep inside and they walked away from bad habits or lifestyle changes never to return. It can happen…but you should assume it’s not going to work that way for you. That way when it doesn’t, you don’t get hit with a wave of discouragement but instead, look to discover a new path forward. 

Getting support to change

If you’re feeling stuck or starting to recognize that your attempts to change aren’t working, reach out to our team. Lime Tree Counseling offers drug and alcohol counseling, anxiety counseling, Christian counseling. Our office is in Ambler, PA and we also offer online counseling in Pennsylvania, online counseling in Colorado and online counseling in North Carolina. Reach out and schedule your first session today! We can’t wait to hear from you.