All change

 

It can be hard for a human being to change. Sure, we can all do something different, just like that, but when we’re talking about human change what we usually mean is change in behaviour that is sustained over a long time. Of course, this can be done; just consider how many people have successfully given up smoking. However, what about all the people who consistently fail to give up, time and again?

The big problem here is habit. Habits are great; without the ability to encode our behaviour in the form of habits we would have to work out everything from scratch every time. Our ability to drive a car at high speeds whilst carrying on a conversation with another person is testimony to the degree to which driving becomes habitual. There are countless other examples of beneficial habits, such as playing a musical instrument, typing, reading, or conversing in one or more languages. There are so many things we could not do when we were born that become habitual with sufficient practice.

Some habits are easier to acquire than others. Learning to be a smoker is easy, a reality that was cleverly exploited by advertisers for decades. Others, like playing the piano, can take years of daily practice before reaching a reasonable standard. The length of time depends on the complexity of the behaviour we are talking about and how committed one is to encoding that habit. Acquiring a complex habit entails lots of conscious practice of the new behaviour which demands a great deal of time and energy.

In the domains of health and fitness, or any kind of personal development, change usually involves not only starting new behaviours, but stopping old ones. There’s a funny YouTube video sketch of the comedian Bob Newhart playing a psychotherapist. When his client tells him about the dysfunctional behaviour that she wants to be rid of, he simply yells at her, “STOP IT”, and then tells her how much the therapy session cost. The joke, of course, is that we, the viewer, know that no matter how loud he shouts, his approach just won’t work. We’ve probably all heard about smokers who continue smoking even after having been diagnosed with lung cancer, such is the grip of the habit for them.

To change an existing habit means resisting a human capability that has evolved over millions of years to save us having to consciously think about what we are doing all the time. Evolution has worked to free up our thinking faculty to focus on new situations and novel problems that need more than just old ways of going on. Thus, we are very good at forming new habits but rather poor at unlearning them.

So, let’s say that someone who wants to be healthier becomes aware that they have acquired some unhealthy habits, such as being too sedentary, eating too much processed food, or allowing themselves to get too stressed. What can they do to change? The most important place to start is the reason why. However, the nature of the reason is crucially important. If someone tries to change because they have been told to do so, it rarely works well, except for children, and not always then. Most adults do not respond well to being told what to do by an authority figure, even if they think it could be good for them. Powerful reasons for change are internally formed. There is the old joke, “how many psychologists does it take to change a light bulb? One, if the light bulb really wants to change.”

Powerful reasons may be emotional or rational, or both. Fear of an early death, or of not being able to see one’s children grow up, may be powerful enough to drive a person to change, if the threat is real enough (although unfortunately, we seem to have a built-in propensity to think “it’ll never happen to me”).

Rational reasons can be equally powerful. For many people adopting an ancestral health or evolutionary perspective can be life-changing. Coming to understand that many features of modern life are increasing the risk of chronic disease, because they are out of sync with human genetics and biology, offers an attractive alternative to the endless stream of messages telling us what to do ‘for our own good’ without offering sound reasons why.

There are other strategies to facilitate change that an experienced coach will be familiar with, including goal setting, action planning, and accountability. Knowing how to change is critically important because access to all the latest research about health matters is useless unless a person can apply that knowledge in the long term. A good health coach will provide a client with up-to-date knowledge, but also know how to help them change.

Lest anyone doubts the importance of behaviour change for good health, research shows that about 80% of chronic disease is caused by environmental factors, i.e. behaviour and lifestyle. Innovative doctors are employing health coaches to be the first point of contact with new patients because they can probably address 70 to 80% of the problems that people have, freeing up the doctor’s time to handle the remaining 20 to 30%.

What about you? How have you got on with trying to implement long-term change in your life? Let us know in the comments below.

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