One way to overcome barriers to change

How many times have you intended to adopt a new behaviour only to find that when the time came it was hard to resist your old patterns? Today I will share a simple yet effective strategy that you can use to help you stick to any new habit. It is inspired by a study done in Scotland with people who were recovering from hip and knee replacement surgery. Today, it’s used by everyone from hospital patients to professional athletes to make it easier to stick to a new habit.

What did the study reveal?

The first time I read about this study was in The Power of Habit by Charles Duhigg. A British psychologist recruited five dozen patients who were undergoing hip or knee replacement surgeries for an experiment on willpower.

The patients weren’t considered to have exceptionally good willpower. In fact, many of them had been putting off the surgery, were elderly and retired, earned less than $10 000 a year and had no interest doing extra reading or work.

Recovering from a hip or knee replacement surgery is incredibly difficult. Even the smallest movements can be excruciating but it’s essential that patients begin to exercise immediately after surgery or else scar tissue will clog the joint rendering it inflexible. The agony of doing the exercises required to heal properly is so bad that many patients will skip rehab sessions and refuse to comply with doctors’ orders.

The group of patients selected were identified as highly likely to fail at rehabilitation. The psychologist wanted to help them harness their willpower to see if it would help them comply with exercise prescriptions.

Here’s what she did: she gave each patient a book that detailed their rehab schedule. In the back of the book were blank pages for the patients to write down their plans. Here they had the opportunity to identify goals for rehab and plan out exactly how they would achieve those goals.

Three months after surgery, the psychologist compared the recoveries of the patients who filled in their pages with specific plans to those who received the same booklets but didn’t write anything.

There was a shocking difference between the two groups. Those who had used their booklets started walking twice as fast as those who didn’t. They were getting in and out of chairs, unassisted, three times as fast. They were able to do daily tasks like putting on their shoes and household chores much more quickly than those who didn’t make plans in the booklet.

Upon taking a closer look at the booklets, the psychologist discovered that those who had written plans included specific schedules and details. One man, for example, wrote that he would walk to meet his wife at the bus stop, noted the time he would leave, the route he would take, which coat he would wear if it was raining, and what pills he would take if the pain became too much.

What was so transformative about these plans? It made the patients anticipate barriers (bad weather or pain, for instance) and how they would overcome these barriers (a jacket or medication). This meant that if the barrier occurred the patient had already come up with a solution. So, when their temptations to give up became the strongest they had already told themselves how they would make it through.

The patients who didn’t write plans were at a significant disadvantage in their recovery because they hadn’t considered how to deal with those sticky points. This made it much easier for their brains to do what was tempting: avoid pain and difficulty.

Anyone can use this strategy!

Luckily this strategy isn’t specific to those who have just undergone a hip replacement. Anyone can use this idea to help them with improving their eating or exercise habits. This strategy can help you make it through the tougher times so that you can keep going and hopefully make the desired habit automatic. Here’s what you can do, if you so choose:

  1. Consider your own sticking points. When does sticking to your habits become difficult for you? Write them down.
  2. Beside each sticking point write doing what you will do when each it occurs. Try to be detailed!

Here’s an example:

I find it hard to resist the vending machine at work at 3:00pm. I am going to leave my coins in the car so that it is more inconvenient for me to buy a snack. I am also going to bring an apple with me to work and eat that if I feel hungry in the afternoon. If I have to walk around the office I will avoid walking past the vending machine by taking a different route. I may also schedule meetings or phone calls at this time of the day to keep me busy and my mind off of snacking.

By anticipating the problem and the solution your brain is less likely to revert to your old habits. This is such a simple strategy with a powerful impact. I think it’s worth a try for anyone looking to reinforce some new habits.

Give it a shot and let me know how it goes!

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