Behavioral Psychology


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A friend recently wanted to hear my point of view on an article he read about exercising. The main premise was that days where you don’t really feel like working out are the days when it is most essential to go. Although this idea makes sense on an intuitive level it’s actually quite superficial from a psychological point of view. Although we will be speaking in the context of exercise you can apply the psychology to pretty much any lifestyle change you decide to undertake.

There are two main routes for implementing and maintaining a new behavior. One is existential and the other is behavioral. The existential route starts at a deeper level. It’s the revelation that you need to change and the firm commitment to do so. You use this metaphorical compass to help guide your behavior. If we continue on with the exercise example it’s when you come to the firm realization that you want to live a healthy, happy life and that working out is an indispensable element for your goal. If your conviction is strong enough then your behavior will mostly fall into place on its own. You’ll keep in the back of your mind that exercise has to be a fundamental part of your life now and you will make time in your schedule for it.

The other route is behavioral. You hope to eventually influence the deeper existential level of commitment through starting a routine and sticking to it no matter what. Some people call this strategy ‘fake it ’till you feel it.’ It’s the strategy that my friend read about in his article. If we liken a human being to a computer, you are overriding the central processing unit telling you not to work out, doing it anyway and hoping that as the weeks go by the benefits you start to experience and your behavioral routine will keep you on track and eventually reprogram your executive functions.

I have seen both routes work in therapy when people want to change some aspect of their lives and actually there is a lot of fluidity between the behavioral and the existential. Sometimes you can’t have that ‘aha!’ moment until you have viscerally felt the difference in your life. But I think the existential realization that change is vital is more powerful and without this dedication, feeling it in your bones that the new behavior is essential, no regimen will last that long because you can always come up with rationalizations that sound really good to the parts of yourself that don’t want to do the hard work that change entails.

The route of changing a behavior through forced routine when you don’t really feel like it often goes awry because you burn out faster. If you are dedicated and know that you’re dedicated, you can instead raise your conscious awareness about the reason why you don’t want to move ahead with your particular plan on a certain day and decide whether it’s just a rationalization or there really is a good reason for holding back. In the case of exercise it might be really listening to your body and hearing that it needs a break to recover and recharge. You’ll come back stronger the next day without going against what your true Self is telling you, which tends to strengthen your resolve.

Creating a schedule where you have blocks of time put aside for your new activity or behavior can be really helpful to keep you on task and I definitely recommend it, but if you don’t have that underlying drive to follow through you’ll likely fail in the long run. When you do feel inspired to change on a deeper level it can be useful to write down what you are thinking and feeling so that you can go back and read it when your resolve starts to flag. If you can keep the foundation strong everything else will fall into place.