Behavioral Psychology

The Paradox Of Change

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When you’re trying to improve your life the process almost always includes modifying your behaviors. The paradox of this behavioral modification is that to be successful you’ve got to have the underlying determination that you’re going to be successful over the long-term in either reducing the frequency of certain classes of behaviors or increasing the frequency of certain classes of behaviors or both, but with this underlying determination in place you’ve got to focus your psychic energy on today, on simply being successful right now in the short-term.

What happens to many of us is that we start to think too much about how hard it’s going to be over the weeks, months, and years, how impossible it seems that we’ll actually keep up a behavior or cut out a behavior not just right now but forever, and the weight of these hopeless thoughts acts as a deterrent, making us give up the fight. Why keep going now when we know we’re going to fail down the line anyway?

But the long-term is really just a bunch of short-terms lumped together. Stop worrying about the implausibility of doing it over many months or many years and just put your energy into doing it today. Let’s say you’ve been eating meat all your life and have recently decided you want to be a vegetarian. If you start worrying about what it’s going to be like to never eat a hamburger again, what it’s going to be like when your friends and family host a barbecue and you can’t eat any of their offerings, how hard it’s going to be to resist the delicious smells wafting out of restaurant kitchens, the prognosis seems dire. But you don’t have to worry about all of that right now. All you have to worry about is making your next meal vegetarian.

So this is the paradox of change. You’ve got to have your underlying determination be about success in the long-term but your psychic energy focused on on either increasing the frequency of the behaviors you want to see more of or decreasing the frequency of the behaviors you want to extinguish right here and now.

And remember that setbacks are almost inevitable. Just because you fail once doesn’t mean you’ve failed permanently. We tend to fall into the trap of all or nothing thinking when we’re making life changes, where to be successful it means we’ve got to be perfect. But any change at all from the baseline, however small, represents success in that you’ve moved closer to the ultimate goal. Don’t get down on yourself when setbacks come along. Simply rededicate to what you’re doing by summoning up your underlying intention of long-term success and then focusing in on what’s right in front of you today.