Reinvent Yourself: 12 Principles of Change

Stan Goldberg, PhD

This article was first published in Psychology Today in 2002. Since it’s publication it has appeared in more than 80 websites and was a featured page on S. Goldberg (2002) Psychology Today, December 1.

She died on Christmas day of a massive heart attack. Looking at a shelf in her apartment, I saw fifteen self-help books on diet and exercise. With that much information, I couldn’t understand how it happened. As I read, I found each offered general philosophies and broad ideas, none provided specifics necessary for my mother to save her life.

Everyone wants to change at least one thing about themselves, and as my mother did, try repeatedly. We may know what we want to become, but not how to get there. For twenty-five years I researched how people learn and change. In examining over 400 studies for a book I wrote (Clinical Skills for Speech-Language Pathologists), it became apparent that all change strategies can be subsumed under ten principles. In this article, a few strategies for each principle are explained with an example of how someone who was perpetually late for work successfully applied them.


In the 1960’s, a ventriloquist named Senior Wenches painted the face of a child on his hand, placed a wig on top of it, and conversed with the puppet. He asked her to repeat a long sentence and ended with “easy for you to say”. The hand looked at him and said “difficult”. All behaviors are easy to perform – once you know how to do them. Learning is made easier if the behavior is divided into parts. Master each successively, and the probability of success increases.


Subdivide the behavior. Identify one behavior you would like to learn, then break it into small, self-contained units. In my research and clinic practice I found that almost all behaviors can be divided into smaller units. He wanted to be on time for work. On a sheet of paper, he wrote what being on time involved: waking up, showering, dressing, preparing breakfast, eating, driving, parking, and buying coffee.


We resist change, even when we say we don’t. There is comfort in the status quo. Regardless of how dull or bad it is, it still might be better than the unknown consequences of something new.  There’s a joke about a woman who sees an old man on a porch with a howling dog.

“What’s wrong with him?” she asks.

The man puffs on his pipe and says, “he’s lying on a nail.”

In shock, the woman asks, “why doesn’t he get off  it?”

The man takes another puff and slowly answers, “I guess he forgot what’s it like not being on it”.

People have a fear of the unknown. And that fear can result in holding on to status quo behaviors, no matter how bad they are.


Examine consequences. Examine the positive and negative consequences of your status quo and desired behavior. If there are more positives associated with the new behavior then the status quo behavior, your fears aren’t warranted. If the reverse is true, you’ll need to either create something to change the balance, or forget about changing.

He wanted to stop being late. If not, the next thing he would be late for was the unemployment office. Definitely more positives to change than staying the same.

Prepare observers. New behaviors can frighten people who observe them. Slowly introduce your new behavior to others. Everyone knew him as someone who was never on time. Becoming timely overnight for everything would  make people suspicious. He started  arriving by 9:00 only on important days.

Be realistic. Unrealistic goals increase fear. Fear increases the probability of failure.

If he allotted the time “normal” people did, he’d never be at work by 9:00. It was more realistic to begin at night and double his morning preparation time.


What you want to become must be more positive than what you are. As a child, I practiced the accordion only because of parental threats. When I realized they weren’t genuine, I stopped practicing, closed the case and never said “accordion” for twenty years. Since the early research of Skinner, we knew reinforcement, and not punishment, is necessary for permanent change. Reinforcement can be intrinsic, extrinsic or extraneous. Dr. Carol Sansone, of the University of Utah found that at least one must be present for someone to change, two are better than one, and three are best.


Design reinforcing activities. Something is intrinsically reinforcing if the act itself is reinforcing. A good example is wonderful sex. He loved his clothes. Looking at them laid out at night was a joyful experience. An activity should end with something that is extrinsically reinforcing. Extrinsic reinforcement occurs at the completion of the act. The act itself does not have to be enjoyable. I hate cleaning my kitchen, but I’m willing to do it since I like the smell and sight of a clean kitchen. After dressing, he looked into the mirror and saw his evening clothes preparation worked. He looked wonderful!

Reward yourself with extraneous reinforcers. Extraneous reinforcers are not directly connected to the act or its completion. A worker may despise his manufacturing job, get no pleasure from what he creates, but will continue working for a good paycheck. Whenever he made his target time, he would put $20 into his “Hawaii-good-time fund”


At a karate class of twenty, an instructor yelled No Pain! No Gain! while forcing us to make legs move in a way God never intended. By the fourth week, only three people remained. Too much pain, you won’t remain! Change shouldn’t be painful. If associated with pain, change becomes punishing. And rational people don’t continue activities that are more painful than rewarding. I’ve found my clients  are successful when change requires almost as little effort as remaining the same.


Gradually approximate your goal. Drs. Hunt, Goetz, Alwell and Sailor at San Francisco State University found that performances significantly improved if goals were gradually approximated. On the left side of a sheet of paper, list the behavior you want to change. On the far right, list your goal. Between them,  draw four lines. On each line, write a progressive step taking you closer to your goal. Although his ultimate goal was to arrive at work no later than 8:50, starting with that would be too difficult. The first week, he would arrive by 9:10. Then each subsequent week, five minutes earlier, until his goal was achieved.

Minimize the activity. Imagine sitting outside a Taverna on a Greek Island with your favorite person next to you. The sky is cloudless and the temperature in the mid-seventy’s. Wonderful, isn’t it? Oh, I forgot, you can’t leave your seat for the next three days, at all, for any reason. Not so great any more, is it? Even the most wonderful thing looses it appeal if you do it too long. Although he wanted to be on time everyday, he knew the effort required for five continuous days would be too much. For the first week, only two days were targeted.

Simplify the process. Methods of changing often mirror our society: unnecessarily complicated and frenetic.

Simplify your change activities. Through simplicity, clarity arises. Instead of waiting to buy coffee at Starbucks, he’d buy it in his building’s coffee shop.

Prepare for problems. In the best of all possible worlds, everything is perfect. In the best of all change activities, you’ll learn effortlessly, quickly and joyfully. Just as perfect worlds don’t exist, neither do perfect learning situations. Assume you’ll have problems and prepare for them. Dr. Pamela Dunston of Clemson University found cueing to be of the more effective strategies. Getting out of bed when the alarm rang was difficult. For the first month, he’d use a telephone wake-up service, remove the bedroom phone and answer the  kitchen phone.


Everything has its own natural speed. When altered, unpleasant things happen. In the area of change, a common problem is trying to make it happen quickly. Just as you can’t push a river, you can’t change faster than your body or psyche allows. My research shows change is most effective when it occurs slowly, allowing behaviors to become automatic.


Slow down your life. A monk once told me that life is like a stirred up muddy lake. Allow it to calm, and the mud will settle to the bottom, clearing the water. The same is true for change efforts. He gave himself an extra thirty minutes to get ready and  no longer ran errands before work.

Gradually introduce new behaviors. You’ve invested years in developing your identity. Rapidly introducing new behaviors into the mix can be disruptive, causing change to become unpleasant.  New behaviors should be gradually introduced into your repertoire. Not knowing how it would feel to be a “timely person”, he allowed the behavior to slowly become part of his identity.

Appreciate Your Path As Much As Your Goal. Ursula LeGuin said “It’s good to have an end to journey towards; but it is the journey that matters, in the end.” Don’t devise a path to your goal that’s arduous. The path should be as rewarding as the goal. Becoming a “timely person” was not as traumatic as he assumed. Actually, he enjoyed doing almost everything involved in being on time. Coffee could be a little better, but it was a small price to pay.


Mystery, climaxes and surprises are great for novels, but disastrous for people wanting to change. The more people know about the process of change, the more control they have over where they are going and how they’ll get there. Three strategies are effective for increasing knowledge.


Become aware of your behaviors. If you want to change, monitor your behaviors. Although some therapists insist people should be aware of both what they are currently doing and the  behavior that replaces it, my research shows it’s sufficient just to be aware of the new one. In a simple journal, he recorded the time taken for each preparation activity.

Ask for feedback. “How am I doing?” is a great question to ask people witnessing your changes. It’s especially important to ask when you’re replacing an annoying behavior. Often when someone changes they’re baffled why nobody comments. Imagine in the past you were demeaning to people you disagreed with. Few would now say “It’s such a pleasure talking with you now since you stopped being a jerk”.  If someone compliments you on your new behavior, there is an implication that they didn’t like your old one. That can be uncomfortable for them. If you give permission, according to Dr. Paul Schutz of the University of Texas, and you will receive feedback. At the end of each week he asked a friend  how well he was doing with his time problem.

Determine why you succeeded or failed. Often when people succeed, they are satisfied just to be successful. If you know why you succeeded, your success with this behavior can be generalized to others. The same strategy should be used for failures.

Every morning, he analyzed why he succeeded or failed at each daily preparation task.


Many people view structure as restrictive; something that inhibits spontaneity. While spontaneity is wonderful for lovemaking, it’s a sure-fire method for failing in the area of change.


Identifying things that work and those that don’t. When attempting to change, classify all activities and materials you’re using into not helpful, neutral, or helpful. Eliminate unhelpful ones, make neutrals into positives, and keep or increase the positives. He looked at everything he did in the morning. Time-consuming full breakfasts were replaced with quick protein  drinks.

Repeat what, how, why and consequence statements to yourself. Although it’s repetitive, review every day what you will do to achieve the goal, how it will be done, why it’s being done and consequences for success and failure. Research conducted Daniel Willingham, Ph.D. of the University of Virginia showed this procedure increased the probability of success by focusing a person’s efforts. At night, looking at his clothes and the ingredients of his morning drink, he reviewed what, how and why he did each thing, smiled,  and said “Hawaii here I come!”

Logically sequence events. There are many things associated with learning a new behavior. According to Richard Foxx, Ph.D. of the Penn State University-Harrisburg, it’s important that they are sequenced either by difficulty or timing. Instead of showering, eating, going back to the bathroom to shave and finally brushing his teeth, all bathroom activities were done first.



Most people know the punch line to the joke about the tourist asking  “how do I get to Carnegie Hall?” The answer – “Practice, practice, practice”. While viewed as trite when performed by a standup comic, it’s the Holy Grail of change. I’ve found the majority of failures occur because this principle is ignored. Practice makes new behaviors automatic, and part of who we are, rather than just a visiting relative.


Use helpers when you need them. Not all behaviors can be learned on your own. Sometimes you’ll need to enlist the help of a trusted friend. When even the telephone answering service no longer worked, he asked his secretary to call. She was delighted to help.

Practice in many settings.  If you want to use a new behavior in different settings, practice them either in those settings or similar ones. This is known as generalization. Drs. Stokes and Baer as early as 1978, found generalization to be critical for maintaining new behaviors.

During the first week he would work on  timeliness only for work. During the next week, he added his regularly scheduled tennis game.


A new behavior or attitude is as fragile as a newborn bird. Even when flawlessly performed, it disappears as smoke does when leaving a chimney if not protected.


Increase things that enhance, eliminate those that don’t. Earlier, this strategy was used when selecting materials and activities. When learning new behaviors, there are other environmental issues such as noise, level of alertness, etc., that may interfere with learning. After identifying what helps and what doesn’t, increase those that help, eliminate those that don’t. Drinking a snifter of Cognac before bed made it difficult to wake in the morning. No more alcohol after 7:00pm.

Use aides that help memory. Since the new behavior is neither familiar nor automatic,  it’s easy to forget. Anything that helps memory is beneficial. He kept  a list in each room of his apartment showing the sequence of things to be done and the maximum allowable time.


Everyone wants to do things in a “big” way: big jobs, big money, and big successes. Often, plans for big successes result in big failures. You’re more likely to be successful if you forget about that big end-goal, and instead, focus on a series of little successes. Each little success builds your reservoir of self-esteem. One big failure devastates it.


Map out a series of progressive successes. Think of each step as a separate goal. Forget about the end goal, you’ll arrive there eventually and effortlessly.He decided how much time to spend on each morning activity. When he began, the stopwatch started. If the activity ended before the allotted time, he rewarded himself by putting money into the Hawaii jar. Then, he began the next activity using the same procedure.

Conclusion. Changing from what you are, to what you would like to become can either be arduous and frustrating, or easy and rewarding. The effort required for either path is the same. Choose the first and you’ll probably recycle yourself endlessly. Apply the ten principles and what was only a slight possibility, becomes an absolute certainty. As they said in an old television game show, “Which door do you choose, Number one or Number two?”

copyright 2002 Stan Goldberg,

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