Why Motivation Alone Stinks: Part III-How to Evaluate Change Programs

Stan Goldberg, PhD

You are about to spend time and money on a program guaranteeing you will be slimmer, shapelier, healthier, or more successful. You’re motivated to change, but you were also motivated in the past when you committed to other programs that failed. Wouldn’t you like to know if this one will work before you begin?

 In Part I of this series I explained the difference between the what and how of change. In Part II, I wrote successful change is based on applying ten universal rules. I’ll provide you with guidelines for evaluating all change programs in this final article. It’s a way to determine the probability of being successful before you begin.

Below are ten universal rules of change shown through experimentation and clinical research to make a difference in whether a change in behavior or an attitude is likely to occur. A general maxim is the more of them present, the greater the possibility of success.

1. All Behaviors Are Complex

Avoid programs reducing complex behaviors (e.g. a new way of eating) into something simple (e.g. drink a can of this magic formula three times a day). Moving from where you are to where you’d like to be involves steps. The smaller they are, the more likely you’ll be successful.

2. Change Is Frightening

When we go from a place we are familiar with (e.g. overweight) to a new condition (e.g. physically fit), the change may be frightening regardless how motivated we are to change. We know how people view us in our present condition, but how will that change when we become a new person? Change programs should incorporate the natural reluctance to give up something familiar (e.g. intoxication) for something unknown (e.g. sobriety).

3. Change Must Be Positive

Change based on anything less than being positive will become unstable and most likely disappear. If what the program is asking you to do is too painful, you will become reluctant to continue, regardless how motivated you are to change. For example, a writing improvement program requiring an exercise of completing two pages a day when you struggle with a paragraph will be more punishing than positive.

4. Being Is Easier Than Becoming

Regardless of how motivated we are to change, the struggle from where we are to where we want to be should require almost as little effort as not changing. For example, I love playing my flute, but it would be difficult going from practicing twenty minutes three times a week to two hours every day. Without any intervening steps, my motivation to become a better flute player would not be sufficient. But if I add five minutes to each practice session the incremental changes will result in a greater probability of success. It might take me months to reach daily two hour practice sessions, but they’ll last.

5. Slower Is Better

In our technological society, we want everything to be painless, always successful and quick. While these are great advertising guidelines for purchasing change programs, they spell disaster from people wanting to change. Ask yourself, “if the guarantees are true, why do new change programs flood the market every year? Programs promising fast changes are blueprints for failure.

6. Know More, Do Better

Blindly following a program because someone says you should, will not give you insight into why you failed at something nor what you should do to correct it. If a program says “Here’s something that works,” such as a nutritional supplement, it should also explain why it does and what you should do if it doesn’t.

7. Change Requires Structure

Spontaneity adds spice in living, but it doesn’t work when you are trying to change. The program you are about to spend time and money on should be structured. It should indicate amounts (e.g. calories), when an activity should be performed (e.g., days and number of times per week and the circumstances when you are to do the activities (e.g. use active listening initially only with friends).

8. Practice Is Necessary

Change doesn’t occur in one setting. Practicing a behavior in various places and during different days and times will ingrain it. For example, while it may be easy to limit the number of calories you consume at home, are there guidelines for how to practice new eating behaviors in restaurants, parties, etc.?

9. New Behaviors Must Be Protected

New behaviors are as fragile as baby birds. Once you establish a behavior, either in it’s initial forms or fully developed, does the program provide support (e.g., telephone contacts for people in AA)?

10. Small Successes Are Big

If you’re going for big successes, expect big failures. The smaller the steps in your program, the more likely you’ll succeed. Fifteen small consecutive successes are more motivating than one big failure and increase the behavior’s stability.

I hope this series is helpful. Feel free to share your experiences with change. I’ll try to answer your questions as will other readers.

Preventing Senior Moments, by Stan Goldberg

Offers practical and achievable prevention strategies for senior moments.


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