The ‘How’ of Making a Change


We can talk all we want about examining belief systems to see which “automatic thoughts” are keeping us stuck in our ways.  We can examine the faultiness or irrational nature of such thoughts and carefully construct alternative replacement beliefs and thoughts that target the desired behavior.


We can talk about reasons for wanting to make changes until we are blue in the face.  We can go out and buy a new gym membership, new workout clothes, new shoes and attempt to create incentive to carry out our plan.


Many of us do some or all of these things, but still seem to wind up doing the same thing we were doing, over and over again.  Need proof, just talk to anyone who has been a long term member of a health club.  They hate January.  All of the New Year’s Resolutions to join the gym and get back in shape really screw them up for a bit.  I read a quote just yesterday in the paper from a local gym member.  He stated he couldn’t wait until the end of January to get ‘his elliptical’ machine back.  What he was referring to was the 11 months out of the year when he literally has the workout equipment to himself, and the one month out of the year that he has to share and wait in line along with all the ‘New Year’s Resolution’ folks who flood the gym, but then, predictably, are nowhere to be found come February.


It’s kind of a sad commentary on the nature of humanity and making change happen.  As sad as it may be, however, it is real.  This is what people really do.  We can sit back and joke about it, or be amused by the irony of all of these people, putting up hundreds of dollars, in hopes that this is going to provide the incentive to ‘really make a go of it, this time.’  We can be amused by the irony of health club owners literally ‘counting’ on this attrition to do business.  If there wasn’t such attrition, prices would probably have to be much higher to drive down the demand or pay for additional space and equipment to accommodate everyone.


My theory is that nobody sets out to fail at making a change happen and making it permanent, it is, rather, that the “how” of making change happen is inadvertently overlooked.  To get at the “how” of making change happen we have to journey back to the neurobiological level of how “thinking” develops in the brain.  Recall that behavior is not going to change until the beliefs and thinking that drive that behavior change.  Recall that when “thoughts” are registered, they are recorded in memory and provide the grid or template for future thought and behavior.  Literally speaking, the more we think one way, the more thoughts and memories we “build” that support that way of thinking.  It just keeps building on itself.


According to Cognitive-Behavioral Theory, behavior does not happen independent of thought.  Literally every human behavior is driven by beliefs and thinking that support that behavior.  Since behavior refers to the act of actually doing something, we can re-frame all behavior this way.  This can help to keep everything straight.  So instead of thinking about the behavior of “not exercising” in these terms, let’s reframe the behavior in terms of what the person is doing “instead” of exercising.  For example, when I am not exercising I am “relaxing on the couch”, “watching TV” or “surfing the internet.”  When I am not exercising, I am “spending an extra hour at work” or “doing work around the house.”


This also helps to “focus in” on the beliefs.  If I am watching TV when I could be exercising, then I must hold the belief that watching TV is somehow better than exercising.  I may not believe that it is better for me per se, but I probably believe that it feels better than exercising.  I probably believe that exercising involves doing something that is less pleasurable than sitting on the couch or watching TV.  I may truly believe that exercise is good for me, I am truly believe that I want to be a person who exercises, but my over-whelming belief is that exercise is “not more fun than sitting on the couch and does not feel better than lying on the couch.”  According to cognitive theory, we can make a direct inference about belief by observing behavior.  What I believe to be the best thing to be doing right now is what I will be doing right now.


So now we are getting a little “out there” right?  Am I saying that in order to be one who chooses exercise over watching TV, one must believe that exercise is truly better, in every way, than watching TV?  Am I saying that one has to believe it even feels better than watching TV?  Talk to people who exercise (like me for instance) they will tell you that exercise is far more pleasurable than sitting and watching TV.  I get far more pleasure out of exercising than I could possibly get out of watching TV and surfing the internet.


So how does one make the transition from the former (believing that sitting and watching TV is more pleasurable) to the latter (believing that exercising is more pleasurable)?  Literally, how does that happen?


From the neurobiological perspective, it happens when enough thinking that supports ‘exercising being more pleasurable’ is registered in the brain to rival the previously held belief.  One has to literally ‘think’ the ‘new’ thought that supports the target behavior as often as possible.  And, now, we are finally to the ‘how.’


Theoretically speaking, each time I view, read, speak or in some other way experience the new thought (whether I believe it or not right now), I am accumulating new thinking that, when it reaches a certain threshold or critical mass, will rival the old way of thinking (my old belief) and a new one will replace it. 


Sound crazy??  Tell that to the advertising world who is willing to spend millions of dollars for a 30 second spot designed for doing just that.  Think about it.  My current belief is that the toothpaste I am currently using is just fine.  I see a commercial for a new kind of toothpaste that the producer of the advertisement is telling me is superior to what I am using right now.  I don’t drop everything and run out to buy the new toothpaste (at least I wouldn’t think so).  Over time, however, the producer of that commercial wants me to see it enough times to build a critical mass of thinking about the new toothpaste that rivals my thinking about the old toothpaste.  Why else would he be spending so much money to simply get the message in front of me?  Does it matter to him if I am consciously thinking about the commercial and saying “that’s a dumb commercial – that will never influence me to buy the stuff”?  No, he doesn’t care about that, he cares most about getting me to think about his product enough times (remember, watching and experiencing registers thought) to reach a critical mass. 


In fact, the advertiser is content with watchers thinking they have effectively “ignored” the message.  They know that is relatively unimportant in the face to the sheer critical mass of thought about their product they want one to experience.  As long as you have visually and/or auditorily experienced the commercial, it has been registered as a thought and added to the ‘critical mass’ building toward changing a belief about the product.  The only way this doesn’t happen is if you leave the room during the commercial.  Advertisers have done the research, there is no mistake, they know what they are paying for.


Think of yourself as an advertiser, attempting to sell an idea to yourself.  The goal is to get yourself to actually “think” the new idea as much as possible.  How might you do this?  One of the easiest and most powerful ways to do this is to run the “commercial” for the new idea as many times as you can and in as many different ways as you can.  Let’s go back to our previous message: “Exercise feels better than relaxing on a couch.”  I don’t believe it yet, because I haven’t experienced the commercial enough times.  So first let’s devise the commercial.  Direct and to the point, the commercial is: “Exercise feels better than lying on the couch.  It produces endorphins, which are far more powerful and feel far better than what lying on the couch can produce.”  That is the message, simple and concrete.  I don’t even have to believe the commercial (just as we don’t have to believe the commercials we see on TV for them to work their magic), all I have to do is run the “commercial” as many times, and in as many different ways as I can, to me – the buyer.


So now we are down to the nitty-gritty, the “how” of changing a belief.  Take out a piece of paper and write down the phrase:  “Exercise feels better than lying on the couch.  It produces endorphins, which are far more powerful and feel far better than what lying on the couch can produce.”  (No, I don’t mean imagine doing so, do it, now.)  Okay, now write it down again: “Exercise feels better than lying on the couch.  It produces endorphins, which are far more powerful and feel far better than what lying on the couch can produce.” And again: “Exercise feels better than lying on the couch.  It produces endorphins, which are far more powerful and feel far better than what lying on the couch can produce.” Write it down 10 times, 20 times, 30 if you can.  Say it out loud, repeat it to anyone who will listen, repeat it to yourself in the mirror.  Add any supporting evidence you can think of, make your commercial more convincing: “It also prevents heart disease, diabetes, cancer, high-blood pressure, boosts the immune system.”  “It gives me more energy, burns fat, boosts the immune system.”  Write all these things down, say them to yourself, say them to a friend, say them in the mirror, record them on tape, play them back to yourself.  Use the same tactics that advertisers use to manipulate what you believe.


Make a plan to exercise tomorrow.  You plan to exercise instead of lying on the couch.  The very moment you catch yourself thinking of lying on the couch, get out your “commercial” for exercise and “play it” over and over again.  50 times, 100 times, play it until you are actually exercising.  Literally saturate your thinking with your commercial for exercise.  Advertisers would love to have every opportunity to saturate your thinking with their message.  Ever bitch about seeing the same commercials over and over?  Ever wonder why advertisers want the commercial repeated, over and over?  So use the exact same principles to sell your new ideas to yourself.


This is where 95% of folks who try to change something drop the ball.  They had the right intentions; it wasn’t the lack of desire; the lack of intelligence; or any of those things.  They simply fell short of “playing the commercial” enough times to build the new belief.  They thought “insight” was probably going to be enough, and therefore never assembled a “critical mass” of new thinking to rival the old and take a firm hold.


If you don’t believe me, then at least you might believe the advertising world, where billions of dollars are being spent aimed at changing what products you believe you should buy.  And if that doesn’t convince you, then take the challenge and see for yourself.  Here is the challenge: write, read, speak, hear, feel or experience your own “commercial for exercise” at least 100 times per day.  When you experience the temptation to skip your exercise routine, “play the commercial” some more, until you get up off the couch.  It is quantity of repetitions that you are after. 


I can personally read, out loud, the commercial - “Exercise feels better than lying on the couch.  It produces endorphins, which are far more powerful and feel far better than what lying on the couch can produce.” – in about 5 seconds.  This means that I can repeat it 360 times in 30 minutes.  I am asking you to take the challenge to devote less than ½ hour of your day to experiencing your own “commercial” for exercise.  I am not saying you should even begin exercising, yet, but what better way would there be to kill that ½ hour??


It is not some juvenile trick to get a person to exercise without realizing it.  Rather, it is a principle that advertisers have known for a long time, namely, the more that one can be induced to think about the desired behavior (however that can be accomplished) the closer one comes to actually performing the behavior.


Enjoy the commercial.



All Rights Reserved.  Copyright: October 2008.  Take Charge Counseling and Consulting. 

Author: Miles Nitz, MS, LMFT.