How to Make a Healthy Change Stick


What do Thomas Edison, Oprah Winfrey, and the Wright brothers have in common? They failed. Then, they tried again. Are previous failed resolutions keeping you from aiming for change this year?

Resolutions often fail because the date alone is the only impetus. Let this year be different. Identify and build upon the true reasons you want to grow, they’re the fuel for your change. Sure, January can be the spark plug, but focus on that fuel. Ready? Start your 2015 adventure now.

1. Identify what you want to change. Your goal must be specific, not just “I’ll control my anger,” or “I’ll lose weight.” Instead try, “I’ll stop raising my voice when my child disobeys,” or “I’m going to lose two pounds every month for a total of 10 by May.” Your goal also must be reachable and sustainable. Saving enough money to buy a house in six months or dropping 30 pounds in six weeks are unrealistic and will just set you up for frustration. Similarly, saying that you’ll go to the gym six days a week is no good if you’ll give it up after three weeks and then don’t go at all. Set a goal that you can reach and keep.

2. Now tell me why you want to do it. The desire to change has to come from deep inside of you, not your mom, not your coworker. You! Yael Melamed, a San Francisco-based psychotherapist and relationship expert says, “Intrinsic motivation tends to be the most sustainable. If you are doing something because someone else wants you to do it—without truly and deeply agreeing to it—resistance tends to surface. In other words, you are likely to find some way to sabotage the commitment when it feels forced, and less likely to do so when it genuinely comes from you.” Do you want to stop smoking because you want to see your grandchildren graduate from college? Do you want to lose weight to be a healthy role model for your child? Determine your motivation and write it down.

3. Identify the obstacles. While you may feel excited right now, life will get in the way. Some obstacles will be external (early school pick-up or bad weather) and some will be internal, such as the age-old patterns you’ve practiced all your life that are entrenched. Now, while you’re feeling inspired about the change, identify solutions to these obstacles to employ when you’re not as inspired. I like solutions that give you “no choice” too—like leaving an important item at the gym so you have to go there every day to get ready, having a workout buddy to keep you accountable or automatic settings to direct a portion of your income to savings, before you even see it.

4. Confirm the why (#2) is greater than the obstacles (#3). If not, go back to #1. Do not pass go. Revisit your choice and your motivations before you go any further to identify the driving reasons. You’ll need to have these to remember when your teen is yelling and you’re using every ounce of restraint to control your anger.

5. Break it down. Think actionable baby steps. “Save money” is too daunting and vague. Use, “I’ll replace my morning Starbucks with a cup from home,” or,  “I’ll bring my lunch three days a week.” Specific actions (give yourself a new one every week or two) will enable you to reach the much bigger goal. Try to make these steps fun and as much a part of your daily routine as possible. How do you make something a habit? Incorporate it into your daily life. Need help? Visualize yourself succeeding, Melamed says. “Visualization is an extremely powerful yet underrated tool. The most widely known picturing study comes out of the University of Chicago, demonstrating that if you visualize shooting basketball free throws, it is almost as beneficial to improving your free throw accuracy as actually shooting real shots. The results were 23% vs. 24%! You will give yourself a huge boost if you take five minutes a day to visualize yourself having accomplished your goal.”

6. Do a gut check. Are you willing to take the steps in #5? If not, go back to #4!

7. Quiet the critic. There will be times that you mess up. Try to quiet the criticizing voice and instead observe your behavior like an anthropologist would to understand what happened. Be kind towards yourself and gentle when you misstep. “One of the biggest hurdles that people face is a brutal inner critic. Self-loathing is paralyzing and draining. Think about all of the time and energy you spend beating yourself up. Now imagine using that energy to accomplish your goals instead. The Alcoholics Anonymous Program suggests that if you fall off the wagon in a moment, just focus on doing the next best thing. I think that is a great mantra,” Melamed says.

8. Celebrate! Just as I know you’ll criticize yourself when you miss a step, I know that alternatively you’ll probably forget to applaud your successes. Don’t forget to celebrate. Every little win, every baby step. This is the most fun part of it! Just like you plan your obstacles and their solutions; be sure to plan your celebrations. Change is hard work and deserves rewards both big and small.

“Change is not linear, nor is it easy. To facilitate transformation, neural pathways in your brain need to be rewired, which requires repetition. The good news is that our brains have plasticity, meaning that change does happen at the neural level,” Melamed says.

Like anything else, change takes time to master and inevitably involves stumbling at first. Thomas Edison had hundreds of light bulb fails. The Wright brothers crashed many planes. Oprah was fired from an early TV job. You are bigger than your prior stumbles. Make this the year that you prove it to yourself.

Special thanks to contributing psychotherapist Yael Melamed, an expert in relationships and personal growth.