For basic information about changing your behavior, it is best to start with chapters 2 and 4. Chapter 2 outlines the steps in any self-help project. Chapter 4 helps us understand our behavior and thoughts. It introduces the basic learning and motivational concepts, upon which the methods described here are based. This chapter provides straight-forward, detailed instructions for 20 behavior-changing methods. More complex treatment plans for problems are given in chapters 3 to 10; this chapter only deals with level I of the problem, the overt behavior and simple thoughts.
As discussed in chapter 2, much has to be done before you are ready to work on developing a self-help plan. For example, you must accept and become aware--highly conscious--of your problem. You must definitely decide to change and get motivated to do the work involved in changing. As Prochaska, Norcross, and DiClemente (1994) have shown, if you aren't ready to launch into a self-change project, you must start in the stage you are at (e.g. facing the problem and/or learning enough about it and its consequences that you are determined to change). When you are exploring specific ways to make the changes in your life you want to make, it is time to skim these methods. If three or four seem of possible interest, read them in more detail and select one or two for your plan. Don't forget the other four parts of your problem (see chapter 2).
If you don't know which methods to start with, try methods #1, #2, and #16 first. They are useful in almost any situation. A combination of self-help behavioral methods is often the most effective approach you can take. For instance, a popular writer, Anthony Robbins (1991), suggests first getting motivated to change by associating as much pain as possible with the unwanted behavior or with not changing. At the same time, associate as much pleasure or rewards as possible with changing, i.e. with the new desired behavior or lifestyle (methods #5, #13, #14, #16 & #18 and see chapter 14). This emphasizes that when you need to stop or disrupt the old unwanted pattern of behavior (methods #10, #11 & #12), you must be sure to develop new desirable ways of getting the same pay offs as were provided by the old unwanted behaviors (method #2). The new behavior must be practiced and reinforced strongly (method #16 again) until it is well entrenched as a habit. This motivate-and-reinforce-a-new-behavior plan usually works, but if it doesn't, you need an individualized plan. Just as important as the scientific basis of your self-change plan is the do-ability of your plan; an intellectually impressive treatment plan is worthless if it isn't used. The to-be-learned behavior needs to fit in with the rest of your life; it needs to be simple enough to do routinely; it needs to be something you can learn to enjoy.
Within each of the following descriptions of behavior-change methods, the basic idea is first described, then possible uses are listed, but the "meat" of this chapter is in the detailed, explicit steps for applying the method in your life. There are also brief discussions of the time and common problems involved in using the method, as well as a cursory assessment of the effectiveness of the method and the risks involved. Each method is outlined in the same way. Useful references are cited at the end of most methods. Much of the practical information about using each method comes from the experiences of my 3,000 students who attempted to make some important change in their life.
ANTECEDENTS: SELF-HELP METHODS USED PRIOR TO THE "TARGET"BEHAVIOR
Changing the environment
The environment has a powerful influence on subsequent behavior. Many of our responses are automatic: we drive with effortless attention to the road and lights, we take notes in class without thinking about how to write (or what was said, sometimes). In the long run the frequency of these behaviors may depend on the consequences (the payoffs for driving or writing), but at any one moment it is primarily the stimuli in the environment that control our behavior.
Some stimuli are compelling: a ringing telephone! Can you let it ring? Other such stimuli are an attractive person going by, someone talking about us, messages or sounds of alarm, and so on. All of us have habits that occur at certain times and places--we brush our teeth every morning before showering, watch the evening news during supper, etc., etc. Environmental and internal stimuli set off these habitual responses.
In classical conditioning, stimuli produce an immediate response. For example, Schachter (1971) demonstrated that obese people respond to external cues, such as the sight or smell of food or any reminder that "it's lunch time," rather than to internal messages from an empty stomach. The best way to avoid overeating is to avoid food or any reminder of food. Likewise, for any other temptation! "Out of sight, out of mind."
In operant conditioning, the environment guides our behavior by providing cues about the probable payoffs. For example, when initially interacting with an attractive person of the opposite sex, most of us are keenly aware of how they are responding to us; we look for signs that they are interested in, amused by, or attracted to us. We adjust our behavior, becoming more "friendly" or pulling away, according to how we read their signals. Likewise, we are using antecedent cues any time we are observing the situation and trying to figure out "what to do" (which means trying to predict what the consequences will be). As self-helpers we are able to alter the consequences somewhat by providing special rewards and punishment--and we can alter our view of the consequences, emphasizing important values and long-range goals which might otherwise be overlooked.
In modeling, we learn specific ways of behaving in certain situations or what the consequences are likely to be if we act a certain way in a situation. Again, the environment is influencing our actions.
It is said "the road to hell is paved with good intentions," meaning that announced intentions are often useless and not believed. The bad reputation of intentions is not entirely deserved. Science shows that intentions are somewhat related to later behavior, but only modestly (Gollwitzer, 1999). Good intentions account for only about 20%-30% of the variance in the desired behavior. Of course, strong intentions have more influence than weak intentions but strong and weak often fail. Fortunately, research, as summarized by Gollwitzer, demonstrates several ways to increase the power of the environment to implement our intentions. Step 4 spells out these methods which use self-instructions to strengthen the stimulus-response connection. The process is called "implementation intentions" and has some obvious similarity to self-instructions as described in the next method.
Thus, within the change-the-environment method there are two basic techniques for self-control: (1) avoiding situations that lead to unwanted behavior and (2) providing stimuli that prompt desired behavior.
- To decrease the frequency of undesirable responses. Examples: over-eating, procrastinating, "bad" habits, irritability, self-criticism, etc.
- To increase the frequency of desired responses. Examples: doing chores, studying, being understanding, being assertive, etc.
- Incidentally, the environment has the same kind of effect on emotions as on behavior (see chapter 12).
STEP ONE: Recognize the "bad" environment.
This may be easy--rich, delicious food surrounding the dieter, friends urging the budding alcoholic to get drunk or the budding scholar to "have some fun," or the discussion of certain topics that lead to arguments, and so on.
It may not be so easy--habits like smoking or nail biting tend to occur without your awareness, but certain conditions encourage these habits. The stimulus for avoidance responses, such as shyness, may not be obvious; indeed, there may not be any external event, only a fleeting thought that you will have to carry on a conversation if you go to lunch with co-workers. Your avoidance (because it reduces stress) may occur almost unconsciously, yet the environment provides cues for you to withdraw. Method #9 will help you discover the stimuli controlling your behavior.
STEP TWO: Avoid situations that lead to unwanted actions. Provide warning signs. Break the chain early.
We can either avoid an environment entirely or change parts of it so that it is less likely to produce the unwanted behavior. Examples: if a group of friends push you to do things you'd rather not do, avoid them. If you and your parents frequently argue about a certain topic, steer the conversation away from that topic.
Thoughts and fantasies are frequently triggers for our actions. Thus, dwelling on temptations, as we found out in chapter 4, makes it harder to resist. Depressive or angry thoughts may give rise to unwanted actions. Thoughts can be stopped or changed to be more constructive.
Providing warning signs certainly changes the environment. Examples: a timer set to ring after one hour of TV viewing, a medical picture of cirrhosis of the liver placed on the refrigerator door as one gets out his/her second beer, a picture of a gruesome accident stuck on the steering wheel until the seat belt is fastened.
It is also helpful to recognize that many unwanted behaviors are the outcome of an easily recognized series or "chain" of behaviors. Each step along the chain of events serves as the stimulus for the next step. Examples: Over eating, getting drunk, getting in an argument, having an affair, etc. For instance, to gorge on cake and ice cream at home, one has to go to the store, pick up the fattening food, pay for it, store it at home, prepare it, and eat much more than needed. To have an affair, there is usually a series of events: one would approach an attractive person, make an effort to impress him/her, suggest lunch or a drink, talk about personal matters, do enjoyable things together, indicate an attraction to the other person, touch each other, go where you can be alone, be affectionate, get undressed, and "make love." Obviously, if one wants to avoid an affair, a person had better avoid the first few steps because it gets harder to stop the further along the chain one goes. That is, "break the chain early!" Otherwise, one is beyond self-help! The early steps become the warning signs to stop. Method #4, relapse prevention, gives the details for coping with temptations and compulsions.
STEP THREE: Provide cues or environments that prompt desired behavior.
The simplest rule is to "put yourself in the right place at the right time." The procrastinating student has a much greater chance of doing his/her homework if he/she is in a library rather than in front of the TV. The flabby, winded couch potato is more likely to work out if he/she is in a gym rather than about to fall asleep in an overstuffed chair at home. The lonely teenager is more likely to make friends playing sports or joining a club than playing with his/her video games at home.
Hodgson and Miller (1982) describe a 42-year-old businessman with a drinking problem, mainly, before supper and near bedtime. So, they rearranged his schedule. He either ate immediately upon arrival home or did something else that avoided drinking before supper (going shopping, visiting, playing with children). He ordinarily didn't drink after supper until 9:00 P.M. or so. So, every night at 9:00 instead of drinking, he was scheduled to exercise, meditate, or have an intimate conversation with his wife (without alcohol). After about a month, with help from his wife, this rigid schedule became an enjoyable, healthy, easy routine.
As illustrated in this case, one of the more obvious means of structuring your environment is by using a schedule, a to-be-done-list, or a contract (see method #16). Making up a realistic daily schedule is, first of all, an opportunity to carefully consider what is the best use of our time in light of our values and long-range goals. Secondly, a carefully prepared schedule is a good memory aid and can guide much of our actions (see chapter 13).
Reminders can initiate desired behavior. Examples: Signs can remind us to exercise or give a compliment or express our affection for a loved one. Put the signs where you won't overlook them--on your lunch bag, on your coffee cup, on your mirror, etc. Timers or alarms or dependable behaviors can be used as signals, e.g. set an alarm as a reminder to clean up or do the dishes, use coffee drinking or going to the water fountain as a reminder to take 15 minutes for relaxation, use smoking or looking at your watch as a cue to say something positive about yourself to increase self-esteem (write "I'm OK" on the watch crystal).
Making a public commitment, e.g. to lose weight, to contribute more to meetings, or to start telling more jokes, provides considerable motivation.
It is crucial that we remember that other people make up a vital part of our "environment." So, don't just think of the physical setting, think of changing other people's responses which will, in turn, encourage desired responses in us. Example: it is easy to tell the student to go to the library; getting there is the problem. The detailed steps involved in getting to the library may include (1) finding a friend who does or will go to the library regularly, (2) asking to study with this friend, and (3) reinforcing the friend for being a good study partner who reinforces you (Brigham, 1982). Throughout this book we find that our behavior is a result of "the company we keep." We can change our friends and/or find different friends.
STEP FOUR: Implementation intentions: Mental preparations that increase the effectiveness of environmental cues to prompt desired behavior.
As discussed in chapter 2, goals are usually more helpful if they are (a) are very specific (time, place, and exact behavior) rather than vague, (b) are in the near future, not distant, (c) involve learning desired behaviors rather than evaluating of how well you are doing, and (d) lead to positive outcomes instead of reducing negative behaviors. Once the desired goals are in mind and committed to, i.e. you have "intentions," this step helps you turn them into actions. Rather than using self-instructions to guide yourself through to your goal (as described in the next method), this approach uses self-instructions to strengthen the connections between specific environmental situations and specific desired/intentional behaviors. This is done by deciding in advance when there may be good opportunities to perform the desired goal-directed behaviors. Then you give yourself instructions that prime the specific situation to elicit a specific response, e.g. "as soon as I get home this evening and change clothes, I will start to walk... jog... exercise... swim...". This emphasizes the positive goal behaviors while avoiding the competing old bad habits, distractions, and unwanted behaviors. This and the following few paragraphs are summaries of a well documented article by Gollwitzer (1999).
Not all desired behaviors can be pre-planned at specific times and places. Suppose you want to tactfully mention to your husband that most of his pants are out of style and too tight. By having some thoughts earlier in the day ("pre-deciding") about commenting "let's look for some new pants for you, honey" while having a good time shopping together that afternoon, you make it much more likely that you will think of it at an appropriate time and do it in an effective way. To some extent in this method the burden of self-control is shifted from your conscious mind to an automatic perceptual process--now when the appropriate shopping situation arises, it reminds you to make the comment you have previously rehearsed.
Likewise, implementation intentions can be designed to catch a fleeting opportunity. Examples could be: "when I see a black man, I'll be friendly, not suspicious" or "whenever I meet an old person... someone with a strong southern accent... a homeless person... an oriental person..., I'll try to avoid stereotyping them." "When someone makes a sexist or critical remark, I will question the validity of their comment." Your responding becomes faster and easier, needing less conscious effort like a well established habit.
If you are having trouble beginning a hard-to-start project, research has shown that working out in advance specific ways of implementing your intentions will more than double your chances of getting going. One impressive example is from Milne, Orbell, and Sheeran (1999) who worked with patients with heart disease in an effort to get them to follow doctor's orders. They found that a motivational/health benefit educational program, which focused on building self-confidence in health care matters, teaching ways to reduce vulnerability to heart disease, and emphasizing the importance of exercise, increased compliance with doctor's directions by only 10%, from 29% to 39%. However, when the educational program was augmented by the development of explicit implementation intentions by each patient, the rate of compliance jumped up to 91%! Much earlier studies had also shown that telling people the dire consequences of smoking or not brushing or refusing inoculation shots didn't work well. The message is much more effective if a person also makes a commitment (to others and to him/herself) to carry out specific healthy behaviors at a specific time and place--an implemented intention.
If you tend to get distracted from your good intentions, say working or studying, it may be more helpful to tell yourself in advance to "ignore the distraction" rather than to say "just re-double your efforts." If you are already motivated, you can't add much drive but you can reduce your distraction. Also, when you face a known bad habit, like gorging on junk food in the evening, it can help to think at supper time "I will eat this gorgeous peach instead of the usual chips & dips... candy... ice cream... cookies... etc., if I get hungry this evening." This kind of advanced thinking/planning of desired behavior can be used in so many situations, e.g. to counter an angry retort, to stifle your own prejudiced thought/feeling/remark, and so on. Perform this new intended behavior often enough, it becomes a habit and you become a better person.
STEP FIVE: Practice responding faithfully to the stimuli you have arranged in your environment and to the situations implementing your intentions.
You must heed your plans, warning signs, prompting cues, schedules, and the stimulus situations you have designated to activate some wanted behavior. Faithfully avoiding situations that lead to unwanted outcomes is also important. Keeping records and rewarding your successes will also help. If you find yourself disregarding the signs, cues, schedules, and your best of intentions, learn and practice the new desired behavior still more (Method #2), avoid or reduce the distracting habits, add more reinforcement for the desired behavior (Method #16), and study more deeply the causes and needs underlying the compelling disruptive behavior.
Only a few minutes will probably be necessary to make up a sign or a schedule for the day. It takes awareness and good intentions to avoid certain situations but ordinarily not much time. The "programming" of implementation intentions takes only a few minutes but it has to be done in advance of getting into the action-initiating circumstances. So, like the other techniques in this section, advanced planning is required.
Common problems with the method
Most unwanted behavior occurs because we, in part, want it to occur and put ourselves in situations where it is hard to avoid. The would-be dieter has more than 1200 calories of food on hand; the smoker has a whole pack on him/her instead of just 5 cigarettes. Likewise, desired behavior occurs when we are in the right place. Recognizing the power of the environment to control our behavior and providing a variety of reminders can help, but we may frequently ignore the warning signs or prompting cues. If so, soon we won't even bother to put the signs up or we won't bother to go to the "right" place. The usual difficulty with the implementation of our intentions is that we don't take the time to plan and make the mental connection in advance between a specific situation and a specific behavior.
Changing the environment is one of the best method of self-control you have; it is simple, safe, effective, and quick. The disadvantage is that we are frequently unable to impose the method on ourselves--we "forget," cheat, give up, "change our minds," or decide to start changing tomorrow. In that case, perhaps more reminders and rewards for doing the desired behavior are needed and/or more punishment for neglecting the signs. Nevertheless, it is one of the best self-help methods. The laboratory experiments done with implementation intention suggest it is quite effective in that setting; how it does in ordinary life is yet unproved but more practical research is being done.
Watson and Tharp (1972) are good; see their chapter 9. The more radical behaviorist, contrary to what one might expect, places more emphasis on changing the environment than on self-reinforcement (Brigham, 1982). Birkedahl (1990) is a cognitive-behaviorist. See a new book by Gollwitzer, P. M., Schaal, B., Moskowitz, G. B., Hammelbeck, H. J. P. & Wasel, W. (1999) about reducing stereotyping and prejudice.
Several years ago a junior in my class wanted to make three self-improvements: study more, spend less time in "bull sessions," and use fewer drugs. He proposed changing his environment to solve all three. I thought that was too simple; that he should reward the desired behavior, learn better study skills, make out a schedule, use punishment or covert sensitization, etc. He decided to do it his way.
He lived in a fraternity house, where it was difficult to study. So, he planned to go to the library after supper until 10:00 P.M. Sunday through Thursday. He still had time after 10:00 for bull sessions with his brothers. On Friday or Saturday night he had a date; on the other night he partied with his drug-using friends.
Most of his friends accepted these changes (the heavy drug users "became less friendly"), after he explained. He found it satisfying to study, indeed, he met a girl there who also enjoyed studying. His grades went from C's to A- that semester. He spent about $12.00 less per week on drugs and alcohol. Last I heard, he had just started practicing law in his home town.