Select 2 or 3 self-help projects
For most of us, there is and always will be "plenty of room for self improvement." Looking over the problem check list (Table 2.1) may suggest a number of improvements you would like to make. In general, though, how do you know that you have a problem? Answer: in many ways, e.g. someone might say you do. You might take a test. You might simply recognize you are different from others, e.g. you take twice as long to do something as others do. You may have feelings you don't like, such as tension, anger, fear, boredom, etc. You may just wonder if you are "messed up" or being unreasonable. You may have goals you don't know how to reach. There are obviously lots of ways of concluding there is a problem. It might be wise to talk with others about how unusual or extreme your problem actually is. But make sure you are changing because you want to, not just because you want to conform to, to please, or to obey others.
Sometimes we are so busy playing or rebelling or just surviving, we haven't thought seriously about what we want. Reality therapists ask a good question for self-helpers: "Is what you are doing now really going to get you where you want to go in life?" If not, then they ask: "What do you need to start doing to get whatever you want out of life?"
After reviewing these possible self-improvements, remember: select only 2 or 3 self-help projects to work on at any one time. Probably one reason self-help methods are effective is because the self-helper singles out the problem, thinks carefully about possible solutions, makes specific concerted efforts to change every day, and records his/her progress. If you take on too many projects at one time, you dilute this concentrated attack.
What to do if you can't seem to get started on a self-improvement project
A body of research shows that there are a series of stages in changing. The best summary is Prochaska, DiClemente, & Norcross (1992) or Prochaska, Norcross & DiClemente (1994). In the first stage, I'll call it "avoidance," we just don't think about the problem, even though it is perfectly clear to others. Or, we may briefly wish to change but have no serious intentions or plans for changing. Often, we blame others for the problem and resist change or believe we can't do anything about it. We must move to the next stage, call it "contemplation," before we can begin to change. In this stage we become more aware of the problem and we think about changing, but we haven't definitely decided to do something about it yet. We may wonder if change is worth the effort; we should weigh the pros and cons of changing. Many people remain in this stage for a long time (smokers for an average of two years). To actually change, however, we must move to the next two stages of commitment, called "planning" and "action." When we make explicit plans, we have decided to take action soon. We may have already tried to change and want to try again. Ideally, we will not obsess too long with understanding the problem and developing a perfect treatment plan; it is important to actually start changing. In the "action" stage we stick with an effective plan until we reach our goals. The last stages are "maintenance," in which after making gains we do whatever is necessary to avoid relapse, and "termination."
When you realize that many decisions lie between the having-a-problem-but-not- admitting-it-stage and the I'm-going-to-change-myself-with-these-methods-stage, you begin to understand the extensive knowledge needed for self-control. You need to know the steps in change and the barriers to change; you also need to master many useful self-help methods, which include self-motivational techniques. Consider the massive numbers of us that can't get started changing. For instance, among smokers, it is estimated that only about 10% are ready to take action, 35% are in "contemplation," and 55% are in "avoidance." That accounts for 70% of smokers saying they would like to join a stop smoking program but only 3-5% actually signing up and taking action. The "no shows" had not prepared themselves for action yet. Just look around you, notice how many people are overweight and out of shape. Students want to study but don't get it done. They don't want to be that way; they just can't get themselves to the DO SOMETHING stage. You must honestly ask yourself if that isn't your problem too. Do you know some problem exists, but you just haven't decided to attack the problem directly and forcefully yet?
If so, then your first job is to get motivated and overcome your fears of changing. You need to decide for sure that a particular problem must be faced and conquered. You need to realize you may lose certain pleasures when you give up a bad habit. You may need to "psych yourself up." You may need encouragement. You certainly need to accentuate the positive reasons for changing. There is evidence that impulsive action on a self-help plan is likely to fail (1) if you do not have acute awareness of the probable benefits and losses, (2) if you try to change without an hopeful, exciting plan (including some faith in your ability to change), and (3) if you start without determination and a commitment to fully solving the problem. So, what can you do if you can't get started changing?
First, there may be a variety of barriers to change that need to be removed. For instance, many different kinds of fears stop us cold. Dennis O’Grady (1994) in How to Overcome the Fears of Changing mentions several: fears of the unknown (if you change) and of facing a new situation, fears of failure and of looking foolish, fears of commitment and of not wanting the changes you get, fears of disapproval and of criticism of what you become, and fears of success, increased responsibilities, and people thinking you are selfish or stuck-up. The book underscores that fears, such as self-doubts and self-criticism, like “I’ll fail,” kill the will to change. Likewise, a constant stream of mental “shoulds,” like “I should be doing better,” often disrupts rather than strengthens our efforts to improve. Dr. O’Grady recommends countering your fears of changing by thinking positively about the possible outcome and by increasing your self-esteem and confidence in your ability to self-direct. His and other “think positive” books/articles could help some people but when does it work?
Current wisdom says we get to action by learning more about the problem and about ourselves (e.g. how the bad habit harms us and how we profit from or need the problem, e.g. smoking helps us relax). Also, significant others may powerfully confront us about our problem: the kids say they want us to stop smoking and live longer or our lover hints that our rolls of fat are not real sexy. Serious thinking on our own about what kind of person we would like to be may also help us get to action, especially if self-discipline and personal growth are valued traits. Many people are inspired to try to change by talking to others, either others who have changed themselves or others who will listen and understand our gnawing self-dissatisfaction and desire to be better. These are just common sense ideas. The remaining limited "wisdom" we have now about getting ourselves ready to truly change is in Table 2.2. Surely we will soon learn more specifics about these crucial self-help steps (see Klar, Fisher, Chinsky, and Nadler  for a more academic discussion of the intention to seek self-change).
As mentioned before, you need to keep in mind: (1) we often need to make several attempts to change before we are successful. Either we try and fail (e.g. the smoker who says, "Quitting is easy! I've done it thousands of times!") or we work on only one part of the solution at a time, going through the stages with each successful self-help project. So, expect some difficulties. Indeed, a previous failure may have prepared you to succeed the next time. (2) Since we can effectively work on only a couple of problems at a time, and since most of us have many, many self-improvements we would like to make, it is only necessary to get "psyched up" about a couple of self-help projects at a time. Putting many projects "on the back burner" is okay, as long as you are working hard on your one or two really important current self-help projects.
Guard against misdiagnosis
WARNING: None of us is qualified to diagnose ourselves. A major concern is what if we misdiagnose our own problem. What if our headache is caused by a tumor instead of stress at work? What if our anxiety is caused by hyperthyroidism or hypoglycemia instead of feelings of inadequacy? What if our poor interpersonal relationships are caused by schizophrenia instead of shyness? What if our "highs" and irresponsible spending are the result of a mild manic-depressive disorder instead of simple "impulsiveness?" What if our depression is caused by PMS instead of our marriage? What if our marital problems are caused by unconscious childhood experiences instead of poor communication skills? What if our fear of knives is caused by an unconscious urge to kill ourself instead of merely being a fear reaction to knives?
We are dealing with very complex matters. Even the experts disagree and don't know much about the causes of many disorders. Therefore, it is absolutely essential that every self-diagnostician get a second opinion, especially when there are significant risks involved. If there is any threat to life, if you might have a serious emotional-mental disorder (this is hard to know), if you have a chemical dependency, if the problems could be caused or treated with physical-chemical means, or if you have tried for some time to make changes and failed, please seek professional help right away. As mentioned in Understandings 11 and 12, always get help making a diagnosis and treating a serious problem. See a physician and/or a psychologist.
On the other hand, it is obvious that many of the problems listed in Table 2.1 are psychological, requiring new habits, new skills or different ways of thinking, not surgery or drugs or therapy for a psychosis. It is also obvious that some of these problems may have existed for a long time without serious consequences; therefore, it may be quite reasonable, in these less serious areas, to try initially to change yourself without first seeking professional help. If you can change yourself without professional help, wonderful! If you can't, get help!
See the problem as a challenge and an opportunity
In spite of the warning just given, the evidence is clear (D'zurilla, 1986) that optimism is important. No one is going to be a self-helper unless he/she believes (1) the problem is solvable and (2) he/she is capable of solving it. If you believe you can change things, you will work on the problem sooner, harder, and longer. Where does this self-confidence come from? Largely from trying to change things and having some success (see chapter 14--helpful attitudes). It has been said, "Improving is catching! 50% of people who stop drinking also stop smoking." So, select something you can change and really want to change--and let's get on with it.