10 Weeks to Wellbeing: Week 10 – Making Change Stick

[First published in my Irish Sunday Mirror wellbeing column, 16th Nov ’14.]

So here we are in the final week of our 10 Weeks to Wellbeing series! We began with the Wheel of Life exercise, to see how happy you were with different areas of your life, and then looked at Self, Health, Hobbies & Learning, Love Life, Career, Finances, Family & Social and Community & Environment. (If you missed any, you can read them all at www.dreamdolove.com.) If you’ve been following the series, you’ll have set yourself goals for each area – this week we’ll finish with looking at how to stay motivated and make change ‘stick’.

Soul Ambition logo and man with outstretched arms, rays of sunshine in the background

Motivation v Willpower

In their book Switch: How to change things when change is hard, Chip and Dan Heath talk about the rider, the elephant and the path. The rider’s your rational mind, the elephant is your emotional mind/heart and the path is your environment.

Whilst it’s easy to logically decide to change something, in reality, willpower is a very finite resource, and a lot of it gets sapped by just making decisions of whether to do something. (Think of the good intentions before bed of exercising the next day, and the argument you might have with yourself come the morning!)

So: create routines and processes. Repeating an activity creates new neural pathways in your brain, making your new behaviours automatic. Tweak your environment to make change easy – leave your gym gear by the bed the night before, organise your things to make them easy to find, clear unhealthy food out of temptation’s path, delete time-wasting apps from your phone, etc.

Then engage your ‘heart and mind’ by:

• Focusing on what’s working and doing more of that
• Visualising the positive outcome
• Imagining what would happen if you don’t make the change
• Imagining moving from the ‘bad’ to the ‘good’ and how that’s going to feel

The H Factor

You may have read in various places that it takes 21 days (or 28 days) to form a new habit – this idea may have come from Maxwell Maltz, a plastic surgeon in the 50s, who noticed that it took his patients about 21 days to get used to their altered appearances. Writing about his observations, he said a it took “a minimum of about 21 days for an old mental image to dissolve and a new one to jell”. He went on to write a blockbuster hit, and somewhere along the way, his message become over-simplified to ‘it takes 21 days to form a new habit’ – which is different from ‘a minimum of 21 days’! It of course varies from person to person, and circumstance to circumstance. A study by health researcher Philippa Lally and her team at University College London, published in the European Journal of Social Psychology1, examined the habits of 96 volunteers over a 12-week period. They found that the time taken for habits to form ranged from 18 to 254 days, with participants taking on average 66 days to form a new habit. So don’t give up too soon! Think about what might derail your changes, and how you’ll prevent those things, or deal with them.

Set goals with dates and times, but be flexible – life’s what happens when we make other plans, and often, pursuit of one goal teaches us that it’s actually a different goal we are truly inspired by. If you’re honest with yourself, you’ll be able to tell the difference between making excuses for not completing goals, or adapting them/dropping them for even better ones as you experience and learn.

Mentally rehearse the new habits and behaviours; get used to seeing yourself doing them in your mind’s eye. Then do them. And keep doing them. We become what we do.

Be honest with yourself about slips, but don’t beat yourself up for them; remind yourself you are moving in the right direction. (That UCL study showed that missing a single opportunity to perform a new habit didn’t do any harm to the formation of the new habit. Get back on the horse!) Be honest about what ‘your best’ is on a given day – don’t judge yourself too harshly. As Homer Simpson says, “Blame yourself once, then move on”!

As challenges and obstacles arise, find a solution and tweak what you’re doing to make that particular obstacle less likely to occur in future. Keep learning from failure and improving your solutions. And keep praising yourself for your efforts and your progress.

Keep on trucking’!

How do you keep going when you’re stressed or demotivated? Prioritise looking after your health, with good eating, sleeping and exercise habits, and make time to meditate and relax. The less time you think you have for meditation, the more you need it!

Try this simple mindfulness meditation exercise: Close your eyes and focus on your breath for just 3 minutes. Pay attention to where you feel the breath most, on the sound and sensation of the breath, in and out. If you get distracted, don’t judge yourself; just notice the distraction and return to the breath. Increase the time as it gets easier. (See this masterclass by Jon Kabat-Zin on YouTube.)

Keep reminders around you of what it is you’re aiming for. Vividly imagine yourself as you want to be to help your changes stick. See yourself being relaxed, purposeful, capable, etc.; dealing with tasks, talking to people, smiling, laughing and shrugging off difficulties.

Look at how far you’ve come, and give yourself credit – we often focus on what we haven’t achieved yet, and what we’re not doing so well. Keep a record of your achievements – both professional and personal – and use this to boost your spirits when you’re feeling a bit worn down. (This is also very handy when filling out application forms!)

Check the thoughts and beliefs you have about your situation – then choose better ones.
Remember that appreciation exercises have been shown to increase mental health. Appreciate what is working and what and who you have to be grateful for. (Look for people worse off, and perhaps for ways to help.)

Ask for help with your goals, from:

Friends & family
• Colleagues, boss, HR, Trade Union, etc
• Professionals – GP, free advice organisations, coaches, mentors, trainers, dieticians, etc
• Forums, support groups
• Books, websites, courses, webinars, podcasts
• Philosophical and/or spiritual resources

We’ve all got strengths, we’ve all got flaws, we can’t control everything, and we’re all learning as we go.

So have fun!


I’ll be spending the holidays writing my first book, incorporating everything covered in this 10 Weeks to Wellbeing series with even more info and ideas. Keep an eye here and on the Soul Ambition Facebook page. And if you’re interested in coaching sessions with me, check my testimonials page for client success stories, and get in touch.

Read Week: 1 – Wheel of Life | 2 – Self | 3 – Health | 4 – Hobbies & Learning | 5 – Love Life | 6 – Career | 7 – Finances | 8 – Family & Social | 9 – Community & Environment


1Lally, P. et al. (2009). How are habits formed: Modelling habit formation in the real worldEuropean Journal of Social Psychology. 

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2 Responses

  1. November 18, 2014

    […] Read Week: 1 – Wheel of Life | 2 – Self | 3 – Health | 4 – Hobbies & Learning | 5 – Love Life | 6 – Career | 8 – Family & Social | 9 – Community & Environment | 10 – Making Change Stick […]

  2. January 25, 2015

    […] alone. But willpower is a limited resource, and it weakens the more mental work we do. To make change stick, create healthy, supportive routines – so instead of arguing with yourself whether you […]

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