October 7

What real change looks like – Episode 9



In this episode I am going to talk about what real change looks like. In my work, at any one time, I tend to be working along a spectrum that contains 3 areas; 

1 Overcoming something – “I have a problem, I want it to go away”

2 Accepting something – “I can never switch off and be in the moment”

3 Optimising something – “Im good at this, I want to be better”

Along all areas, the commonality is you’re changing something. Now, as a busy professional at any one time you may be wanting to change your health, your fitness, your work schedule, your co-workers. We are all at different stages of in our career but what is consistent throughout is 2 things;

1 We want to change something

2 We are pretty rubbish at changing anything.


Do You Actually Want To Change?

Yet, before finding out what real change looks like, it is important to determine whether you actually want to change. 

You may think this is a no brainer. Yet, time and time again many feel they should change even though they have absolutely no desire to change at all. 

In the same way you know you shouldn’t watch another episode of whatever boxset you’ve been watching, there is a pull keeping you watching as the countdown hits zero to initiate the next episode. Just like that, “should” becomes “ok, this is the absolute last time”.

In order to work-proof your brain & body certain changes have to be made. Think about your working week as 30 minute blocks. This means there are 336 blocks of 30 minutes in your week. If you had someone following you around with a clipboard monitoring your activity, it is likely there will be recurring patterns;

  • You’d get up around the same time +/- 10 minutes
  • You’d have the same routine before starting your journey to work
  • Your journey to work will be the same each day
  • Your ritual of starting work will be the same
  • Your lunch period (if you have one) will be the same +/- 1 hour
  • Your journey home is likely to be the same
  • Your evening meals will be one of 4 common varieties you have regularly
  • The time you go to bed will be the same +/- 30 minutes.

It may burst your bubble if you saw yourself as unique in some way but the truth is we are creatures of habit. 


Creatures of Habit

Research suggests up to 45% of our daily activities are habitual. This is because new actions require energy and your brain doesn’t like using more energy than it needs to. When you create habits, less energy is required because they are actions you have repeated before.

To highlight this, think about a route you have taken on a number of occasions, by car or by foot. In your mind you have a blueprint of how that route is going to go and 9 times out of 10, this blueprint is carried out without bother or excess brainpower required. 

Now, think about that odd occasion where building works are going on, blocking your path. You are now faced with a decision; go back the way you came or think of an alternative route to your destination.

This may seem like a small inconvenience but your brain has had to use more brain power than normal. Given the choice your brain would rather not do this, so will happily carry out habitual behaviour rather than seeking novelty.

In terms of what real change looks like, talk is cheap; actions require extra brain power. This gives you a clue as to when you say you should change, it doesn’t mean you will change.


Why Many Don’t Change..Despite Wanting To

There are a number of examples where this plays out in health & fitness. In a review of weight loss programmes, researchers found over 50% of the group experienced between 5-10% loss in weight within 6 months. In a 5 year follow up they found over 50% had returned to their original weight.

In another study researchers followed 1200 overweight subjects who had just survived a heart attack. After 1 year the average weight loss was only 0.2% of their bodyweight, which in many cases would amount to just 1lb (0.4kg). 

A similar study looking at 9000 cancer survivors, only 1 in 20 were engaging in the 3 recommended activities; give up smoking, 5 servings of fruit & veg a day and regular physical activity.

The bare fact truth is, you want to know what real change is like? Real change can be hard and each person will have a different threshold of when change will happen. Staring death in the face won’t do it for some.

Why is this though? Well, a clue is how we seek gratification.

Delayed vs Instant gratification

Let me ask you a question? I can give you a £10 note now or wait a week and give you £15 instead. What would you choose?

Following that choice, let me ask you another question? I can give you £10 exactly a year from now or wait an additional week and get £15 instead. What would you choose now?

If you are like most people who have done this famous thought experiment you would have taken the £10 in the first instance, but opted for the £15 in the second scenario. 

This is an example of delayed vs. instant gratification (or delay discounting in psychology) and plays a large part in your potential for change.

Lessons From the Marshmallow experiment

The experiment is a play on the even more famous ‘marshmallow experiment’ which placed a marshmallow in front of a primary school child and asked them not to eat the marshmallow. If they succeeded they could have a second marshmallow 15 minutes later. Through a CCTV camera, researchers could observe the pains the child would go through to avoid eating the marshmallow.

The interesting thing about this experiment was when the researchers followed up the children decades later and found a significant number who successfully avoided eating the marshmallow found to be more successful in career and income. 

Additionally, a more recent study used computer learning to rank other variables such as age, gender, geographic location along with the result of the money test described in the last paragraph. They found the result of the money experiment was a better predictor of the participants income than the other variables.

When you think about what real change is like; changing your eating habits, physical inactivity, your response to stress at work; you are doing something new to the status quo. 

Turning change into the new normal IS  the delayed gratification while reverting back to the current way of doing things is the instant gratification. Not because you enjoy the current way of doing things but because it is familiar and familiar is always the first choice when the alternative is not clear or purposeful.

The trick to making change that lasts then is being able to delay gratification and mitigate the temptation of reverting back to old behaviours.

Deep Level Change – Identity

Let’s take one factor common within the modern workforce; physical inactivity. It’s been said, a predictor of having a habit of exercise is the extent to which a drive for exercise is internalised in your identity.

Simply, whether you see yourself as someone who exercises or not.

The big factor in that last sentence is ‘whether you see yourself’. As a personal trainer I tend to have 3 types of clients; 

  1. Those who are already active but want to get better (in fitness or event)
  2. Those who are injured and want more help rehabbing
  3. Those who have been sporadic or never gym types but now recognising a change in their body (weight, increased injury, lethargic) 

Those in the 3rd category are the one who can find change the most challenging. A common statement they will tell me is “I’ve never seen myself as the exercise type”, “I’ve tried in the past, but it never stuck”. 


See yourself as Changed

In order for the drive for exercise (or healthy eating, or managing stress in an efficient way) to be internalised in your identity, you have to see yourself as being a person who does exercise.

For example, in a study involving older adults, it was found those who identified strongly with physical activity reported higher levels of physical activity (no surprise) and confidence in  their ability to maintain physical activity even among setbacks, such as bad weather (a common excuse for forgoing exercise).

This can appear in your language. When you say “I know I should be healthier” it provides a different effect than “I am being healthier” or “I am healthy”. A lot of times we don’t notice the effect of our own communication on ourselves. Yet, it plays a large part in maintaining our identity. 

Identity is influenced by our experiences and the people we associate with on a regular basis. For example, even though rates of smoking are declining, a child is much more likely to smoke in teenage & adulthood if their parent’s smoke. Similarly, you are more likely to be overweight or obese in adulthood if you parents were also overweight and obese.

Your identity plays a large part in your behaviours, habits and outlook in the world. It will influence what you decide to do each day and whether you believe something is possible. You may want to run a marathon, but whether you think you can do it will determine if you pursue it or not. 

This idea can blunt your potential your whole life. Unless the idea ‘I am not into exercise’ or ‘I don’t look after my health’ is blunted, it can plague you permanently. 

There is a silver lining. These ideas are not fixed. Your identity can change given the right environment and change in thinking structures. 


The Longevity Experiment

One of the best examples of this was a study conducted by psychologist Ellen Langer. In 1981, 8 men in their 70’s were shuttled off to a house to stay for 5 days. All the men were as you would expect from living a full life; still breathing but some arthritic while others requiring a walking stick. 

Before they entered the home each participant was measured for dexterity, grip strength, flexibility, hearing and vision, memory and cognition. 

There was something special about the house these 8 men would be staying in; Everything from the decor to what was playing on the radio was from the 1950’s. Ellen Langer wanted to create a timewarp for these 8 men to see what effect it would have. The 8 men were told not just to play along, but to be the men they were 22 years ago. This didn’t just extend to their own mindset, they were also treated as they would be 22 years ago; namely, they would be given very little assistance. 

After the 5 days the men were tested again and the results were extraordinary. Compared to the control group who stayed at same house earlier but were told to reminisce, the 8 men outperformed in several measures including dexterity and suppleness. Even their eyesight improved. Ellen Langer noted she even left some findings out of her study write up, such as the spontaneous game of touch football, for fear it would be rejected by the journal. 

This study is evidence that a large part of what real change is like is how you “see yourself”.


Are You ready to change?

A couple of years ago, a client came to me wanting to lose weight. About 10 minutes into our initial consultation she proclaimed “So basically, I want to lose this weight but I don’t want to change anything I do”.

As you can clearly see, this is the equivalent of standing in a rain storm and saying “I want to stop getting wet but don’t want to go inside”. This along with similar declarations of prospective clients in the past has led me to conclude;

Many want change. They want to know what real change is. BUT…not all are ready to change

A widely accepted model of behaviour change was created in the 80’s by researchers looking into the area of alcoholism. James O. Prochaska and Carlo C. DiClemente formed the transtheoretical model (TTM) with the theory that, at any given time, you are in one of 5 stages of change;


Stage 1 – Precontemplation

This could be described as a stage of apathy or willing acceptance of your situation. You may have tried numerous diets in the past and concluded that “nothing can be done for me”. You have no conscious intention of changing even if you think you should do more. Precontemplation tends to be the stage you are at if you have no intention of changing over the next 6 month. Some research has suggested a ‘rule of thumb’ estimate that 40% of at-risk health populations would fall into the precontemplation stage.


Stage 2 – Contemplation

In the contemplation stage, a threshold has been met where you desire to change has come to the forefront. You intend to make a change over the next 6 months (you’re not quite on the home straight yet though). In my area of personal training, this would be the stage where an individual may start browsing around to see what personal training is available in their area.

In the contemplation stage you are aware your current state is causing problems and want to do something about it. This is the stage where you’ve had enough of having constant back pain or recognise your growing waistline is only going to lead to more problems.

This might also be the stage where mental blocks come into the fray. Smokers may want to quit but concerned about weight gain as a consequence, you want to lose weight but are concerned about all the work travel you’ll be doing over the next 6 weeks, you want to sort out your back pain but is it just a sign of aging? 

To move onto the next stage, these mental blocks don’t need to be completely obliterated but the desire to change needs to be greater than the rationale for not starting.


Stage 3 – Preparation

At this stage, you believe your back pain (or stress, or weight gain) can be a thing of the past. You are fully charged and ready to go about making a change to your health. You’ve got yourself a personal trainer, processed food aren’t getting anywhere past your front door and you’ve bought yourself some new trainers. 

One of the most important aspects of this stage is anticipating obstacles. Blinded by the overdose of motivation that comes in the beginning stages of change, you can fall into trap of expecting/hoping the path to change is smooth and trouble free. 

It’s unlikely to be the case. In your mind the habits that solidify your current situation (high stress, weight gain, aching joints) are stronger than the behaviours required for change. The temptation to respond in the old way is great, which is why it is important to anticipate problems before they are staring you in the face.

If you are a snacker, you know having crisps and sweets near by will entice snacking behaviour. If you regularly experience back pain, what do you need to set up to avoid long bouts of sitting down at your desk? If you want to exercise before you go to work, what do you need to prep to make the process as easy as possible?


Stage 4 – Action

In stage 4,  you’ve experienced change; you’ve lost weight, your back feels looser and you have successfully been using your stress management strategies. 

However, whilst changes have been made, you have changed just yet. One of the things I say to new weight loss clients is, the new most perilous times when looking to looking to lose weight is at the very beginning (if no game plan has been initiated) and just after your first signs of success (scales show you’ve lost weight). The reason for the latter is this can prompt a declining of motivation and subtle introduction of the habits you wish to change (bouts of physical inactivity, snacking on sweets etc).

It is important in this stage to remind yourself why you are making changes and recognising when you are doing the behaviours that will lead to permanent change. Setbacks and relapses are more common than reported in success stories. In one study of exercise relapse 7135 YMCA members it was found 81% relapsed over the year. A relapse was defined as not exercising for 7 consecutive days.

When these setbacks inevitably occur, it will be your committed to change and clarity of why you are changing that will get you back on track.


Stage 5 – Maintenance

Stage 5,  you’re a rock star. You’ve achieved something many never get to; explicitly changing an aspect of your behaviour & habits. This tends to be achieved after 6 months of regularly adopting new behaviours and ways of being. Triggers associated with old habits may still be present and there is still a chance of you retreating to old ways but you are now starting to think and behave in a new way without effort (otherwise known as habit). 

These 5 stages are not set in stone and it is possible you won’t always logically move forward on a trouble free path to change. For example; yo-yo dieting is an experience familiar with many. It is a pattern that involves moving from stage 1-4 before looping back again. Due to yo-yo dieting being so common, it is suggested that dieting doesn’t work. On the contrary, as the transtheoretical model shows, it is more the case the foundation hasn’t been set for stage 5 to be achieved; having ways of counteracting old triggers and regularly adopting the new habits that enable you to remain at a consistent new weight.

Whatever stage you feel you are at, all change starts with a commitment you are prepared to do something different.

Once that commitment has been made, the path to change becomes a series of actions done repetitively until they become habit.

Are you ready for change? If you could change one thing what would it be right now? I’ll leave you with that thought until the next episode.





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