Changing behaviours – what I learned (part 2)

Part 2: How to make changes

In the first part of this blog I talked about setting myself a challenge of using my bike every day for a week, in order to change my ‘transport habits’, and what I learned from that experiment. Now I’m going to explore what makes changing behaviour hard, and offer some tips that might help.

Why is it difficult to change behaviours?

Negative motivation: Take a moment to consider your own process when you plan to change something. Do you focus on the benefits? Or are there lots of ‘shoulds’ and ‘oughts’ that come into play? Usually when I think about doing things differently, it goes something like “I shouldn’t be doing X” or “I need to be better at Y” and there’s quite a punitive quality about it.

How can I change my habits? - East Lothian counselling

As an article by David DiSalvo says “Negative emotion may trigger us to think about everything we’re not doing, or feel like we’re doing wrong, but it’s horrible fuel for making changes that stick.” We need to find positive reasons to want to make the change rather than chasing ourselves with a big stick.

Oversized targets: Another problem is that we often set our aims unrealistically high or have huge but vague targets. The classic one is gym membership – forking out hundreds of pounds in an effort to shame or punish ourselves into getting more exercise or getting fit. 3 spinning classes in the first week after New Year, yeah! we feel great with how well we’re doing – then something happens that interrupts that momentum, we have a week off and then beat ourselves up for failing at ‘change’.

How can I change my habits? - East Lothian therapy

It becomes an all-or-nothing belief, and as ‘all’ is an unfeasibly large goal we pretty soon end up with nothing. The smaller the steps, the better, when it comes to making changes, because even small steps move you forward; there’s a better chance of small changes sticking; and ‘mony a mickle maks a muckle’ (translation for non-Scots: lots of little things add up to big things).

How can I change my habits? - counselling online

Life challenges: Let’s not ignore that there may be additional factors which we have no control over. Changing to a healthier lifestyle when you’re a lone parent struggling to make ends meet and are trying to hold down 3 jobs, or when you grew up in poverty and neglect, or when you’ve survived civil war and have arrived in the UK and are fighting for your right to stay…….the odds are stacked against you. The impact of the environment you’re in is sometimes ignored in the individual-centred world of psychotherapy. It’s important not to discount the role that society and inequality play in our having control over our lives.

Habits: We tend to think we can ‘just make’ a change – mind over matter, perhaps – rather than thinking about the factors that support that change or prevent it. Remember what I said in the first part of this blog about my biggest learning being to make it easy? We are creatures of routine and habit, so no matter how firm our intentions are, once we slip into the daily routine it’s difficult to remember those intentions.

How can I change my habits? - online therapy

This is where planning and using reminders or alarms come in. Telling people what we’re doing and asking for their support can help too – rather than trying to do it all alone in the hope that we can then suddenly explode like a new-born butterfly in all our radiant changedness.

Stages of change

Prochaska and DiClemente introduced the Stages of Change Model in the 1970s to help understanding of what happens during the process of change. The model splits change into six stages:

  • Stage 1: Precontemplation. At this point I am in denial about there being a problem, or about believing that I have control over my behaviour; “this is just how things are”. Sometimes people come to therapy at this point because they know something needs to change but they’re not sure what.
  • Stage 2: Contemplation. I’m aware that there are benefits to making a change – but I’m also aware of the costs, so I have conflicted emotions about changing. In order to gain the benefits, be they physical or emotional, something will need to be given up, and this in itself can mean that this stage lasts for a long time.
  • Stage 3: Preparation. I’m experimenting with doing things differently in small ways and gathering information about what I need in order to make the change. For change to be successful, this stage needs to be given time in order to find or build supports and decide on specific goals before throwing yourself into action.
How can I change my habits? - online therapis
  • Stage 4:  Action. I start direct action towards my goal. But did I spend enough time contemplating the change and preparing for it? Any positive steps taken at this point need to be reinforced by congratulation and reward to maintain the movement towards lasting change.
  • Stage 5: Maintenance. Having made changes, I’m avoiding reverting to former patterns of behaviour and continuing to reward myself for keeping up new ones. This stage takes time, and will be interwoven with…..
  • Stage 6: Relapse. Inevitably, I’m only human, and I relapse into previous behaviour. I’m pissed off and disappointed with myself. The key with relapse is to accept that it is inevitable and to use it to learn for next time – what triggered the relapse? What might help manage this trigger in future? This is a good opportunity to return to the preparation stage, especially if this was rushed through.

Is now the right time to make a change?

I’m very aware that it was relatively easy for me to try something different when I did; my circumstances at that time meant that I had some time to play around with – and so the last thing I want is for this to sound like I’m implying that changing behaviour is easy, or even that I’m particularly good at it! Context made it possible.

How can I change my habits? - phone counselling

So it’s important to notice what may be going on around you that makes changing behaviour difficult – environment, friends, a challenging personal situation, poverty. That’s part of the precontemplation and contemplation stages.

But it’s also important to be aware that there is never going to be a ‘perfect’ time to change behaviour. Perhaps you can look at the reality of the behavioural change that you want to make and see if it can be broken down into smaller, more achievable – more affordable, simpler, whatever – chunks. Preparation. Then do it – and remember that relapse is part of the deal.

Ten tips to help you make and maintain a behavioural change

1. Set small and specific goals
Tips to behavioural change - Lucy Hyde online therapist

Notice I say SMALL and specific. What’s small for one person may not be for another. My goal of using my bike every day was achievable for me that week because of circumstances. “I’m going to get more exercise” isn’t specific…… but rather than “I’m going to walk to and from work every day” you could start with “I’m going to get off the bus 5 minutes early and walk the rest of the way 3 times a week”.

2. Accept that you will relapse

Hold this in mind right at the start.

Tips to behavioural change - Lucy Hyde online counsellor

Being aware that, at some point, you will have a relapse in behaviour will enable you to be more forgiving of yourself when this happens, instead of thinking “I’m useless at this, I knew I’d never be able to do it”. Relapses help you learn what you could do differently next time.

3. Set times to review

Do you need to change the goals?

Tips to behavioural change - Lucy Hyde counsellor in Edinburgh

Make an appointment with yourself at the end of each week to check how you’ve done, and to notice what has been difficult. Maybe your goal was too big and you need to scale it down; succeeding with a small goal is more motivating than failing with a big one. You can always raise the bar later.

4. Consider how you’ll reward yourself
Tips to behavioural change - Lucy Hyde counsellor in East Lothian

Positive motivation for change is more successful than beating yourself up for failure, as mentioned earlier. Think of a reward that you’ll enjoy but that won’t conflict with your goals (i.e. don’t give yourself a junk food reward for eating healthily!) – buy yourself the book you wanted, go and see a film.

Make rewards part of your plan.

5. Plan and prepare
Tips to behavioural change - Lucy Hyde counselling in East Lothian

You might be seized with enthusiasm once you’ve decided to make a change, but planning and preparation give you the best opportunity to succeed, just like they do with DIY tasks!

What resources do you need to make this change? Who or what might support you? And what might get in your way – be obstacles or triggers? Is there anyone you need to avoid?

Take time to think about where you can look for help.

6. Accept that changing behaviour is hard!
Tips to behavioural change - Lucy Hyde therapy online

Most of us live by routines and habits – it’s normal and it makes life work because you don’t have to think about everything you do. But it means that we become wired to do things in a particular way, and that takes time to change.

When you notice what hasn’t gone well, try and catch yourself and reflect on a positive – rather than saying “I had an unhealthy snack two days this week” switch it to “I managed five days this week where I didn’t have an unhealthy snack”. 

7. Track and review your progress
Tips to behavioural change - counselling Lucy Hyde

Keep a journal, or a food diary, or use an app on your phone. It can help to express your frustrations, and keeping track of the positives will help you recover when things aren’t going so well.

8. Ask for support
Tips to behavioural change - counselling East Lothian

Remember you don’t have to do this alone!

Perhaps there’s someone else who might be interested in working towards the same goal and you could buddy up together. Or someone you know who might have skills or advice to offer. You might get in touch with a therapist if you need help understanding why you’re finding it difficult to make a change.

At the very least, sharing what you’re working towards means that your friend or partner can help, by encouraging you and giving you feedback when things are going well.

9. Reward yourself. ALWAYS.
Tips to behavioural change - East Lothian therapist


If you’ve done well, take a moment to pat yourself on the back and acknowledge the achievement, even if it feels uncomfortable.

10. Be compassionate with yourself
Tips to behavioural change - Lucy Hyde therapy

Don’t make it harder than it already is. Think of how you might support someone else who is trying to change their behaviour.

Can you offer that support to yourself?

What am I doing differently since ‘The Bike Challenge’?

Today, as I write this blog, is the first day I’ve got clients in the new room that I’ve rented in Edinburgh, and I’m cycling in. I chose this room over another because of its proximity to good cycle routes avoiding busy roads – even though it’s further from a handy bus stop (Make It easy). I know I’ll be tired when I leave to come home, but I’m hoping I’ll appreciate a different experience from my usual bus ride (Don’t compare apples and pears). It’s raining right now but I’ve got a change of clothing and I’ve packed some calories to make sure I’ve got sufficient energy both for my clients and for the cycle home. And I’ve looked out the bike lights – which I may need to elastic-band to my handlebars (Don’t do this at home, kids) in case it’s dark when I return (Plan and prepare).

(NB: I wrote this over a month ago. As I publish it today, I can look back at a month’s worth of Wednesday cycles where I’ve enjoyed the processing time on the ride home after seeing clients.)

Tips to changing habits - counselling in East Lothian

I’m not using my bike every day. I need more practice to really embed it as part of my routine and I’m mindful that my attitude may change when winter weather arrives. But I’m incorporating cycling more into my professional decisions – like the room hire, or arranging meetings – and I’m now using it as a mode of transport more than the bus, which is a definite shift. Every time I use my bike to run a quick errand it gives me a little lift. So I’m pretty happy; and I’m going to reward myself with a new set of pedals, because those pesky toe clips still don’t fit properly!

I’ve included some links to other resources below. If there’s a change you’re wanting to make in your behaviour, and you’re finding it difficult to get started, please get in touch with me. There are many factors that contribute to the habits that we find ourselves in, and you may find it useful to explore what these factors may be, for you, in therapy. 

How to change your patterns of behaviour - Lucy Hyde therapy

References & resources

How to change behaviour

Stages of Change model

Why changing behaviour is hard

Social & societal factors in behavioural change

Changing behaviours – what I learned

Part 1: A self-experiment

How to change behaviour - Lucy Hyde therapist
Photo by Jon Gerrard

Saturday 8 June was the start of National Bike Week 2019. What a great opportunity for a post on my Facebook page encouraging people to get out on their bikes, I thought. I’ll say that I’m planning to use my bike every day this week.  

That gave me pause, though – because if I was going to make a public declaration like that, I needed to actually do it! There’s a whole world of difference between exhorting other people to do something different for their self-care, and actually doing it myself.

How to change behavour - Lucy Hyde counsellor

I’d bought a new bike a couple of months earlier after deciding to try living without a car, thinking I’d use a lighter-weight bike more as a means of transport. But WHY hadn’t I used it as much as I’d hoped – even though I liked the idea, and the new bike? What was getting in the way of me doing that? I decided to make it A Project. I thought perhaps if I could track each day, I might learn something – from looking at the things that motivated me to use my bike, or the things that put me off.

And so it began.

The change-my-life bike challenge

Change habits - Lucy Hyde therapist

I noticed there was sawdust on my bike seat……woodworm in the shed roof! I decided to cycle to the nearest place where I could buy woodworm treatment, about 4 miles away. Oh, but first I realised I needed to change the toe-clips on my bike, the ones the bike shop had put on were useless………oh and it looked like it was going to rain…….and where did I put my pannier? At least the bike locks were handy, as I hadn’t put them away…..

It started raining while I was out, and I got soaked. But…..I had plenty of time, it was a Saturday, I could get changed when I got home, I was already in suitable clothes for cycling and crucially there was the novelty feeling of having decided to make this ‘a challenge’.

Change habits - Lucy Hyde counsellor

I suggested to my partner that we ride to a nearby town to see an exhibition but he was feeling tired, so instead I decided to get a quick ride in alone and call in at the Co-op for some shopping on the way back. I was put off a little by thinking I ‘should’ be doing something with my partner because it was the weekend, but I felt full of beans and wanted the exercise – and once again there were no time pressures.

It was a beautiful morning and I had the familiar experience of flying along on the outer leg with the wind behind me (and then having to really push into the westerly wind on the way home).

Changing habits - Lucy Hyde therapist

Oh-ho! Back to real life, how do I incorporate cycling into the working week? I had a morning meeting in Edinburgh to see a room I might want to rent, so decided to cycle in – a round trip of around 23 miles. I was somewhat nervous about this as I hadn’t cycled in the city for years and the prospect of navigating traffic made me anxious. I was worried about arriving late and also about getting sweaty and looking unprofessional!

On the other hand, I had a flexible schedule that day so could leave plenty of time, and after researching routes found that much of the ride could be done on cycle paths. It seemed like a good opportunity for a ‘test’ commute – as it wasn’t a client appointment it didn’t matter if I was a bit windblown!

Changing habits - Lucy Hyde counsellor

An unexpected drama came a third of my way in when my saddle came loose, and I didn’t have the necessary tool to sort it out. After swithering about whether to lock my bike somewhere nearby and take the bus the rest of the way I decided to carry on, getting on and off rather gingerly at junctions. I was heartily glad my route involved few busy roads. After my meeting I headed to the nearest bike shop where they kindly fixed my saddle free of charge and I had a much more comfortable ride home.

Changing behaviour - Lucy Hyde therapy

An easy day – a quick dash to the shop to get a sandwich for my lunch, a round trip of not much over a mile. It seemed a bit of a faff to get the bike out of the shed for such a short journey, but crucially, having been using it every day, the operation of getting everything together was pretty quick. I was wearing skinny jeans so no need to change clothes for this short ride, and I was there and back with plenty of time to sit and eat my lunch!

Changing behaviour - Lucy Hyde counsellor

The weather was a bit rubbish but I had something to take to the post office. To be honest I might not have made myself do it on foot because of time required in a rather busy day. It was a lesson that I could get an errand out of the way really quickly in less than 15 minutes by using my bike.

Behavioural change - Lucy Hyde therapy

I learned I could ride in wellies – after a fashion. It was a really miserable day, I had no commitments outside home and there is no way I would have got my bike out had it not been for having set myself the task of doing it. Once again a quick dash to the shop, but I felt a bit lost about the pointlessness of ‘the bike challenge’ as a project.

Behavioural change - Lucy Hyde counsellor

I was very conscious that I was just getting my bike out for the sake of it, and having to look for a reason to do so. However, I cycled to the library – only a mile or so away – and actually this was probably a perfect example of cycling making life easier. The journey on foot was a little too far to squeeze into my working day, but on a bike it was much quicker and I could pop the books into my pannier rather than having to carry them. I might not have finally got round to using my library without the bike challenge.

So what did I learn from setting myself the target of using my bike every day?

Make it easy.
Learn how to change behaviour - Lucy Hyde therapy

This was my absolute No. 1 takeaway from this experiment, that I was reminded of every day. In order to change how you do things, you need to make it easy for yourself. We’d already changed the way we stored our bikes so that they were easy to get in and out of the shed quickly. In addition I’ve moved my pannier from an inaccessible shelf in a cupboard to near the back door ready for use and the bike locks are also on a shelf handy to grab. Now I can get my bike out and ready to use in a little over a minute.

Plan and prepare.
Learn how to change behaviour - Lucy Hyde counsellor

Don’t assume it is going to be easy until you’ve established a routine! So, I need to think about what to wear when I’m going to meetings, and I need to factor in the time until I get the hang of how long it takes to get places. Wearing clothes that mean I can quickly jump on my bike AND be appropriately dressed for work (leggings are my friend here) makes life easier.

Don’t compare apples and pears.
Learn how to change behaviour - Lucy Hyde therapist

……….or bus journeys and bike journeys. You can learn to enjoy a different way of doing things. Particularly with the ride into Edinburgh I felt conscious of how long it was taking me. But the second time I did this run I was able to enjoy the opportunity of being out and getting exercise rather than focusing on whether I was using my time ‘efficiently’ (and actually traffic snarls aren’t a factor on a bike path).

This applies to other behaviour changes too; you need to acknowledge what you’ll lose by changing what you do, but you can also appreciate what you’ll gain.

Some investments are worth it.
Learn how to change behaviour - Lucy Hyde counselling

It felt like an extravagance to buy a new bike – but a lighter bike made it easier for me to use it more (although things have improved, in the UK we have bike paths that involve carrying your bike up the steps of a bridge over a railway, for example).

If you can afford it, it’s worth spending money on things that will facilitate you changing what you do; e.g. buying a good pannier rack meant that it’s simple for me to carry stuff comfortably on my bike.  

Ask for help.
Learn how to change behaviour - therapy in East Lothian

Flippin’ heck, I can never be reminded of this one too often….. Only my saddle almost falling off pushed me into it; but of course cycling is a friendly world – and when I took my bike into Edinburgh Bike Co-op they graciously sorted it out instantly and free of charge. What’s the worst that could have happened? They might have said no, or have charged me a few quid. Big deal.

It takes time.
Learn how to change behaviour - counselling in East Lothian

If you do something enough times, it forms a habit. But you HAVE to do it enough times, in order to remind yourself that this is how life is now. I decided at the end of the week to keep the ‘use-it-every-day’ practice going for another week to try and develop a routine. Since then other things have happened and I’ve been away, but I notice I AM using my bike more as it’s higher up my consciousness.

In the second part of this blog, I’ll be talking about why it’s difficult to change habits and behaviours, and – crucially – offering some tips on how to make and maintain changes.

If you’re interested in support for making changes, or just have questions, please get in touch with me through my contact page.