We all have behaviors or character traits we’d like to change. Maybe you’re a couch potato who wishes you enjoyed working out or an impulse spender with mountains of debt. But even if Mother Nature didn’t provide you with the innate characteristics you desire, you can cultivate them on your own.
“Research indicates that humans are a product of both their genetics and the environment,” says Carla Marie Manly, Ph.D., a California-based clinical psychologist and author of Joy From Fear (Familius, February 2019). “We are born with certain genetic factors, yet as we grow and move through life, we can craft ourselves into the type of person we want to be.”
While you can’t change your genetic coding, you can learn to better control your thoughts and behaviors. Our experts offer these 11 tips for driving change and increasing your possibility of success.
1. Clarify your goal.
Saying “I want to be a better person” is too vague. A clearer goal is “be kinder to others,” according to Ramani Durvasula, Ph.D., a licensed clinical psychologist and relationship expert at Tone Networks. To make this happen, you could practice being a better listener, showing empathy for someone in need or being more patient when driving.
2. Keep a real-time log.
Trying to recall a behavior at a later date often leads to overestimation or underestimation of what really happened, Manly says. For example, a dieter who records her food intake as it happens has a better chance of being accurate and noticing eating patterns.
3. Be proactive, not reactive.
Sometimes it is easier to change situations than it is to change your reaction. For example, if you get irritable with friends when out late on a weeknight, spend time with them on the weekend instead when you are more rested and see whether that makes a difference.
4. Manage expectations.
It is not realistic to say, “I am going to stop cursing right now,” but it is realistic to stop cursing at work to begin.
5. Start slowly.
If you rush in and don’t get it right, you might feel guilty or defeated, Durvasula says. For example, if your goal is to eat more veggies, add one serving per day to your existing plan rather than forcing yourself to eat veggies with every meal.
6. Add frequency.
As your new behavior becomes habitual, increase the number of times you practice it, say several times per day or per week.
7. Rewrite your self-talk.
Manly suggests consciously shifting a negative inner dialogue to a positive one to better achieve your goals. For instance, if your inner voice says, “I am not worthy,” change that to, “I am more than enough.”
8. Gentle reminders.
Place simple, supportive messages all around you to remind you of your goal. If you are trying to exercise more, put a note on your bathroom mirror that says, “Go for a 10-minute walk after work! You’ll feel so much better!” Manly recommends.
9. Seek support.
Your inner circle can contribute positively or negatively to your change, Durvasula says. Identify who is supportive so you have positive feedback and encouragement, and distance yourself from negative people so they don’t derail you.
10. Be kind to yourself.
See stumbles and missteps as opportunities, not mistakes. “Mistakes are the way we learn and can even be viewed as triumphs of sorts,” Durvasula says. “If you see a lesson rather than a failure, you’re less likely to punish yourself for it.”
11. Reward yourself.
Recognize your progress with a reward based on your unique desires. “For example, a warm evening bath might be a true luxury for a busy mom,” Manly says.