The Secrets to Successful Behavior Change

by Martin Binks, PhD

The Secrets to Successful Behavior Change

If you’re like many people, you probably made some New Year’s resolutions. Perhaps this is the year you decided to finally quit smoking, to get more exercise, or to change your eating habits so you can lose the weight your doctor recommends losing to lessen the pain of your knee osteoarthritis. Perhaps you were doing pretty well at the beginning of the year, but now your motivation is waning, and old habits are starting to creep back in. This is a common scenario. Behavior change is one of the most challenging and universal issues we face in trying to improve our health and quality of life.

Part of what makes behavior change so difficult is the way we think about health. Modern medicine has been, for the most part, very good at targeting specific diseases and developing cures and remedies. As a result of such magnificent strides, as a society we tend to focus more on treating diseases we already have than on preventing disease in the first place. It may seem easier to just take a pill for diabetes or high cholesterol than to commit to a healthful eating plan and regular exercise. We know it’s wiser to stay healthy, but somewhere in the back of our minds we convince ourselves that illness won’t happen to us. We don’t always recognize this thinking in ourselves, but it has a powerful influence on our behavior.

Another disadvantage of the medical model of disease management is that as a society, we tend to gravitate toward “disease-specific” solutions, meaning that as we treat pain, follow a diet or exercise plan, and try to stop drinking or smoking, we look at these issues as separate and distinct from one another. In fact, there is a lot of overlap in terms of the way we need to act to improve any or all of these issues. The same changes that help you to eat more healthfully or improve your mood can help you stop smoking, manage your pain better, and so on.

As a result of the factors described above, as well as an environment that isn’t always conducive to healthy living (think of the abundance of fast-food restaurants and the amount of time many of us spend sitting at work), our lifestyles often don’t serve the best interests of our health. That is where behavioral medicine comes in. Behavioral health professionals work to help people to identify long-standing barriers to living healthy lifestyles. We help people to follow the behavioral recommendations that accompany many medical treatments, take action to prevent diseases, and develop a road map that moves you toward health, and not away from it, with each decision you make. The goal is to develop a strategy to improve the overall quality of your life, not just to target one specific issue.

Over many years of working with people who were trying to improve their physical and emotional health, I’ve developed a comprehensive approach to change. Many factors in your life converge to influence your health and your ability to commit to improving it, and these factors are all part of what I call the Health Commitment Matrix©. A matrix is a framework that supports a structure or a system, as a wooden frame supports a house or a network of minerals and collagen supports bone. So the idea behind the Health Commitment Matrix is to ask, How is your life structured, and does that structure support your commitment to living healthfully?

The first thing I do with new clients is to analyze each part of their matrix and help them identify the areas that need work. When we have identified areas to work on, we go through a number of steps to create short-term and long-term goals and set up the conditions for success. Finally, I help clients visualize what they want their lives to be like so that they can stay motivated to stick with their plan through life’s ups and downs. In the pages that follow, I’ll walk you through the phases of this process so that you can apply it to your own life. Because this approach is holistic in nature, it can help whether you are trying to manage pain, lose weight, quit smoking, become more active, reduce stress, improve your mood, or simply enhance the overall quality and comfort of your life.

Identifying areas for change

Seven areas make up your Health Commitment Matrix, and each one has an effect on how healthy your lifestyle is. Let’s examine each area and identify possible problems and solutions.

Physical health. Oddly enough, this is an area that is often overlooked when we think about self-improvement. We may notice the major impacts of serious health issues on our lives, but we tend to overlook the more subtle and pervasive influences of both major and minor health problems on our emotional health, our work productivity, our relationships, and the joy we take in living. By examining this area of the matrix, you can not only ensure that you have the right type of medical help in place, but you can start the process of reducing the negative influences your health has on your overall quality of life. Think about how your arthritis and other medical conditions affect you: Does pain keep you up at night? Are you unable to play with your grandchildren because of fatigue? Do arthritis flares cause you to miss work or social events? Make a list of such issues, and talk with your doctor about how to address them.

Last Reviewed on May 30, 2012

Martin Binks is Clinical Director and Chief Executive Officer of Binks Behavioral Health, PLLC. He is a psychotherapist in private practice and offers health and life coaching via telecommunications to people worldwide. Dr. Binks is also a consultant in the development of evidence-based obesity prevention and health promotion programs in health-care, research, and corporate wellness settings.

Statements and opinions expressed on this Web site are those of the authors and not necessarily those of the publishers or advertisers. The information provided on this Web site should not be construed as medical instruction. Consult appropriate health-care professionals before taking action based on this information.

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