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Want to Make a Change? Break the Automatic Patterns

Old way or new way

Changing our behaviors, especially the ones we have been doing for quite some time can be extremely challenging. Just consider how many New Year’s resolutions or similar goals fail to be accomplished within a month or two of getting started. There are many reasons that changing what we do is difficult. One factor is how we think or our mindset: our beliefs, attitudes, and thoughts about everything in our lives. Beliefs are the most difficult to change because they are associated with our identity and convictions. Attitudes are related to how we feel about people, situations, and ourselves and they greatly influence how we think. Our thoughts, in basic terms, are our ideas, automatic thought patterns, and inner voice. What I want to focus on in this article is on automatic patterns in our thinking or behaviors and how they play a role in preventing change.

One of the things that I look for when I work with clients that want to make a change in their lives is a pattern. A pattern that takes them to a point of no return. For example, they may have a goal of losing weight, which one might assume would involve providing them with detailed guidance on what and how much they should eat as well as ensuring they get longer and harder workouts. Now, I could do this sort of intervention with them and maybe get some short-term results, but I prefer to start elsewhere. Besides that, most people are aware that exercising more and eating better are potential solutions, but are unable to follow through with consistency to see results.

A client may tell me about the “disastrous dinner” they typically eat involving fried foods, large portions, alcohol, and dessert, expecting me to set them straight and give them the lean chicken breast with steamed vegetable lecture. But instead I ask: what do you typically do before dinner, and before that, and before that? Tell me step-by-step.

I go backwards in the day, ask questions, have them tell me what they do, what they think, and how they typically feel until I find what I think is the start of a pattern. A pattern that leads to an express-highway of pre-paid tolls that dead-ends in a destination called “disastrous dinner” land.

I then work with the client to break the pattern of thoughts and behaviors long before they get on the ramp to that highway. Sometimes all it takes is changing one thing that they do hours before dinner to change what or how much they eat at dinner. Don’t get me wrong, it isn’t always this simple, but I find that by rewinding the day, finding the start of a downward spiral, and resetting the path can make a big difference. Now you may be thinking that in this case the break in pattern is food-related (like adding a snack to prevent extreme hunger at dinner), but many times it has nothing to do with food.

Depending on the complexity of patterns, there is sometimes a need to throw a few wrenches in the pattern in order to disrupt the pattern of thoughts and behaviors, but they are usually so simple the client can’t believe how well they work.

I want to give an example of breaking a pattern in a client that I worked with not so long ago. The client is a man in his 50’s who has seen his weight balloon from less than 200lbs. to over 250 lbs. over the last several years. He wants to lose weight. His job requires him to begin his day at 4:30 am. So he tells me about the coffee on his way to the office, describes the breakfast and coffee he has at the office, describes his lunch at 11 am, and then his drive home at 2:30 pm when he finishes his day. He then talks about the nap he takes when he arrives at home due to being so tired, then waking up and snacking on many different foods due to extreme hunger, then his dinner, his office work, and then his bedtime at 9:30 pm. He has no energy to exercise at all despite having a gym membership. This was his typical day Monday through Friday. Now, what exactly was he eating throughout the day? It didn’t really matter in my mind.

Although I gave him a few things to think about it terms of food, my main focus was on breaking this pattern that he engaged in after leaving work. The most important thing I asked him to do to break his automatic pattern involved 2 steps:

1. Change out of his work clothes and into gym clothes at the office.

2. Drive straight to the gym after work instead of home.

I told him that once he got to the gym parking lot he could decide if he wanted to get out of the car to do some kind of a workout, but he didn’t have to. He could just drive home from the gym parking lot if he wanted to. If he decided that he would do something at the gym, he could do it for as little time or as much time as he felt like it. Whether he worked out or not, he could then go home. The client found it a bit puzzling that he didn’t have to do a workout, but I told him that just showing up to the parking lot in workout clothes was enough.

The second challenge I gave him was to use a small plate to eat dinner and dessert, then to ‘close’ the kitchen when he finished. That’s it. I didn’t tell him what to eat, how to cook it, or any of the food details you might expect for a weight loss intervention. He was a bit confused, but went along with the plan.

What do you think happened?

He was able to change into workout clothes every day and drive to the gym. That part was easy. Although he didn’t have to go into the gym as part of our plan, he ended up working out on most days, even if just for 10-minutes. But most importantly, he didn’t get home feeling sleepy and didn’t fall into the snack trap. He instead started eating a small snack on his way to the gym or home from the gym (he did this on his own without my help). He then used the small plate I suggested and ate a smaller dinner of whatever foods he enjoyed, including dessert, which he said left him feeling satisfied and not deprived. The concept of the closed kitchen after dinner resonated with him and he wasn’t even tempted to wander into the kitchen looking for food. He couldn’t believe the difference in his energy levels and how simple this was to do. Although he started off with the goal of losing weight, he realized that there were many other benefits of breaking his old patterns. Having more energy, feeling better about himself, and having confidence that he can make a change in his life were ‘gains’ he didn’t expect in his efforts to ‘lose’ (weight).

Now there is still much to do, but if I had instead tried to change what he was eating within the same framework or pattern of behavior, it would have been much more of a battle and could have resulted in him feeling like he was incapable of making change. Normally, I am not a fan of weight loss as a main focus for change, but if that is what a client wants, then I at least help them find other important successes along the way.

Although the example that I gave here is about a client looking to lose weight, this concept of breaking patterns can apply to any type of change you are wanting to make in your life. As you reflect on some kind of change that you have been struggling with, think about the patterns you may have established relative to this particular area. Keep in mind that you do not have to do a complete overhaul of everything in your life to see results. You definitely do not want to make yourself do things that aren’t sustainable in the long-run and you want to make sure you are making changes for the right reasons. It may help to write out what you do each day, including how you feel or thoughts you have, so that you can find the pattern that leads you onto the highway of no return. Remember that you are the driver behind the wheel and you get to decide where you drive and the destination you ultimately reach!

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