Making the change

As a primary care physician much of my time is spent counseling patients on how to improve and maintain their health. I find the single largest barrier to accomplishing the goal of improving their health is their is habits. 

A habit is a routine of behavior that is repeated regularly and tends to occur unconsciously. In the American Journal of Psychology it is defined in this way: "A habit, from the standpoint of psychology, is a more or less fixed way of thinking, willing, or feeling acquired through previous repetition of a mental experience." Habitual behavior often goes unnoticed in persons exhibiting it, because a person does not need to engage in self-analysis when undertaking routine tasks. Habits are sometimes compulsory. The process by which new behaviors become automatic is habit formation. Old habits are hard to break and new habits are hard to form because the behavioral patterns we repeat are imprinted in our neural pathways, but it is possible to form habits through repetition.

So many of my patients want to make a change but simply feel they cannot do it. "It is just too hard to change, I have eaten this way my whole life, I'm too old to change now," are just a few of the excuses I hear everyday. The truth is they are right. All of these statements are true, it is hard to change but not impossible.

One of my favorite books is The Power of Habit by Charles Duhigg. He explains so well the mechanism of habit formation and ultimately how to change those behaviors that may be unhealthy and even self destructive (overeating, excessive alcohol, and smoking) to name a few. The key however, to any behavioral change is wanting to change in the first place. This requires introspection and self analysis. We must reflect on our lives every so often and decide if we are happy with where we are. In my line of work, I find most people are not satisfied with their lives, but they do not know how to change it. My job as a primary care provider is to identify the problems and provide solutions. The patients responsibility for making the change resides within themselves. Here is where the old adage "you can lead a horse to water but you can't make him drink" proves to be true. So many times people leave my office excited and ready to make a change, only to return at the next visit with the same problems the had on their previous visit. They simply cannot break free of old habits. 

Change is not easy. It requires identification of the problem, proper education on how to fix it, and commitment to make the change. Then the hard part begins, actually making the change. For most people willpower seems like it is in short supply. But the good news is willpower is not finite and can be taught. Willpower is like a muscle, the more we exercise it the stronger we get. 

Managing Your Mind: The mental fitness guide
American Journal of Psychology
Habit Formation by Norman Rosenthal