The Psychology of Making a Change

01/02/2016 15:17 | Updated 29 January 2017

One month into 2016 and this is the time when New Year's Resolutions might be wobbling. How can we motivate ourselves to make a change? And then to keep making it?

It's easy to make resolutions based on an abstract idea of something we'd like to do or be, but harder to remember this in the day to day reality of making a change.

Motivational interviewing, an idea first written about in the early eighties by a clinical psychologist called William Miller, is one approach that helps us think about how to make changes in behaviour. Clinically, it gets used a lot with drug and alcohol addictions, and with eating disorders, but some of the principles are helpful for any sort of behaviour change we might be considering, whether it's exercising more, eating more healthily, or trying to give up an unhelpful pattern of relating to someone or something.

One exercise that motivational interviewing suggests can help is to spend a bit of time thinking about both sides of making the change: the pros and the cons, and thinking about this in terms of our current self and our future self.

To try this, draw a basic table, with pros in one row and cons in the other. Then have one column for short term, and one column for long term.


Think of the behaviour you are trying to change. So, say you are trying to give up smoking, put all the good things about smoking in the pros row. Start with the short term things, and then move on to the long term things. It might be something like:

Short term pros
I love smoking
It relaxes me
Stops me snapping at people

Long term pros

You might find that one of the sections is harder to think of things to fill in, which is fine.

Then try the cons, short term and long term. So it might be something like:

Short term cons
Smells bad
Sometimes feel ashamed of it
Think it makes my colds/coughs worse

Long term cons
Increased risk of cancer
Risk of other illnesses and just generally less healthy
If I keep smoking I'll spend loads of money on it

Doing this can be helpful, to remember why we're making a change in the first place, and also to starkly see how many pros and cons there are and how they stack up in the short term or the long term.


It's not a given that having more cons than pros will make us give something up, sometimes one reason can be so important that it outweighs all the others, but doing this often helps us to see why it's so tempting to do something in the short term even though in the longer term it really doesn't make sense. It also hopefully helps us to be a bit kinder to ourselves, if we understand that of course we feel conflicted about making changes: there often are pros and cons to things we do or ways we are.

It can be particularly useful to think about the short term cons to something, and try to hold onto them, because in the moment they will be more motivational than an abstract long term risk. So with the smoking example, even though the idea of getting cancer is horrific, in the here and now it might be more helpful to remember that smoking is really expensive or really smelly, and that it makes your mouth tastes nasty when you're kissing someone.

You could even try writing a list of the reasons you are giving up so you can refer to them easily - on your phone or on a small bit of card in your wallet, or stuck somewhere you will see it when you are about to go back to the unwanted behaviour - on your lighter for example.

Give it a go and see if it helps. Next week: The Psychology of Sticking to a Change.