Five Crucial Steps to Reprogram Your Life

Five Crucial Steps to Reprogram Your Life - Page 2

By Cathy Cassata 05/16/14

The Fix Q&A with John Norcross, author of Changeology: 5 Steps to Realizing Your Goals and Resolutions.

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You discuss some “myths to change,” and I was particularly struck by your explanation for debunking “it’s all in my genes.” Can you address this to someone who is struggling with addiction?

It’s a subtle distinction between a genetic predisposition and a genetic disease. We know that, if you have a first degree relative with a drinking problem, you’re more likely to develop an addiction, but the overall probability of developing an addictive disorder yourself is below 50%. An increased chance doesn’t translate into a guarantee that you’ll have a disorder. Many people are wandering around feeling they are doomed by their genes. It doesn’t work that way. You inherit a predisposition to the disorder, which is real and people need to know about that. But you don’t inherit a lifetime of it, and you don’t get it automatically. 

What about drug use?

The stages of change apply there as well. What you change is different and the urges for some are going to be far more intense. However, how you can deal with those urges, as anyone who has been to an AA meeting will attest, is pretty much the same. The section in Changeology dealing with urges and maintenance has been the most frequently reprinted and requested part of the book.

Why’s that?

Because most people don’t know about those skills. Most are good about getting motivated in the beginning, and that’s what most self-help books help them with, but most people and programs aren’t aware of the particular skills. Early on in change, it’s about encouragement and motivation. As we proceed into change, it’s more about using skills to maintain. 

Why is the maintenance stage a life-long process for some people, particularly those with addiction?

Maintenance does last more than 90 days. There are those disorders and those personalities for whom this is a life-long battle. Addiction leads the list for lifelong recovery. But not all addictions and all people are destined to a lifetime of recovery. There are those people who get up and get out. 

In your studies, 58 to 71 percent of  people slip at least once in the first 30 days of the Perspire/Action step, with the average number of slips being six. However, you state that the number of slips doesn’t predict whether nor not a person will eventually reach his or her goal.

It immediately points to the value of slip busters. You can’t just sit back and think people aren’t going to slip. That’s just magical thinking. In the addictions, this point is frequently misunderstood. Most people will slip and we should honestly tell people about it, so when they do slip they know how to get out of it. We’re preparing people realistically. 

You talk about how you want to be careful of a slip not turning into a relapse.

And there are ways to do that by having your slip card [which you can create on]. As soon as you slip, out of your wallet or purse comes the slip card stating what to do: call my sponsor; get busy; admit it; remind myself of the 99% of the times I didn’t slip; identify the high risk triggers; get out of the situation; and so on. All of the things we know work. 

Can your list of 10 Proven Ways to Resist the Urge apply to any urge?

You bet. Now, that’s an individual matter. This is a menu of 10 possibilities. Which one will  work with you is a matter of experience. For example, I have learned that getting out of the situation works for me with desserts. Looking at them and then pretending somehow I have the will power doesn’t work, but if I don’t look at a dessert menu or keep it out of our house, that proves quite effective. We encourage people to practice the 10 ideas and see which ones work for them.

You state that persistence and self-efficacy are big factors for maintaining change. Can you explain this?

Self-efficacy is confidence that you can resist. We know that that’s a great predictor of success. In our study on New Year’s resolutions, we found that the best single question we could ask someone is not if they’re motivated - motivation does not predict. Instead, if we ask, “what’s the realistic confidence that you can conquer this behavior?” That’s the single best predictor of who will succeed. This is so important when it comes to long-term maintenance. If you see a lapse as a common slip because we’re all human rather than evidence of your failure, you still feel you’re going to make it in the end.

Why is it necessary to follow the program for 90 days?

Because both behavioral and brain research suggest that’s about how long it takes to go from thinking about a problem to having enough self-efficacy for long-term maintenance. Some self-help programs will try to tell you that it’s a couple of weeks, but that’s not true. Not surprisingly, 90 meetings in 90 days fits the Changeology advice.

In the section on perspiring, you mention Thomas Edison’s quote, “Genius is one percent inspiration, 99 percent perspiration.” And you follow it with “Achieving your goals will require work and commitment, but following the steps of Changeology will markedly decrease the amount you sweat and enable you to work smarter rather than harder.” Seems like that is a great summary of the book.

Definitely. That’s what we call step matching. Our research focus has been about telling people what works best at each step. It’s not just figuring out which step you’re in, which can be interesting, but the take home message is: Now that you know where you are in the cycle of change, here’s how you can work more effectively.

Is there anything else you’d like to add?

Addicts understandably become frustrated and resigned by going through sobriety and relapse many times. In fact, the average number of attempted times for a change to be successful is between three to five. You CAN learn what you need to do differently next time. Don’t simply do the same failed thing again and again. Harness the science of change and get it right.

Cathy Cassata is a regular contributor to The Fix. She last wrote about video game addiction and how to tell if your doctor is an addict.