How To: Change Yourself in Positive Ways

UPDATED: December 15, 2016
PUBLISHED: October 19, 2015

Change is hard. Really hard. You know because you have a bad habit or 20 that you’ve tried to quit: smoking, overeating, saying negative things to your spouse, exceeding your budget. Research shows that people, in general, experience extreme difficulty changing a single habit.


  • Seventy percent of borrowers who take out home equity loans to consolidate debt wind up with higher debt within two years, according to the nonprofit Cambridge Credit Counseling.
  • A University of Scranton study found that a mere 8 percent of people keep their New Year’s resolutions.
  • Just 20 percent of obese dieters sustain a 10 percent weight loss for more than a year, according to the National Weight Control Registry.

In other words, humans stink at change.

But change is doable, says Steve Olsher, author of the New York Times best-seller What Is Your WHAT? Discover the One Amazing Thing You Were Born to Do. “Before anything can change in your life, you have to shed light on it,” he says. “There has to be a moment when you take a hard look at the truth and contend with the fact it is no longer acceptable. You must be uncomfortable to make a change.”

Related: 13 Ways to Improve Your Life

Here are some steps that can help:

Get real with yourself.

If you’ve been stuck in trying to resolve problems with finances, health, relationships, career or other areas, seek tough love. “Ask for honest feedback from those you love,” Olsher says. But be prepared to truly hear it and separate the message from the messenger. “Assure the person, ‘I will not get mad at you. I need to hear the truth.’ Then don’t get mad when you hear it.”

Build a support network.

Recent studies indicate that people you spend time with affect your habits, whether good or bad. American and Chilean researchers found that a peer support group inspired people to double their financial savings; in the same study, other participants were offered a higher interest rate on their savings, an incentive that had zero effect. And a much-quoted study from Harvard found that those who have at least one obese friend have a 57 percent greater chance of being obese themselves.

Take baby steps.

“The key to success is stringing together enough of the right decisions,” Olsher contends, and science backs this up. A classic Stanford University study observed kids who had trouble with math. One group was instructed to set smaller goals to tackle math problems, while a second group was asked to set long-term goals. The first group accurately solved 80 percent of the problems; the second group, only 40 percent.

Focus on avoiding loss.

If focusing on a goal doesn’t work, don’t be surprised. In their best-selling Change Anything: The New Science of Personal Success, authors Kerry Patterson, Joseph Grenny, David Maxfield, Ron McMillan and Al Switzler write that humans are more motivated to avoid loss than to attain gain. In other words, envisioning a life plagued with heart disease or an early death is a more powerful agent for creating healthy eating habits than picturing yourself looking hot in a swimsuit.

To support this research, the authors interviewed Apple customers waiting in line to buy new iPhones. Those who had just purchased the phone would not sell it for less than $1,218 over what they paid, but those who had not yet bought the iPhone wouldn’t pay more than $97 extra. In other words, Apple customers were 12 times more motivated by the fear of losing their new smartphones than they were to obtain new ones.

Related: 4 Tips for Setting Powerful Goals

Sarah Jenks

31, San Francisco

Pain Point: Lifelong struggle with weight
Tactic: Hit rock bottom and stopped blaming her weight for her unhappiness
Today: She loves her business and family, and has a healthy weight.

Since the age of 10, I was that fat kid taunted with “sumo, sumo!” on the bus. In my 20s, I was always the fattest woman in the office or at the gym.

It wasn’t just that I was overweight and unhappy about it. I was letting the way I felt about my body get in the way of my life. In high school I told myself, If I lose 20 pounds, I will get better grades, or, The boy I have a crush on will ask me out, or, I’ll have more friends. As an adult, I told myself, If I lose 40 pounds, I will go dancing with my friends and not worry about how I look naked.

Even though I went to a good college, was later successful at a New York City advertising agency and had a great boyfriend, I always felt my life would be better if I lost weight.

Then one day I hit rock bottom. At work I was responsible for marketing a chocolate company and found myself in a closet eating a bag of foil-wrapped chocolates. I ate all but five of the candies, which I threw in the garbage in a major exhibit of self-restraint. Next thing I knew, I dug those chocolates out of the trash and ate them.

That was when I looked at my life. I thought, OK, I have no control here. I also realized my life was really boring. I was waiting for my life to begin when I got thin. I thought I was miserable because of my body. But I was miserable because of my life. So I started living it.

I reconnected with my boyfriend and realized our relationship had suffered not because he wasn’t attracted to me, but because I had been ignoring him. Two months after we reconnected emotionally and romantically, he proposed. And I signed up for a dance class, which is a passion of mine.

Without making any major lifestyle changes, I stopped overeating and lost 30 pounds. I’ve since gotten married, had two babies, and changed my career to become a life coach. My business helps women live their best lives, regardless of their weight. The company slogan is really my story: Live more; weigh less.

Chris Lynam

40, Northern California

Pain Point: Stuck in mediocrity
Tactic: Focused on helping others, which led to mastery of his efforts
Today: He runs seven successful dance studios that inspire others through ballroom dance.

All my life I was just-good-enough. In high school, my peers were earning internships at the White House while I was touring community colleges. I had a lot of potential as a trumpet player, but I never worked very hard at it. When a basketball scholarship ended with an injury, I found myself at a dead-end logistics job I absolutely hated.

In college my friends and I would go to dance clubs all the time. I wasn’t a great dancer, but became more interested when a friend—an even worse dancer—told me he got a date to go swing dancing with this gorgeous girl who modeled professionally and was well-known locally as a professional dancer.

So I started going to swing-dancing clubs and learned to dance. My initial goal was to get a beautiful girl to be my dance partner, and I did, even though I still had much to learn as a dancer. Then I saw an ad for an Arthur Murray dance instructor, and my goal became to land a summer job teaching ballroom dance. But I kept practicing and started entering contests—and winning. Surrounded by passionate dancers, I pushed through that threshold of complacency and just-getting-by mindset that held me back.

Related: 5 Learnable Mindsets of Highly Successful People

I eventually met my wife through dancing, and together we own seven Northern California dance studios. The financial success and awards are nice, but changing others’ lives is what really drives me.

A few years ago, a middle-aged stay-at-home mom came in. She felt neglected by her executive husband, who loved ballroom dance and would typically dance with other women at every company holiday party. She wanted to surprise him by learning to dance. I got so excited! I wanted this to be her Rocky comeback story!

While her husband was away on business in Asia for six months, we worked hard. She lost two dress sizes and performed at a dance studio “showcase” event when her husband returned. Afterward he approached me with an outstretched hand. “Chris, thank you for making my wife so sexy,” he said. Both her husband and daughter then started taking lessons, and dance helped the family reconnect and healed the couple’s marriage.

In the past, when I was working for my own selfish ambition, I never excelled. But stories like that inspire me to strive for excellence on behalf of my students, and it trickles over to my own relationships, business and dancing.

Jennifer Purdie

38, San Diego

Pain Point: Extreme shyness
Tactic: Overcame fear step by step
Today: She is active in improv comedy, more outgoing at work and in her social life, and having fun.

I was always very, very shy. In high school, I was voted “Quietest”; as an adult, social situations were really uncomfortable. I rarely went out with groups, and when I did, I constantly worried about what to say or sounding stupid. So I usually said little. I chose a writing career because I wouldn’t have to interact with people often, and at work, I avoided making presentations. I rarely dated.

However, four years ago I had a boyfriend for a year. He ended it by going completely silent, not returning my calls or texts. The breakup was painful, and I became depressed—partly because I’m so introverted that I knew it would be hard to meet someone else.

I decided to make a change three years ago. As a New Year’s resolution, I wrote down that I would get out of my comfort zone. The most uncomfortable thing I could think of was stand-up comedy. I’m a goal-setter and writer, so if I write down a goal, I have to do it.

I didn’t tell anyone in my family, and I picked an improv class two hours away in Los Angeles, where I didn’t know anyone, so there was zero chance of bumping into an acquaintance.

I went every week and started to get really good. My classmates gave me really positive feedback, and one teacher messaged me after class and said, “I don’t think you know how good you are.” I was having fun and making friends. I’m no longer depressed and have something to look forward to every week. Knowing that I can be funny makes it easier for me to connect with people, including friends. I’m just more fun to be around.

I’m still shy, but my newfound confidence has bled into other parts of my life. I signed up for The Moth, a storytelling collective, and seek opportunities at work that allow me to speak in front of other people, which has opened up new career channels I otherwise wouldn’t have had access to. It was a matter of taking that baby step in signing up for the comedy class. And it has changed my life.

Related: If You Change Yourself, You Can Change Your Life

Emma Johnson

Emma Johnson is a business journalist, gender-equality activist, and founder of the world's largest community of single moms, Emma and her best-selling book, The Kickass Single Mom, and her organization, Moms for Shared Parenting, have been featured in hundreds of national and international media outlets.