Health & Wellness Articles

4 Steps to Lasting Behavioral Change

Learn From Your Own Experience

Although the basic concept of weight loss (eat fewer calories than you burn) is remarkably simple, putting it into practice is not. Whether you're learning how to figure out how many calories you are actually eating and burning up; trying to discover why you have such a hard time doing the things you know you should; or simply looking for that motivation you had yesterday but can’t find this morning, your weight-loss journey is going to be an ongoing experiment. It requires constant learning and the skillful application of what you learn in order to adjust your goals, strategies, and behaviors.

Some of this will be “book" learning—the facts, figures and concepts, such as those that you've read on SparkPeople. But the most important learning you need to do involves learning from your own experience. This takes a whole different set of skills than those involved in absorbing what other people can tell you.

The ancient Greeks had a word for this other form of learning: praxis. Praxis is a four-stage process of:
  1. Observing your own actions and their effects
  2. Analyzing what you observe
  3. Strategizing an action plan
  4. Taking action
Then you start over at the beginning again, observing the effects of your new actions. Each of these four stages in the praxis process has its own core learning skill.

In the observation stage, the core skills are self-awareness and self-monitoring. A simple way to understand these skills is viewing them as the exact opposite of depending on the scale to tell you how you are doing. There, you are focusing on something external (the scale and its number), rather than something internal (your feelings about yourself and your efforts, your physical and emotional reactions to your new eating and exercise behaviors).

Shifting your focus to internal factors is the only way to get the information you need to make necessary adjustments. The scale can’t tell you anything about whether you’re doing your best or just making a halfhearted attempt. It can’t tell you whether your cravings are real hunger, emotional eating, or simply appetite; nor can it tell you whether you’re really pushing yourself to get your heart rate up where it needs to be during your cardio sessions, or just coasting. But these are exactly the things you need to know in order to make your program work, and the only way to get the answers is through honest and thorough self-monitoring.

In the analysis stage, the core skill is critical thinking about yourself and your behavior. This requires that you adopt a certain attitude towards yourself, one that's similar to the attitude a scientist has towards the experiment she is conducting. That attitude must be open in the sense that you are willing to see whatever is there—not what you want to see to confirm your pre-existing assumptions. And it must be non-judgmental. The purpose isn’t to catch yourself doing something “wrong” so you can reprimand or scold yourself. Your purpose is to find out what might be going on underneath the surface. And just as you wouldn’t reveal your real thoughts and feelings to someone who is going to jump all over you for having them, those inner thoughts won’t be revealed to you if you treat yourself that way.

In the strategy stage, the core skill is creative thinking. If you decide that something needs to change, the most effective way to determine what kind of change will work is to imagine what things will be like after you have made the changes. Work backwards from there to figure out the particular steps you need to take in order to get from where you were to this new imagined place. Think of it as a creative form of reverse engineering.

In the action stage, the core skill is process thinking, an often-neglected aspect of effective problem solving. You are probably used to solving problems by thinking in terms of different outcomes: burning x number of calories instead of y; increasing your exercise heart rate from 60% to 70%; staying at the low end of your calorie range instead of the middle or high end, and so on. But deciding that a particular change is what needs to happen isn’t the same thing as successfully making that change. To follow through may require knowing how to find the extra time needed, digging a little deeper to find the motivation and perseverance to get through the discomforts, and changing your priorities and values, if necessary. Process thinking is about becoming your own best motivator, coach, cheerleader and fan, all rolled into one. And that means getting to know yourself well enough to know what works for you and what doesn’t.

One good way to begin working on all these skills is by keeping a certain kind of journal, where you focus on simply observing your own reactions to, and the results you get from, different behaviors and strategies. Another of my articles, The Before-During-After Journal, offers some suggestions on how to go about doing this.
This article is Step 10 in SparkPeople's Mind Over Body series, a 10-step program to ending emotional eating and creating a permanent healthy lifestyle. View the full series here.

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Member Comments

  • This article is eleven years old! :D

    For my diet, my doctor recommended a meal tracking app, and I think it's helped somewhat. I also found mood tracking apps for more than just eating. Give them a shot!
  • I was so impressed by your article that I decided to write about each step for behavioral change in my journal! Hey, if this is the way to be healthy, brain strong and functional in my later years, I'm gonna take notes! Thanks so much!!
  • Reflecting is key to learning.
    Thank you for this article, it has given me things to ponder and to put into practice.
  • One of the best, intelligently written articles on Sparkpeople. Well done.
  • ASF220
    This article really resonated with me. I'm going to translate my proven praxis skills into various areas of my life; including my career and job search.
  • I will be using these concepts for more than weight loss!
  • Knowing the actual steps involved in this type of behavior change (Praxis), with an explanation of the how's and why's is exactly what I need to make changes. I will apply this process to more areas of my life than weight loss. THANK YOU!
  • example would be helpful
  • The best, most educational article I've read in a long time!
  • ELLY2017
    Praxis! Fantastic method for doing the work I need to do to achieve my goals. Praxis! The word alone can be a good anchor to help us me through difficult days.
    I like the concept of the Before-After-Duri
    ng journal for writing the techniques or combinations that we try. I especially like that term then just a food journal. I've always found those to demotivate me.
  • This is a great article! I agree that weighing yourself is the opposite of being mindful of the changes taking place within your body; in fact, the scale is a BIG DISTRACTION and makes it almost impossible to focus on what's really important.
  • Oh ! I like the "dig deeper for motivation" statement! i NEED TO REMEMBER THAT !
  • I've known for a long time that the key to healthy mind, body, and spirit is mindful awareness, not only of the inner world, but also how one is affected by the external world. Know Thyself. Accepting "what is" is the first step in making any change, and to know "what is" requires keen, non-judgmental observation and honest, objective, fearless self evaluation.

    ..the ability to respond. The crucial question becomes how to respond appropriately and with tender, loving self-care.

About The Author

Dean Anderson Dean Anderson
Dean Anderson has master's degrees in human services (behavioral psychology/stress management) and liberal studies. His interest in healthy living began at the age of 50 when he confronted his own morbid obesity and health issues. He joined SparkPeople and lost 150 pounds and regained his health. Dean has earned a personal training certification from ACE and received training as a lifestyle and weight management consultant. See all of Dean's articles.