One degree of change

One of the biggest problems with setting goals is that we often set ourselves (and others) up to fail. By making a goal too big at the start, we lose hope as we begin to realise how long it’s going to take to reach it. And when hope declines, motivation declines.
So what’s the answer? It’s my “One degree of change” rule. This means that I only set goals in terms of one degree of change at a time. The analogy I like is of a huge ship that has so much momentum that it’s really difficult to change direction. But, once you have one degree of change in direction, the momentum guarantees that the change continues for some time, and the ship can change course quite dramatically. Our habits are also really hard to change, but once you make one degree of change, the success builds motivation, making it easier to continue the change.

A current example is trying to get children to sleep through the night in their own beds. Lots of children have disrupted sleep patterns since the earthquakes began – not wanting to go to bed at night; not staying in bed and calling out; and waking in the night and coming through to parents. Inevitably, parents attend to their children in terms of reassuring them or comforting them or trying to get them back to their own beds and this attention has taken on a life of its own: Children struggle to go to sleep alone, disrupting everyone’s sleep, and people end up tired and grumpy. Parents come and see me for help with getting their children back into regular sleeping routines. We use a range of strategies like gradual withdrawal and reward systems, with the ultimate goals of having the child go to sleep alone and staying asleep until morning – or, at least, being able to go back to sleep alone if they do wake in the night.

Understandably, exhausted parents hope for a relatively quick resolution to the sleep disturbance, and set the goal too high. They may set up a goal of the child staying in his or her own bed all night and promise that, if the child can do this for a week, there will be a reward. Inevitably, the child cannot satisfy this requirement, everyone is disappointed, frustration sets in, and motivation drops. In desperation, parents may have to depend on sleeping medication for their children to ensure that everyone gets some sleep.
So, a big part of my job is to help parents make the initial goal small enough that everyone is set up to succeed. For example, the first goal may be that the child goes to sleep alone in the first instance with no calling out or getting out of bed (irrespective of what happens during the rest of the night), and an immediate reward is provided for each night that this is achieved. If this is too difficult, then the goal is made smaller – the child stays in bed but has the parent check in every 10 minutes until they go to sleep. If this is too hard, then the parent may sit on the child’s bed until they go to sleep. As long as the child stays in bed with no calling out, the reward is earned. Alongside the behavior change programme, I encourage parents to replace the attention the child is getting through sleep disturbance with some one-on-one attention at more appropriate times. Once success is achieved with a small sleeping goal, the goal can be made incrementally bigger. Critically, the child (and the parent) experiences success, and the belief that change is possible will grow, so that once some confidence develops, change is easier to achieve.

It’s one degree of change that gets the change process started.


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