OPINION

Right people can get you on the right foot

You may think that psychology is bunk. Some of it is.

But what I am about to tell you is golden, if you want to make a big, difficult change.

Do you reckon that you can change a habit through force of will? You are probably wrong. Ever heard of Hitler's Triumph of the Will? With his strong will he ended up dead, and Germany ended up in ruins.

Think of willpower as a soup to get you going toward some important change. Add a second course of what psychologists call stimulus control.

Stimulus control is based on the idea that our situation influences our behaviour. If you hear gunshots on a city street, those sounds will influence your behaviour.

You might look around, you might flee - you will do something in response.

Psychologists suggest that clients set up situations ("stimuli") that help them achieve their behaviour-change goal.

What kind of goal? Here are some tough goals for change: lose weight, exercise more, stop using a substance, study more.

Many people who pursue these goals fail, in part because they do not use methods of stimulus control.

Here are some examples of how you can use stimulus control to help you.

For losing weight, make sure you have nutritious food available at home and at work. Avoid events that provide free junk food.

For increasing exercise, put your exercise gear near the door to remind you to go and to make going quick. Exercise with a keen partner - someone who will prompt you to work out on a dreary day.

For quitting a substance, surround yourself with people who never use the substance. They will set a good model for you. Stay away from places where people use the substance, e.g., pubs, certain types of parties.

Want to increase your studying? Find a keen study partner or form a study group. Social pressure to study can strengthen your willpower.

My highest marks in law school came a semester when I participated in a study group. I learned something astounding to me: Other students were taking much more comprehensive notes. With their notes, I became a stellar student.

You see that many stimulus control methods involve other people who encourage you or set a good model.

Include the right people in your life, and your life is more likely to go in the direction you want.

John Malouff is an Associate Professor at the School of Psychology, University of New England.