Together at the Poles

Improving Your Life Through Incremental Change


New Year’s is coming up, and any people make New Year’s resolutions about how they are going to improve their lives. However, as is well known, most New Year’s resolutions are rarely kept. It is difficult to simply decide to improve one’s life and to have those resolutions stick.

For those of us with bipolar disorder, the condition compounds the problem. The ups and downs of bipolar disorder make sticking to resolutions or to any goals more difficult, since what is an easy plan to stick to in one mood state becomes a difficult one in another mood state.

Happy New Year Fireworks

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How then can we improve our lives? One method that can be used by anyone, though it is especially helpful for bipolar people, is to make those changes incrementally. That is, we can change our behavior by slowly improving our habits in smaller steps. In this article, I will discuss incremental change, how it works, and I will provide some examples of incremental change in habit.

The Problem With Drastic Change

Human beings are creatures of habit. Aristotle first noticed this characteristic of human behavior two-and-a-half millenia ago, and it remains just as true today. Once we start behaving in a certain way, especially with respect to something that provides pleasure or avoids pain, it is difficult to behave in another manner.

There are two basic reasons for this. The first reason is that we simply don’t have time to consider every action that we take. As a result, we are built to act heuristically, or according to a kind of behavioral guesswork. If something kinda sorta works, we are more likely to continue to act in that manner when we do not spend time carefully considering each action.

The second reason is how our imagination works. Let’s say that we want protein, and we are accustomed to getting our protein from Big Macs. Next time our body needs protein, our imagination doesn’t simply present to us an image of protein. Our imagination doesn’t even know what protein looks like. Instead, our imagination presents to us a Big Mac. So, if we fulfill a need in one way or get pleasure in one way, our desires, which make use of our imagination, will present the same kind of object again.

For those of us with bipolar disorder, another problem arises. While hypomanic, we can do pretty much anything that we set our minds to. However, when we are depressed, we lose our initiative, so any big change, which all require going against our habits, feels like too much work.

Using Incremental Change

So, if we want to change, we need to find ways to circumnavigate our heuristic imaginations and develop methods that can survive our depressive episodes. Fortunately, this is possible. The way to do this is to set goals that 1) can be done deliberately such that we don’t act in the automatic, heuristic ways to which we have grown accustomed and 2) do not seem overwhelming, even when we are depressed.

Deliberate and Measurable

Tortoise

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Circumnavigating our heuristic habits requires that we actually think about what we are doing when we are doing it. As a result, any change will require not that we have a vague idea like “lose weight,” which can easily be forgotten in the case of individual decisions, but that we have more specific ideas like “stop eating ice cream.” The latter gives us something concrete of which we can be conscious when we are actually making the decision itself.

Having a goal that is measurable is also very important, since measurement bypasses our imagination, which is especially bad at arithmetic. By setting a specific, measurable goal, like walking to work twice per week, we are able to ensure that our goals are in charge, as our imagination isn’t able to even understand our goals.

Measurability also provides us with the ability to ask ourselves whether we have actually met our goal for a given time period. Writing down our success can be very helpful in this, as we can clearly see our progress.

One thing that can really help in pursuing goals is therapy with respect to anxiety. Some very interesting recent research suggests that we are less likely to accomplish what we want to accomplish when we are distracted. Distraction stops us from acting deliberately, and allows our automatic behavior to take over. As a result, anxiety can be a real barrier to deliberate improvement.

Incremental

Man Walking with Mace

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We also need to make sure that our changes can survive our depressive periods, or at least be put fully into place by the time the next depressive episode starts. We therefore need to be realistic about just how much energy we have during our depressive episodes and put into place goals that can survive the “psychomotor retardation” or lack of energy we have in those phases.

There are two ways in which small, incremental changes can do this. First, if we can get a habit fully in place before our next depressive episode, then that habit is more likely to survive the change. For example, if we get ourselves in the habit of changing our protein instinct from Big Macs to fish, there’s no reason we should expect to fall back during the next depressive espidose.

The second way is to make changes that are so incremental that we can actually do them during a depressive episode. The extent to which we can do this depends on the severity of our usual depressive episodes. One trick for accomplishing this is to make changes that center around activities that we find ourselves still needing to do during our depressive episodes. For example, if I still am able to work during a depressive episode, I can make a change about how I go to work. “How” changes are a lot easier than “whether” changes while depressed.

Some Examples

Here are some examples of the kind of incremental change that I am talking about:

  • For exercise, try finding something that you already do, even when depressed, and walk rather than using a car. This can include going to work (if it’s close) or going to the drug store. If there isn’t anything immediately obvious, there are other options like parking two blocks away from work (which can save you money as well).
  • For food, think about what kind of nutrient you are actually getting from that food and find a substitute that is more healthy. If you just cut out Big Macs, you might find it very difficult if you don’t have another source of protein to latch onto. Once your body is getting what it needs from something else, your imaginative habits around that appetite will change.
  • Time is a great way to make incremental changes. You can try to get to work fifteen minutes earlier, or go to bed fifteen minutes earlier. This will allow you to get a little more work done or get a little more sleep.

Conclusion

Making life changes can be very difficult, especially for those with bipolar disorder. Despressive episodes have a tendency to interfere with our ability to keep resolutions. However, with incremental changes that can weather the bipolar mood pattern, we can make long-term changes to our lives that can make us happier.

This post comes out of an interesting discussion on the Twitter channel #MHSM, which chats each Tuesday at 9 p.m. about mental health in the social media. Thanks to @natasha_tracy, @brownawell, @isalwayssick and @MySahana, among others, for some of the ideas that were ultimately incorporated into this post.

4 Responses to Improving Your Life Through Incremental Change

  • This was a useful article for me, I have been dealing with my Bi Polar type 3 for years untreated. I have been on Epilim and Rivotril for a month now and things seem totally different, like “i’m cured” until I had a bad morning on Friday, which lead to a bad day and a bad weekend and now I feel out of control… any advice on implementing daily incremental and measurable goals even when feeling good to avoid such “bad” crashes?

    • Hi Terri,

      My usual approach is to try to use the good times to build up the habits for the bad times, and hope they survive the transition. I think my basic approach is to remember in the good times that they won’t last, and to try to take advantage of them.

  • Dear Dr. Bader,
    I am finding your articles to be very simple and helpful, not just as a woman living with bipolar disorder but as a Yoga therapist embarking on treating bipolar disorder specifically through Yoga therapy. In combining my experience with academic research and with the experiences of others like yourself, I am enriched and better educated. Reading your work articulates aspects of the illness in ways that I do not hear or read in other circles making it simpler to relate to myself and more effortless to relate to others. Just because I live with bipolar disorder does not mean I know it all… though I certainly know some.
    The community swap of ideas is helpful.
    Thank you!

    • You’re welcome, Brook :). There’s so much to learn, and always new skills. I still feel like I’m just getting started on all of this.

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Psychotherapy from Daniel

Daniel Bader, Ph.D., RP (Qualifying), CCC

Daniel Bader, Ph.D., is a Registered Psychotherapist (Qualifying) and Canadian Certified Counsellor specializing in bipolar disorder, offering in-person psychotherapy in Kitchener, Ontario, and online and telephone psychotherapy within Canada.

To book an appointment with Daniel, please visit his Psychology Today profile.