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The Difference Between Wanting and Deciding


Clients come to see me wanting to change their eating habits and I often have a hunch about which ones will fail and which will succeed. There’s a hesitancy in those who tend to fail (rather than a full steam ahead attitude) causing them to formally drop out of therapy or stop coming to sessions. I feel badly that I can’t help them enough, but also recognize that people often change a bit at a time, not in one fell swoop.

At any rate, I was thinking about what makes for success or failure in altering habits when a column on transforming eating habits caught my eye. Its author, Bryant Stamford, PhD, is a professor of kinesiology and integrative physiology at Hanover College. His theory is that most people fail at reaching their health goals because they’re still in the stage of “wanting” something but haven’t “decided” to go for it. For example, they want to lose weight or eat more healthfully, but keep thinking of all the reasons they don’t want to and are stuck between a rock and a hard place.

In “How to Quit a Bad Habit”, Dr. Stamford explains, “The bottom line is, first take steps to truly decide you are going to change, then move slowly and deliberately.” The truth is that many of my clients who don’t make it to “normal” eating (at least while they’re working with me) are highly ambivalent about giving up what they think they need to give up to get there. What Stamford is saying is that making the decision that you will change is key to developing new habits and that you’re not going anywhere without that shift from maybe to definitely yes. 

I’d take this concept even further by saying that many clients wish to change their eating and exercise habits but don’t totally want to. Or beyond that, they wish to want to become healthier, but have so many reservations and mixed feelings, that it turns out as a wash. So maybe what needs to happen is for a wish to become a deep want and that yearning to become a firm decision.

A wish is the beginning phase of change—envisioning yourself eating more appropriate portions, saying yes to foods you enjoy and no when you’re full, sticking to an activity routine no matter what. A want is stronger and deeper. You keep thinking about being different and are building up steam to reach your goals. A decision has even far more power and energy. It’s a shift in how your brain is thinking about change. “It’s going to happen,” you decide, along with “I’m going to change. Whatever the process entails, I’m ready, I’m willing and I’m able.” When you decide, you leave ambivalence behind. Your fears shrink and your intent propels you forward.