I think I can, I think I can: How self efficacy can cure your bad habits

When I was a little girl,  my favorite book was Charlotte's Web. It was the first book I ever took out of the library using my own library card; the first book I read that had chapters; and the first book that made me cry. Late at night, long after my parents had gone to bed, I'd sit in my faded yellow armchair and read Charlotte's Web over and over until the spine became bent and pages worn tissue thin.

Of all the characters in the book, the one I most adored was Charlotte, the heroine. Confident and spunky, Charlotte devotes herself to saving Wilbur from slaughter by weaving colorful adjectives in her web to describe him - things like terrific and radiant. Though she is doubted by both Wilbur and the other farm animals, her conviction and determination to save Wilbur's life, and success when doing so, ultimately becomes her legacy.

I was thinking about Charlotte when I finished my own book this weekend. Truthfully, I should have wrapped it up weeks ago, but I've been dragging my feet. I just could not get motivated to pull the last chapters together. I couldn't figure out where my energy to write had disappeared to. I wondered if I was a slacker. Maybe I wasn't meant to write a book at all. Perhaps I should stick to something simple, like matching my socks together when folding the laundry and coordinating my belt to my shoes. But on Sunday afternoon, I pulled myself out of my slump and wrote the final sentence. I was done. After dancing around the house in celebration and closing my laptop, I realized what had been holding me back. I was afraid of failing. I was unsure in my ability to produce something credible and legitimate. I doubted my ability to write anything aside from a glib email, a snarky tweet. Without confidence in my proficiency as a writer, I could not perform to my potential.

Psychologists refer to this confidence as self-efficacy, the strength of an individual's belief that they can succeed at a given activity. Research has shown that, “efficacy beliefs (through cognitive, affective, and motivational regulatory mechanisms) influence how people feel, how much effort they invest in actions, how long they persevere in the face of obstacles and failures, and how resilient they are to adversity (Salanova, Llorens, & Schaufeli, 2010).” Health behaviors such as non-smoking, physical exercise, dieting, dental hygiene, or recovery from an illness are dependent on one’s level of perceived self-efficacy (Conner & Norman, 2005). If you believe you can quit smoking, or get in better shape, chances are high that you actually will. I managed to pull myself out of anorexia and bulimia because I was not only determined to recover, but also convinced that I could. Self-efficacy influences the effort you puts forth to change negative behavior and the persistence to continue trying despite setbacks that might influence motivation.

A high sense of self-efficacy can be caused by a number of factors. Seeing some close to you succeeding on a project similar to yours; having past experience dealing with success; and having a strong support network of people who believe in you can all raise your self-efficacy.

It makes sense that people who believe in themselves and have the confidence in their skills would have higher self-efficacy than those who don't. These people view tasks as challenges to be mastered rather than be avoided. They set tough goals and stay committed to reaching them. But it helps to be passionate about the activity you're engaged in. Charlotte was determined to help Wilbur because she loved him. The sacrifice in time and energy were worth it because her friendship with Wilbur meant so much. Without that passion, she probably would not have been motivated to fight for him.

The moral of this story? If there's something you want to change about yourself, you probably can. Believe in your abilities and have confidence in your strength. Stay passionate and motivated to change. You are worth fighting for.

Do you have a bad habit you'd like to change? Have to tried to overcome it but had trouble finding the motivation? Do you believe higher self-efficacy has an affect on behavioral change?

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  1. Elissa, a huge congrats on finishing the book!

    I absolutely believe that self-efficacy effects our outcome. I had a pretty high degree of self-belief in college--I really just didn't know that I might try at things and still fail. I decided I was going to move to New York knowing not a single soul and did; I decided was going to intern at Ms. magazine and did; I decided I was going to work at a major publishing company and did. And then those lessons began to come: That I could try my best and still not excel--that was an enormous blow to me, and it damaged the way I saw myself, and suddenly I began to doubt that I could do anything right. I'd say that maybe running into obstacles earlier in life is a good thing, based on my experience!

  2. Thanks for this post. I almost got emotional at the beginning when you described self-efficacy, as sometimes I feel like I lack the confidence to accomplish my goals. As I thought about it, though, I realized that although I do have fears of failure, I've accomplished quite a few things in my life. While I haven't overcome all my insecurities, I've achieved some goals that make me feel really good. Thanks for reminding me that I'm taking some big steps and moving through my fears!

  3. I first want to say congratulations on finishing your book. I just finished writing mine a few days ago and I understand that feeling of accomplishment. I had the same feelings you had, feeling that I wasn't good enough but with enough pep talks I was able to push through and finish like you did. We can be our worst enemies sometimes, especially when pursuing something so close to our hearts. The fear of success is real and if we recognize it, we can push through it and really succeed.

    "The moral of this story? If there's something you want to change about yourself, you probably can."

    You are absolutely right! I couldn't have said it better myself.

  4. Sigh. I've been unable to get anything done for weeks! So this kind of thing has been on my mind...

  5. As my mama (and her mama before her) always says: Think you can, or think you can't, and either way you'll be right ...

  6. Love Charlotte's Web! Great post (as always) but I do think it's true. If you can imagine it then it can come true. That's so awesome you're writing a book!


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