It seems almost mystical. A person has long suffered, for example, from overeating, substance abuse, anger issues, laziness, or spending too much. And then suddenly the person changes, not incrementally, not in baby steps, but all at once.

With my clients, it’s tempting for me to credit my advising but rarely does that have much to do with it. More often, it’s one of the following. Perhaps my describing them will help you drop that bad habit or make some other change you want to make

At random. I ask clients who have made major changes, “What made it happen?”  The most common response is that they don’t know, for example, “I dunno. It just suddenly felt doable.” My hypothesis is that some thought or occurrence was the straw that broke the camel’s back, the subconscious accretion of multiple factors.

Falling in love. Infatuation can make everything seem more doable. Additionally, you want to make a good impression on your special someone.

Having a child. On getting pregnant, many women have stopped smoking or using drugs when they previously felt they couldn’t—they couldn’t bear to think they’d be damaging their baby. Or later, the mother stops, knowing that if the child sees her smoking, drinking, or doing drugs, the child is more likely to.

A loved one has died. A death makes us aware that we too are on life’s all-too-short conveyer belt and perhaps that it’s time to grow up, for example, to start a real career. Or, if the deceased is near our age, the death may motivate us to be more hedonistic—Life’s short; eat dessert first.

You lost your job. When that sparks a major improvement, the client typically tries to believe the job loss was for the best and to prove that as well as quell the fear that they’re a permanent loser, makes the big change s/he’s been procrastinating, for example, having a good work ethic.

An insight. Often, a person thinks and thinks to try to come up with a rationale that motivates changing the undesired behavior, and sometimes, s/he finally comes up with one. For example, an overweight client after each daily exercise hike would take himself out for a big meal as a reward. One day, it somehow popped into his head that the hike had to be its own reward. As a result, he’s going out to eat less often.

A last straw. With Thanksgiving coming up, I’m reminded of a heavy drinker who made a fool of herself, including vomiting, at last year’s family Thanksgiving dinner. Disgusted with herself (“I’m sick and tired of being sick and tired”), she hasn’t had a drink since. (Also helpful was her enrolling in SmartRecovery, a cognitive-behavior-therapy-oriented alternative to Alcoholics Anonymous.)

“I’ll show ‘em.” The psychology literature urges praise over criticism, yet the spark for many of my suddenly improving clients was a criticism, for example, a boss, spouse, or parent who said, “I don’t think you’re smart enough to do that.” Sometimes the criticism is subtler. As a 55-year-old smoker was walking down her street, a neighbor said, “It’s good that you’re staying active.” That implied that the neighbor viewed her as old.  Knowing that smoking causes wrinkling (the least of its liabilities,) that made her stop cold turkey.

Advice. Every once in a while, a counselor’s kindly or tough-minded suggestion can provide the spark. I had a client who was a smoker and I asked, “People stop smoking for a reason that really resonates with them.” I ticked off a number of possible reasons. The one that worked? “Smoking is no longer seen as sexy.”

The takeaway

Do you have a major change you’ve been procrastinating? If so, might any of the aforementioned be your spark?