Re-framing your perception of change

“Change the way you look at things and the things you look at change.”

– Wayne W. Dyer

Re-framing your perception of change means viewing change in a different light – to make it easy to adopt. It implies taking off the current ‘frame’ of your belief, and give a different meaning to the experience you are seeking. This process is called re-framing.

To reframe, then, means to change the conceptual and/or emotional setting or viewpoint in relation to which a situation is experienced and to place it in another frame which fits the ‘facts’ of the same concrete situation equally well or even better, and thereby changing its entire meaning.

– Watzlawick et al., 1974

Although not naturally programmed into our system, re-framing is a strategy that we can use to change the evaluation of our choices. It allows us to judge current & desired behaviour and the consequences related to each of them through a different type of lens – in order to catalyse your mind.

Catalysing your mind

If we could see things through a different lens, we might be able to embrace and cultivate new behaviour. But only if we see it as something beneficial. Put differently, if we have to create a strong motivation to focus on the future yields of change instead of the short term reward. First, we dive into the basics of how we evaluate our choices and the actions we take.

Reinforcement theory

Re-framing your perception of change  by looking differently at the consequences

Reinforcement theory poses that individual’s behaviour is a function of its consequences. We first compute all the possible scenarios, select the desired outcome and then we subsequently act in order to achieve that outcome.

We learn to do this is in early childhood. During this phase of our life our curiosity serves as a natural force, pushing us to discover and try out new things. Through trial and error we experience that particular actions will provide a pleasant consequence, while other actions will have the opposite effect.

In other words, childhood learning is fundamental to our personal development, but it also shapes the lens through which we evaluate future choices. We experiment with every type of behaviour. If we like or dislike the consequence the behaviour is strengthened or weakened respectively.

Consequences of behaviour

Instant gratification vs. future yield

The brains of our ancestors have been specifically designed to view tomorrow as uncertain. The origin of this behaviour is deeply rooted in our evolutionary spirit. During times of hunger and starvation, our bodies were focused on preserving energy by decreasing energy expenditure. The same applies to the resources of the mind, which we use in a conservative and limited way. In other words, our brain is an energy conserver.

This implies that if something will cost us effort, we will evaluate the cost first and then what we get in return. The focus is on the short term consequences of our actions and the rewards we get for them. In part because these rewards are more tangible and will not require any sustained effort over a long period of time.

From this point of view, to create motivation for long term goals we need to see the concrete value and benefits of it. The further away a reward, the less inclined we are to invest effort in it.

Adapting the perception of change in your mind

Luckily, we actually do have the mental capacity to motivate ourselves to invest effort and energy in worthwhile goals. The secret to do so is to create a different view of the same situation. Below are three steps to re-frame your own behaviour and the related consequences.

Step 1. The ABC of behaviour

The ABC of behaviour explains that we motivate our behaviour on the antecedent and the consequence of our behaviour.

abc of behaviour

The antecedent can be seen as the trigger – it is what initiates the behaviour and prompts you to act and fulfil some type of craving. This can be something that people did or said in a situation.

It can also be an emotional state we are feeling, or the environment that is provoking and triggering our mental processes.

Two examples:

Eating unhealthy food instead of healthy food

A – You see or smell unhealthy food, creating initial cravings
B – You eat the food
C – The food will satiate you and cause enjoyment

Watching TV or a show instead of going to the gym

A – You come home, feel tired, and Netflix is available
B – You crash on the couch with the television on
C – You laugh, enjoy the show and feel relaxed

In short, what happens is that you compute the outcome for each behaviour. Then you choose which consequence is most aligned with your preference.

Obviously we cannot change the preference of a person. There is no magic button that you suddenly don’t want to eat those donuts or cookies anymore. Or that you suddenly don’t like television anymore. In other words, we can only change try to provoke a different emotional response. We do that by analysing and measuring the power of different consequences by using the PIC/NIC analysis.

Step 2. Using the PIC/NIC analysis

The book Performance Management by Audrey Daniels describes the method of the PIC/NIC analysis®. The PIC/NIC analysis consists of three dimensions that are used to asses the consequences of behaviour. Either a consequence can be; Positive / Negative (P or N)  Immediate / Future (I or F), and Certain / Uncertain (C or U). Re-framing your perception of change starts with seeing how these dimensions ifluence our attitude and thus our behaviour.

Below are two examples explaining how we evaluate, weigh our options and judge which option is most suited for us. The conclusion is always that we give higher priority to the behaviour with the desirable consequences.

Example #1
One example is when someone thinks about starting an exercise program. Anyone who has ever participated in an exercise program pretty much knows that right away there is going to be soreness. You will feel fatigue, less sleep, some irritability and more stress. These are the immediate and certain consequences of making this choice. The future uncertain consequences are better health, eventually getting better sleep . Maybe having less stress and probably living longer. Even though these future consequences are fantastic, it is the immediate and certain nature of the negative consequences that are the most powerful.


Example #2
Other good examples are smoking, over-eating and drinking. Some of the immediate, certain consequences are a feeling of being relaxed, enjoyable taste. The sense of a buzz, feeling less stressed. Enjoying the social nature of doing it with friends. These all sound pretty good. Some of the future, uncertain consequences, however, include the possibility of cancer from smoking. Or besity from eating too much,. Or liver disease from drinking, lower sex drive and the likelihood of dying younger. These all sound awful, but because they are future and uncertain they are not as powerful. They do not exert as much control over the immediate behavioural response.


The relative power of different consequences

The preference for the undesired behaviour in the examples above can be explained by looking at the relative power of different consequences. We have difficulty to motivate ourselves for our long term goals, because long term goals are not powerful enough to motivate us.

Adapting the perception of change by defining the consequences differently
Source PPT

This overview shows the characteristics of each type of consequence from strongest to weakest:

  • PIC / NIC: Positive or negative consequence / immediate / certain
  • PIU: Positive consequence / immediate / uncertain
  • PFC / NFC: Positive or negative consequence / future / certain
  • NIU: Negative consequence / immediate / uncertain
  • PFU / NFU: Positive or negative consequence / future / uncertain

Adding uncertainty and delayed time to the consequence of our behaviour will decrease the strength of the motivation.

Framing the consequences

We start by framing the positive and negative consequences of the current and desired behaviour. This way we can see clearly why we choose for the undesired behaviour instead of the desired behaviour. It is mainly because the drivers for the undesired behaviour are more convincing:

Framing the positive consequences
  • Undesired behaviour: watching the tv show makes us feel good and relaxed. This is a positive, immediate and certain result (PIC).
  • Desired behaviour: going to the gym will give us good results. But this requires consistency and multiple sessions. Therefore, although the end result is positive, it is in the future and it is also uncertain (PFU).

When we weigh the options, the PIC is stronger than the PFU. So we choose for the tv show.

Framing the negative consequences
  • Undesired behaviour: watching the tv show will make us less fit and less healthy. But this is something in the future and it is uncertain (NFU).
  • Desired behaviour: going to the gym will require energy, determination and it will provide us with pain and stress. It is immediate and certain (NIC).

Again, the NIC is stronger then the NFU, so we choose for the tv show.

In both comparisons the undesired behaviour wins from the desired behaviour. Simply because a PIC or NIC is always stronger than a PFU or NFU. Adapting the perception of change implies that we should put more weight on the desired behaviour. Namely, making the outcome more certain and less distant in the future:

The goal of re-framing is therefore to change the NFU into a NFC (changing the certainty) and subsequently into an NIC (changing the time element) to make it a compelling reason to change our behaviour in the current moment.

Re-framing the future

Certainty of consequences in life is defined by the habits we maintain over a period of time. If we do not interfere with our behaviour, it will become engrained as a fixed protocol in our mind. The habit will become the path of least resistance if we do not make a conscious effort to change something about it.

The implication is that future consequences of our bad habits will become more and more certain the longer we maintain them. This means that maintaining the habit will increase your chances of obtaining a negative outcome that is debilitating.

As a result, becoming obese or acquiring a disease will not be an NFU anymore (negative, future, uncertain). It will become an NFC (negative, future, certain). In other words, we are responsible for the impact of these consequences for as long as we let it.

Time travelling into the future

Step into a time machine into the future. Close your eyes and imagine you are 20-30 years ahead of present time. Imagine that your behaviour hasn’t changed. You didn’t break the bad habit when you were younger.

As a result, the sketched future has now become a reality. The NFC has now become a NIC. The bad habits of your diet over the last 20-30 years has made you obese or feeling unhealthy and dissatisfied with your body. Maybe you are not able to do the things you used to enjoy doing when you were young.

Imagine how this feels and realize that the choice you can make today will shape tomorrow and the day after that. Make no mistake, because this is the truth and the reality – it just hasn’t happened yet.

Step 3. Re-framing your perception of change

Adapting the perception of change means making desired behaviour attractive by setting it as our default choice. If we want to change , we should make the consequence of that decision more certain and more immediate.

Re-framing the future

Similar to the negative habit, the consequences of good habits can be extrapolated into the future. With goal setting and linear progression, you can make marvellous improvement if you remain consistent over time.

Start by setting achievable goals and make a step by step plan to get there. The plan doesn’t have to be perfect. But it should create a catalyst for change in your mind. This way, you can build on small improvements the further you go (read more about using your mind as a catalyst).

Time travelling into the future

We can use our imagination for the consequences of good habits. Beforehand we can try to experience how grateful we would be with living a healthy lifestyle, having vital energy because we feel alive. But we can use an additional method that is called delayed gratification to make us more motivated to act.

Using delayed gratification for conditioning

In some cases, we can actually use the reward of the negative habit for the execution of the positive habit. Here, the undesired behaviour is used as a conditional reward. Although this should not be taken to the extreme, it can actually provide significant motivation for us to comply.

This means that if you want to watch the tv show, make it conditional. If you really want to eat that cookie, make it conditional. We cannot make it immediate because then the bad habit would be sustained in itself without a positive habit.

Instead of removing the reward entirely (or by making it something in the very distant future), delay it momentarily to make it attractive. Adapting the perception of change can start with small rewards in the future that are bundled with your desired behaviour.

By using delayed gratification, it is possible to change a PFC consequence to a new category called a PDC. The D in this case stands for delayed, instead of immediate of future. So although a PIC is immediate, the PDC is not. However, it is still stronger than a positive consequence in the far future.

Using re-framing and adapting the perception of change

Re-framing the perception of change can open up new perspectives and give a different outlook on motivation. It might take some time to really integrate the behaviour as a habit:

“The chains of habit are too weak to be felt until they are too strong to be broken.”

– Samuel Johnson

So, it’s time to create those chains to make yourself 100% committed to your goals. Clarity on our future comes from taking action. So start today. Start asking yourself; if I do or don’t do ….. then …..


Watzlawick, P., Weakland, J. and Fisch, R. (1974). Change: Principles of Problem Formation and Problem Resolution, NY: Norton

Boris is a Dutch consultant, Lifestyle Coach and Sports fanatic. He enjoys helping others with personal development by creating a change in attitude and behaviour.

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