Achieving freedom means changing the way we interact with and experience the world. You don’t think yourself into freedom, only actions can take you there. You may think I’m telling you something you already know, but are you sure you know how to truly change your behaviors in the long term?
Most people don’t know how to motivate themselves to act toward their passion without any lunch bells, office hours, or stern authority figures. That’s why the Persuasive Tech Lab at Stanford University shared the top 10 mistakes people make when they are trying to change their behavior. The presentation is insightful, but lacks actionable advice or concrete examples. The information is important enough to explain more fully, so read on for a full treatment.
Willpower Isn’t Enough
It’s a mistake to rely on willpower alone for long-term change. I know a brilliant girl named Jeanine who is also a chronic yoyo dieter, with dreams of a svelte figure and a perfect 22 BMI. When she’s on a diet, she scrapes by without her habitual Caramel Macchiato, without her Ton of Fun sized Luncherito, without her double chocolate Sara Lee cheesecake. Finally, after a long and stressful day of making her boss a lot of money, she succumbs to the open bag of Cheetos that her son left in the pantry.
Her heart is in the right place, but she was doomed from the start. I’ve already explained in detail why she cannot fight her urge to consume sweets over the long haul. But more than that, she hasn’t set herself up to succeed. She hasn’t asked herself a critical question:
How would I achieve my goal if will power simply didn’t exist?
Make the Change Easy by Default
Boulders don’t have will power, but they roll down hills because gravity compels them to. Girls who have packed a few too many ribeyes around the midriff won’t lose their wobble by hoping really hard. But Jeanine is a busy woman. She’s going to just grab whatever is available.
So she should make it easy for herself. When she shops for groceries, she should buy only healthy foods. Those cheetos should never have been in front of her. She can’t eat food she doesn’t have. That’s just one small example of making the good behavior (eating healthy food) the default behavior.
Think of yourself as that boulder. Don’t struggle to move, because you can’t. Ask yourself instead: How can I create a hill that I can’t help but roll down?
Change Your Context
The key lesson from the question of how to create a “hill” around yourself is that your environment shapes your behaviors. Sometimes “environment” refers to your social environment, as in the five people you spend the most time with. Other times it really is your physical environment, like an alcoholic bartender.
You’re surrounded by familiarity in both situations, so your brain will automatically try to act the way it’s been trained to act in that context. When I quit smoking a month before my 21st birthday (telling myself I could pick it back up when the big day came), the only difficult moments were when I was drinking with my friends. I learned to avoid that context while my addiction subsided because it triggered my addiction.
Harness the Power of Triggers
No behaviors happen without a trigger. Drinking and spending time with friends causes a cascade of chemicals that triggered my desire to smoke. A momentary lapse in stimulus in the context of unstructured access to the internet triggers my obsessive need to check e-mail.
But I got some benefit, however small, from smoking and checking your e-mail. Those actions met some primal need that I had. That’s why avoiding bars isn’t enough to make an alcoholic stop drinking. It’s not completely about convenience or opportunity. Maybe it’s about coping with emotional distress. Maybe it’s about relaxing after a stressful day at work.
To change behaviors in the long term you must address the underlying needs your reptile brain is trying to fulfill. When I’m triggered to check my e-mail, I acknowledge my urge, and fulfill it with a positive behavior. I do 10 pushups instead.
Create Positive Behaviors
Shift your focus from avoiding bad behaviors and triggers by creating positive behaviors that fulfill the same need. When triggered by a negative self image to down a gallon of ice cream, call your BFF instead, she’ll make you feel like a million bucks. Instead of smoking to relax, try breathing deeply. Instead of checking your e-mail to get that dopamine rush, try 10 pushups.
Whatever behavior you have and whatever triggers it, develop a plan for a better, alternative behavior, and stick to it when the time comes. It’s not that you’re trying to “quit smoking.” It’s that the very next time you’re tempted to smoke, you will choose to do something else instead. You’ll choose to spend 5 minutes on your exercise bike, maybe. It’s one trigger at a time that you’ll conquer until you’re behaving the way you’d like to.
Take Baby Steps
It’s one tiny success after another that adds up to big changes. Your goal isn’t to build a wildly successful blog, your goal is to write your next blog article and post it when you scheduled yourself to post it. Do that a few hundred times, then maybe you’ll be successful.
Building a profitable company is not about eight or nine figure paydays, it’s about showing up, building one more feature, providing one more service, solving one more problem, selling to one more customer.
No one knows how to “be successful.” Lots of people know how to show up and take one more step in the right direction.
Focus on Concrete Behaviors instead of Abstract Goals
The problem is that “be successful” sounds like something you can do, but it’s not really actionable. “Take one step” may not be a fast track to fame and fortune, but it’s something you can actually do.
We fail at goals like “get in shape” because they are contentless. You can’t “get in shape,” even though your brain thinks you can. What you can do is walk 15 minutes every day. You can do 50 pushups before bed. You can drink water instead of sugary drinks.
Translate goals like “have a successful business” to actions like “get one more customer today.” But be careful not to fall into the trap of thinking you need to read about how to get that customer.
Know When to Stop Thinking and Start Acting
We believe that if we have more information we can take action, but humans aren’t that rational. We normally use information gathering as an excuse not to start a business “yet” or not to chat up a cute girl “yet,” as if some esoteric insight is going to fundamentally change our approach to these situations.
You don’t need to research another fad diet, you know damn well that limiting portions and exercising will make you lose weight. You don’t need to research yet another online business model when you know damn well that you need to just create something, and iterate.
Don’t use information gathering as an excuse not to act.
There is a reason you’re trying to stall though. Change can be overwhelming, and in the same sense that tackling huge challenges is untenable whereas taking small steps is workable, changing forever could seem hopeless, but anyone can make a change for a little while.
Choose a Timeframe for the Change
Changing for a set period that you decide in advance takes the pressure off. Instead of imagining a dismal future, devoid of soda, you can tell yourself that you’re doing something good for your body and you can have soda again in a week. Or two weeks. Or whatever you decide.
Probably the most well-known application of this rule is Steve Pavlina’s “30 Day Trial” concept. His idea is to commit to a new action for only 30 days. At the end of the 30 days you can do whatever you want, but you promise yourself (and maybe others) that for those 30 days, you’ll stick to it.
This helps overcome the indomitable concept of “forever” by only committing to a little while, but it also keeps you going long enough to actually instill the action as a habit. That way you can make a conscious decision about whether to continue with the now-habitual action, or whether the action really doesn’t meet your needs and expectations.
Keep the Change
So now you know how to make a change and maintain it.
Willpower isn’t enough. You have to rearrange your life so that the behavior you want becomes the default behavior. You do that by changing your context to create new triggers and get rid of your old ones. When you can’t get rid of the triggers that lead to bad behavior, you replace those bad behaviors with positive ones that fulfill the same basic needs.
You take baby steps toward concrete actions, instead of fantasizing about abstract goals. You stop thinking and just do it. And finally, you choose a timeframe for whatever goals you may have.
Changing behavior doesn’t have to be difficult. Use these findings to set yourself up for success.