Knowing isn't doing.
I post a lot of stuff about getting better at things. A common response to my posts is "I know that." Well, knowing is great for watching Jeopardy. It's not nearly as good for life.
So why is learning about improvement so easy and actually improving so damn hard? Most any change that requires a lot of consistent mental effort is going to fail because you spend most of the day on autopilot. Via Charles Duhigg's excellent book The Power of Habit: Why We Do What We Do in Life and Business:
One paper published by a Duke University researcher in 2006 found that more than 40 percent of the actions people performed each day weren't actual decisions, but habits.
Any change has to work when you're on autopilot. The importance of self-control is one of the biggest myths about improvement. Almost all the techniques for change that have been shown to work don't rely on thought or willpower.
Changing your environment
If there are no cookies in the house, guess who's not eating cookies at 3 a.m.? Manipulate your environment so you don't have to exert self-control.
There's a great story on NPR that shows just how important context is in maintaining (and ending) bad habits:
According to her research, the number of soldiers who continued their heroin addiction once they returned to the U.S. was shockingly low.
"I believe the number of people who actually relapsed to heroin use in the first year was about 5 percent," Jaffe said recently from his suburban Maryland home. In other words, 95 percent of the people who were addicted in Vietnam did not become re-addicted when they returned to the United States.
You're often lazy, busy or distracted so most things that are out of sight really are out of mind. More here.
Make the things you want to do take 20 seconds less time to start and the things you want to avoid take 20 seconds longer to get going. Amazon makes a gazillion dollars every year because of that "One Click" button. Before the cash register at a store there's the "impulse buy" section. Take the same idea, use it to your benefit.
Lower the activation energy for habits you want to adopt, and raise it for habits you want to avoid. The more we can lower or even eliminate the activation energy for our desired actions, the more we enhance our ability to jump-start positive change.
Peer pressure is a glorious thing
Peer pressure helps kids more than it hurts them. And face it, you're still a big kid, you just have to pretend to be an adult most of the time — and it's exhausting.
Surround yourself with people you want to be and it's far less taxing to do what you should be doing.
In a 1994 Harvard study that examined people who had radically changed their lives, for instance, researchers found that some people had remade their habits after a personal tragedy, such as a divorce or a life-threatening illness. Others changed after they saw a friend go through something awful, the same way that Dungy's players watched him struggle.
Just as frequently, however, there was no tragedy that preceded people's transformations. Rather, they changed because they were embedded in social groups that made change easier… When people join groups where change seems possible, the potential for that change to occur becomes more real.
That's a fancy way of setting a standard response to a situation so you don't have to think. When someone asks you to vote for that "other" political party, to inject heroin, or consider murder you probably don't actually consider it. You have a knee jerk script in your head that says "I don't do that."
If everything you did required a thoughtful decision, you'd never get out of bed in the morning. Too much of this and you're a computer. But used deliberately it can be quite powerful.
It's called if-then planning, and it is a really powerful way to help you achieve any goal. Well over a hundred studies, on everything from diet and exercise to negotiation and time management, have shown that deciding in advance when and where you will take specific actions to reach your goal (e.g., "If it is 4 p.m., then I will return any phone calls I should return today") can double or triple your chances for success.
What do they all have in common?
All of these techniques remove mental effort and can easily be incorporated into the routine you already have. That's their strength.
But they all require a little bit of planning ahead of time. With these systems most people don't really fail — most people never really start. How do you plan?
Chip and Dan Heath distill effective behavior change down to three simple steps in their well-researched and enjoyable book Switch: How to Change Things When Change Is Hard.
1) First, direct the rational mind
Provide crystal-clear direction. What looks like resistance is often a lack of clarity.Script the critical moves — don't think big picture, think in terms of specific behaviors.Point to the destination. Change is easier when you know where you're going and why it's worth it.
2) Second, motivate the emotional mind
Focus on emotions. Knowing something isn't enough to cause change. Make people (or yourself) feel something.Shrink the change. Break down the change so it's not scary.When leading a group, cultivate a sense of identity and instill a growth mindset. Believe change is possible.
3) "Shape the Path"
What looks like a people problem is often a situation problem.Tweak the environment. When a situation changes, behavior changes. So change the situation.Build habits. When a behavior is habitual it doesn't tax our minds as much.
Pick one of the techniques. Plan for 20 minutes. You might struggle to implement for a couple days, but after that, it's easier to stay the course than it is to deviate. That's the secret.
Don't try to reinvent yourself. You'll fail. Fit the new into the old. Make the new easier than the old. You change all the time. The TV shows you watch change, the products you buy change, and the projects at work change. Change is going to happen, no matter what. The question is, will you be in control of the change or will the change control you?
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