Your brain wants to minimize the amount of time you spend thinking about anything, to make sure the energy cost of thinking does not exceed the value of what you are thinking about. In any situation your brain has to resolve a trade-off between effort and accuracy. To do this the brain relies on habits.
Habits are not without problems. One of the most difficult things for people to control is to prioritise something as desirable, particularly when this benefit will be in the future, over something that is occurring right now. The famous marshmallow experiment which tested children’s willpower not to eat a marshmallow that was in front of them on the promise they would get more in an unspecified amount of time later demonstrated will power and how hard it is not to think about the immediate gratification in front of you.
At times you learn how much effort you need to put in to certain experiences. In some situations you put in too little effort and as a consequence make a bad decision and fail. This kind of failure is fine, if it helps you learn about the trade off between effort and accuracy and make changes in the future.
A good way to fail is to do so unsystematically which means at different things. So for example re-prioritising, failing to meet a client at work as instead you have to take your child to the doctor or missing a school performance because you have to finish a work deadline. This allows you to find ways to satisfy all of your goals, by sometimes failing in an unsystematic way.
The bad way to fail is systematically making the same mistakes or trade-offs, such as always putting work before exercise. When you look at your own life, the consistent failures are the signals that if you continue to act as you have in the past you will not achieve your goals.
A goal is an end state that provides a focus for your motivational energy. The goal can either be a desirable state that you would like to bring about or an undesirable state that you want to avoid.
When a goal has some amount of arousal, then it can be referred to as active. A goal that has a small amount of motivational energy behind it is less active than a goal that is strongly aroused. The more active a goal, the more influence it has over what you are doing. A goal that has no energy at a particular time is dormant.
Some motivational speakers can primarily focus on generating motivational energy or goal arousal. Other motivational speakers focus more on what needs to be done rather than on the energy to do it. To do this they get people to focus on what they’re trying to achieve and explore whether the actions they take day to day will allow them to reach the outcomes they desire.
There are consistent mappings between the environment and your behaviour across many facets of your life. Most products are designed to create this consistency to help you develop habits. Such as musical instruments, cars, computers smart phones.
The Four Actions of Habit
1. Not being aware of what is triggered you to start the action.
2. Can perform the habit while doing more effortful things at the same time.
3. Habits can be disrupted by changing the environment.
4.You carry out such behaviours mindlessly, so often may have no memory for doing them.
Habits create a direct relationship between a state of the world and a behaviour. As a result, habits are the most efficient way for people to multitask. You can type and think at the same time, because the typing is a habit. Habits are done mindlessly, so they can be performed at the same time as other behaviours that require mindful attention.
Habits are enabled by what the book refers to as the Go System and halted by the Stop System.
The Go System is incredibly efficient at helping you achieve you goals. It focuses you on information that will enable you to succeed, and it causes you to ignore things that will distract you from success. There is a cost to that efficiency. Once a habit becomes ingrained, it can be very hard to keep yourself from carrying out the wishes of the Go System. Even if you decide
that the behaviour the Go System has learned is one you no longer want to perform.
An interesting experiment was mentioned in which people were craving cigarettes and others allowed to smoke. Then a raffle occurred, the people craving cigarettes would pay more for a raffle ticket to win cigarettes than money that they could but the same amount of cigarettes – or anything else.
The Stop System is much less effective than the Go System. The Stop System requires mental
effort. You have to be able to pay attention to what is going on around you to recognize that you are doing something that you want to avoid. You also have to engage effort to stop a behaviour that you have begun. As a result, habits have an advantage over the Stop System because habits can be done without effort.
Even if you do manage to stop a behaviour, the Go System is persistent. It uses cravings to remind you that you have an active goal that you want to achieve. A craving is an unpleasant feeling that is associated with some kind of need or desire.
So what can be done about this? To put your long-term goals on an equal footing with your short-term goals, you need to recast the activities that will pay off for you in the long run in terms of specific goals you can achieve on a daily basis that will ultimately lead to long-term success.
Even after you start performing actions that will move you toward some kind of long-term goal, the competing short-term goal has not gone away. Existing habits that are appropriate for your environment are still engaged when you return to that environment, and so they continue to influence your actions.
Behaviour change is also difficult because your goals often compete, your life is already busy. You have limited time, money, and energy. When you try to add a new behaviour into your life, you have to make room for it in your schedule. You have to divert resources that were going toward one set of goals and direct them toward a new goal. As a result, you need to have a plan that will help you deal with these conflicts. Without a good plan, you will find it difficult to integrate the new actions into your existing habits.
Smart Change requires finding a way to diminish the influence of old habits on new behaviour. You need to deal with the arousal of undesired goals, minimizing these and energize new desired behaviours. Contributions reflect the accumulation of individual days and particular actions that come together.
To change your behaviour, you have to influence all of the aspects of the motivational system. There are five particular points you need to focus on:
- Optimize your goals
- Tame the Go System
- Harness the Stop System
- Manage your environment
- Engage with others
Describe your goals in a way that is specific enough to allow them to be engaged, with outcomes attached and set goals that will sustain behaviour in the long run.
Identifying both the broad contribution you want to make as well as the narrow achievements that will get you there. It is of note that circumstances also change, so be flexible.
- Develop an implementation intention with specific plans.
- Create plans in advance for what to do when obstacles come up.
- Ensure that your goals are energized – no matter how good your plan, if you do not get yourself aroused, you will not do anything.
Evidence is fairly clear that making lots of changes at the same time is a recipe for failure. Staying on top of all of the elements of an implementation intention is hard enough when you are dealing with just one major change. When you try to make several changes at the same time, though, it is difficult to keep track of everything you are supposed to do. As a result, you are much less likely to
If you feel like there are many changes you need to make in your life, establish priorities. Which changes are the most important? Focus on making the most important changes first. Add new changes to your life only after you have established some new habits and the stress of those initial changes has faded.
Yerkes–Dodson curve. These researchers postulated that the relationship between the arousal of a goal and the performance on that goal looks like an upside-down U. At low levels of arousal, you’re just not that interested in the goal, so you don’t put in much effort to achieve it. At high levels of
arousal, you have so much energy that you have difficulty staying focused on the task at hand.
If you are naturally high arousal, then the biggest concern you have is to avoid getting overly excited in a way that impairs your work. To overcome this set up a structure that allows you to
get work done in advance so the pressure of a deadline does not build up too strongly. Second, develop some methods to help you keep calm when the environment gets too exciting.
If you are naturally low arousal, then your major problem is getting started on something in the first place. You need to ramp up the importance of the goal so you’ll get started working on it. You’ll benefit from engaging with the people around you to heighten your motivation. You also need to set early deadlines for yourself to ensure you do not leave big projects for the last minute.
The ultimate goal of Smart Change, is to redirect the Go System so the new behaviour becomes your new habit. Before the new behaviour is a habit, it takes more effort to energize that goal.
When the undesired behaviour is energized, you have to find ways to calm the system so
you do not give in to the temptation of the old behaviour. You may want to follow write plans in a journal and follow your implementation intention as a scaffold to energize the new behaviour until you have repeated it often enough for a habit to emerge.
It is helpful to create distance to minimize temptation and also that people are more likely give into temptation when they are stressed.
A great story about temptation relates to Odysseus, who was curious about the song of the Sirens, those beautiful ethereal creatures who tried to lure sailors to their island by singing. But, alas, the sailors who got too close to the island would find themselves shipwrecked on the rocks that surrounded the island. Nobody was able to resist the song of the Sirens, but Odysseus desperately wanted to hear the song. He prepared by ordering his ship crew to plug their ears with wax. He asked to be tied to the mast of the ship and to be kept there no matter how much he begged to be let go. As the ship approached the island of the Sirens, Odysseus pleaded with his crew to be set free, but they listened to his orders and kept him tied up despite his desire to give in to their song.
This reinforces the points that at a distance, you find a temptation tantalizing, and you believe that you are strong enough to overcome it. As the temptation gets closer, though, it becomes increasingly hard to resist until, eventually, you want to give in to it. If you manage to resist by your own efforts or those of the people around you, then the temptation subsides as you get farther away from it.
In the face of a temptation, you need a plan. The aim of that plan is to lighten the burden on your Stop System. The plan reminds you to avoid the temptation, but then it provides a way of redirecting the Go System so you are not just riding the brakes until they fail. For example, when you go grocery shopping do this with a list – representing a plan and ideally when not hungry in which you would be more likely to give into temptation.
The ‘what-the-hell effect’ is when initial small failure of self-control turns into a monumental failure. You not only fail, but you fail spectacularly. Failing like this can potentially have long term repercussions creating a return to the old behaviour, this can relate to your protected values which can strongly drive you away from the temptation. You know you have a protected value when you experience a high level of guilt every time you fail, and you feel agitated or angry when you even start to think much about the temptation. When you have a protected value, you do not even want to think about possible violations of your value. As a result, you’re likely to avoid planning for situations in which you might fail because you feel uncomfortable with the topic overall.
Protected values are a problem because they draw a line in the sand. In an effort to strengthen the Stop System, they equate the battle with the war. When you are unwilling to accept any trade-off or compromise, any small failure is magnified.
Instead try to treat failure as a part of the process of behaviour change, realize that a series of successes punctuated by the occasional small failure moves you slowly toward your goal. Take the long view.
Your Stop System strength is not fixed. If you adopt an incremental (growth) mind-set when thinking about your Stop System and treat it like a skill, then you are better able to overcome temptation than if you perceive this as an entity (fixed) mind-set. If you tax the Stop System too much, eventually it will fail, however strong.
With any attempt to change your behaviour, there is a tendency to focus on your own psychological characteristics. Remember the new behaviour, your internal defences to avoid temptation. Spending time looking inward to find ways to change yourself. However, successful behaviour change also requires looking outward. Your environment is a powerful driver of what you do.
For example, likely you remember to brushy your teeth twice a day, but perhaps don’t floss daily. Most people but their floss packages either in a drawer or in the medicine cabinet behind the mirror. Neither of those spots is a visible part of the environment. As a result, you don’t have a good visual reminder that it’s time to floss. Unlike your toothbrush out on display!
Parkour is a skill using our environment to get around quickly. For example by grabbing onto bars on windows and fire escapes to swing, finding rocks and platforms that might allow you to jump to a higher place. In movies like James Bond parkour is demonstrated when characters are chased through urban landscapes. When someone learns parkour, they exploit small footholds and handholds in walls but most interestingly they learn to see the world in a different way. They can see places to put their hands and feet or jump from that they never saw before. This principle relates habits – you want to create the habit of seeing the world differently based on your new habits.
If you commit to a person you are more likely to commit than to a group, particularly if only loosely involved, in a part this is a reason AA have the concept of a sponsor. For the purposes of habit change you can divide people into these three groups:
Family, Strangers and Neighbours
Family – Try to get their support for new changes you are making. Just be aware some family may see the behaviour you are trying to change you. Some family members may not support you, believing it is part of who you are, or you may have broken too many promises to them before, particularly if dealing with addictions.
Strangers- You don’t know strangers so select them wisely. Wen you interact with them, you engage in transactions in which each person needs to get something of value in the moment. The main value of strangers is to provide a background of people who may be engaged in similar goals, which can help keep those same goals active for you.
Neighbours – People you see regularly, this includes friends – this group of people can be useful for behaviour change as you don’t want them to see you in a dark light, so potentially this can reinforce good habits. It is fundamental to avoid people who exhibit qualities you don’t want.
Why are you similar to your friends? All humans have similar brains, however, you are likely to see the world around you in a similar lens to your peers. In addition the influence of the local environment impacts the way you interact and also view the world.
Once that knowledge is in your system, it is remarkably difficult to remove. There is no mechanism in the brain that allows you just to delete something that you have discovered is false. When you have reason to mistrust the product, though, it engages your Stop System. It shifts you from a doing mode to a thinking mode. Once you enter into that thinking mode, you are prone to avoid action. A lack of trust has the same effect on your behaviour as other negative emotions like disgust.
Feedback – focus on process goals not outcome goals
The comments you make to other people affect the way that they characterize their goals. It’s common to want to talk to people about the progress they’re making toward a goal they’re
working on. However, there is a danger that if most of your discussion focuses on progress toward reaching some end state, then people may develop outcome goals rather than process goals.
When the conversation focuses on the process of change rather than the outcome, it reinforces the value of creating a sustainable process whose side effect is the desired long-term contribution.
The classic example of this is weight loss – you look great how did you achieve it? Is better than just you look great. Potentially focusing on the process goal will reinforce their growth mindset.
The only path to lasting behaviour change comes from allowing the Go System to engage a new set of goals at the expense of the old and undesired ones.