Top 10 Mistakes in Behavior Change
Over the past year and a half or so, I’ve been thinking and reading a lot more about personal improvement, the formation of habits, and so on. Along these lines, I recently read set of slides from a presentation given by BJ Fogg et al. from Stanford University’s Persuasive Technology Lab, which I thought offers a very nice summation of some of the things I’ve learned.
(Hat Tip: Giles Bowkett)
Partly for my own reference, here’s the text of the bulk of the slides, along with my commentary:
Top 10 Mistakes in Behavior Change
Relying on willpower for long-term change
Imagine willpower doesn't exist. That's step 1 to a brighter future.
Me: When we see someone who is well-disciplined, punctual, and so on, we tend to think "wow, they must have a lot of willpower," when in fact the main reason they can do these things regularly is because these things have become habits, and not because they normally have to consciously will to do them. Conversely, willpower — such as it is — exists for short-term emergencies, and is quickly exhausted. (Given a choice, it's far better to flee temptation than to attempt to resist it.)
Attempting big leaps instead of baby steps
Seek tiny successes -- one after another.
Me: The more modest your goals — particularly when you are trying something new — the more likely they are to be realistic. Additionally, it's the constant feedback of small successes which really serves to build a habit. Frequency is massively more important than quality.
Ignoring how often environment shapes behaviors
Change your context & you change your life.
Me: This was one of the major factors in my move to Seattle. Among other things it represented a conscious decision to connect with specific groups of people here who are more like the way I want to be myself, both professionally and spiritually. Peer pressure can be a wonderful tool for self-improvement! But changing your context can even mean simple things like rearranging your furniture, or putting particular items where they will be within easy reach. Ever realized after the fact that you had set your (then-)future self up for failure? You can also do little things to set your future self up for success too.
Trying to stop old behaviors instead of creating new ones
Focus on action, not avoidance.
Me: Just like you'll tend to steer a car or throw a ball wherever it is you're looking, you'll tend to do whatever it is you're focused on — even if you're focused on it because you're trying to avoid it. Find something positive to focus on and do that instead. A repeating theme of the best spiritual direction I've received over the years has been that you don't break bad habits so much as replace them.
Blaming failures on lack of motivation
Solution: Make the behavior easier to do.
Me: "What's keeping me from doing this thing I want to do?" is a valid question, often with important answers; it's worth asking it seriously. Very often we discover a series of roadblocks — once we are consciously aware of what these are, we can often find ways to deal with them or even to make them irrelevant. These roadblocks can be internal or external; in many cases a goal we think we want can actually be scary or threatening for us in other ways that we haven't consciously admitted to ourselves. These fears aren't silly; they deserve consideration and they'll go unaddressed so long as they go unnamed. (Sometimes simply naming them makes them easier to face, and sometimes it's necessary to look for ways to create a safer environment for change.) Find ways to make the things you don't want to do harder, and the things you want to do easier.
Underestimating the power of triggers
No behavior happens without a trigger.
Me: Keep track of what you're doing; look for correlations. Find and ruthlessly exploit triggers for good behaviors, and starve your life of bad ones where you can. It's not cheating.
Believing that information leads to action
We humans aren't so rational.
Me: We tend to think of human reason as an active quality, with the force of our will steering us here or there, but most of our activity is actually spent on a sort of auto-pilot, with our rational faculty at best reflecting on, or at worst rationalizing, what we are doing. Living mindfully and deliberately is a good habit to cultivate in itself (it's essential every other kind of improvement), but when it comes to changing behaviors, the only sustainable approach is to reprogram the auto-pilot rather than continuously hovering tense over the controls. In fact, it's a lot more like riding a donkey that needs to be (re)trained than it is like flying a plane. Factual input and feedback is important for training, but not because you need to reason with the donkey.
Focusing on abstract goals more than concrete behaviors
Abstract: Get in shape
Concrete: Walk 15 min. today
Me: Roughly speaking, a concrete goal is something you can do, now.
Seeking to change a behavior forever, not for a short time.
A fixed period works better than "forever"
Me: In the extreme case, one day at a time. But in the meantime see if you can't start addressing incentives, triggers, and the effort involved.
Assuming that behavior change is difficult.
Behavior change is not so hard when you have the right process.
Me: It might be overstating the case, but behavior change really is usually the easy part once you have an idea of what to do. It may be that there are external factors which undermine our attempts to change in particular cases, and those can be hard to get rid of, but for the most part the remaining hard parts are honesty, self-awareness, and a willingness to accept outside help.