The illiterate of the 21st century will not be those who cannot read and write, but those who cannot learn, unlearn and relearn – Alvin Toffler, Futurist
I had a dog named Bella who came home one night covered in porcupine quills. When we brought Bella to the Vet he was able to get all the quills out and we learned that she was lucky.
The Vet started to tell us about all the other dogs who get quilled. All kinds of terrible things happen – they can have trouble eating, or lose vision as the most common place for a dog to get quilled is in the face or mouth.
But here is the fact that really stuck (pun intended!).
The Vet said there are some dogs that just get quilled once. That’s it. Then they learn to stay away from that particularly poky creature.
Other dogs, though, go back again and again. And again.
No matter how many times the quills dig into these dogs, they just can’t stop themselves from chasing the porcupine.
It seems crazy.
But then I started to think about it more.
People repeat behaviors that cause them pain and suffering all the time.
While I can let dogs off the hook on the principle that it’s instinct or they haven’t been trained well, it’s harder with people.
Why do we repeatedly choose to encounter a painful experience over and over after?
Why don’t we learn?
On the face of it, it doesn’t make sense.
But actually there is a lawful logic to this cycle.
If we understand the principles at work, we can work with the brain to help us change.
Optimizing the Brain
How our brain helps us, and how it hurts us
The brain has developed over millennia to automate what it can.
The more it automates, the more space that leaves to respond to new situations.
In many situations this works to our advantage.
For example, if every day we had to relearn to drive, there wouldn’t be a lot of time left for other pursuits.
Here’s how the cognitive Psychologist Dr. Art Markman of the University of Texas, Austin explains it:
Your brain is optimized to continue doing what you did last time without having to think about it. So, when you decide you want to change a behavior, you are fighting against millions of years of evolution that have created mechanisms that want you to maintain your behaviors. The hardest part about these behaviors is that they are habits, and so they are done mindlessly.
In short, it takes less effort to repeat what you’ve already done many times then it does to learn and do something new.
Your brain has evolved in response to ever changing circumstances over MILLIONS of years of evolution, often somewhat haphazardly.
Usually, when you want to change a habit, you fail to recognize that this is the scale that you are dealing with.
At most, you might think back to your early conditioning and education. Certainly these are at play, but it is the very nature of our brain as it has evolved that is most relevant.
When you only take into account the smaller frame of our own lives, or even recent events, it’s easy to tend toward believing that it is a lack of willpower or personal failure that keeps us in a bad habit loop.
Some habits – even ones you consider negative – don’t have a fundamental impact on your life or work. Taken together though your habits have a huge effect on your results, personally and professionally.
“We are what we repeatedly do.”
Our habits determine our success, or failure
Aristotle famously said “We are what we repeatedly do. Excellence, then, is not an act but a habit.”
Our habits, bundled together become our personal system, and that system produces our results, scattered and ineffective or streamlined and full of impact. Your path to impact then, lies in understanding how your habits form your systems and tweaking the individual habits until you get the results you want.
Take this scenario:
You are sitting at your desk. On your computer screen multiple windows are open – one with dozens of e-mails that need to be written or responded to, another has a half-finished presentation.
The phone is ringing.
Someone pops in your door for “a quick question” that ends up taking 27 minutes (you were looking at the clock so you know).
On top of that, you got only 5 hours of sleep due to a restless little one last night and have had two cups of coffee.
Each detail in this scenario – from where you are sitting, to what is open on your computer, how you respond to your colleague and of course your sleep and coffee – is likely driven by habit.
Together they are forming your “system”, which in this case is producing varied and mostly unpleasant results for your emotional state (you’re likely feeling frustrated) and for what your results.
To rework this system, you’d break it down to it’s component habits and transform them one at a time to create a new system with higher impact.
Why epiphany isn’t the way to go
A common reaction when people start to understand the Path to Impact is that they want to overhaul their whole way of doing things.
Immediately. And entirely.
Unfortunately, there is a huge problem with that approach: most of the time, it doesn’t work.
Instead, you’ll be back where you began only more frustrated by the lack of improvement.
It is true that occasionally people have epiphanies.
The lightbulb goes on. They have a moment of deep realization that a habit or even entire system is not working as they wish and are able to make a sudden and lasting change.
However, this is very rare.
Even when life and death is on the line people have tremendous trouble changing behaviors they know could make a difference.
If you look at people after coronary-artery bypass grafting two years later, 90% of them have not changed their lifestyle. And that’s been studied over and over and over again. And so we’re missing some link in there. Even though they know they have a very bad disease and they know they should change their lifestyle, for whatever reason, they can’t.
These are people who recently had a major surgery. The lifestyle changes they need to make are generally very well known (more on that shortly). Yet they can’t make simple changes that would take little or no time or money.
Epiphanies are not your best option. There is hope in another direction. We’ll get to that soon.
First, let’s understand why most advice out there just won’t help you create better habits.
“I want to reduce stress”
Why most advice won’t help you
Short of an Epiphany, your next step might logically be to explore specific positive behaviors you could adopt.
Let’s take reducing stress as a common example.
If you google “I want to reduce stress” you will get, literally, hundreds of thousands of hits with titles like “101 Ways to Reduce Stress” “10 Simple Ways to Relieve Stress That You Can Start Today” and “20 Easy Stress Reduction Techniques”
The stay-at-home humorist Ann Imig pokes fun of these tactical lists (and actually offers some more useful advice) in her piece “How I combat burn-out in 10,000 easy steps! Staying semi-sane during intense busy times.”
Do some of these sites contain tactics that could be helpful to you at a certain moment? Of course. And likely all are well intentioned.
There’s just one problem, and it’s a big one.
They are almost guaranteed not to help you.
Why? They are not:
- well matched to the specific context that you are currently experiencing
- customized for the stage of change you are in
- communicated for multiple learning styles
- focused enough to help you identify and take a first micro-step
This is why advice like “Turn on some music” or “Be faithful to your workout routines” while well-intentioned, often don’t get that far.
By and large, people already know what kinds of behaviors are most likely to produce positive results.
Take one recent study including men who adopted five straightforward health habits – moderate drinking, no smoking, and healthy diet, exercise and weight maintenance. Probably you are familiar with all of these behaviors and know that they are positive.
The men in the study who adopted them all were 86% less likely to have heart attacks.
So, how many of the 20,700 men in the study do you think kept these habits up for the 11 years of research?
Only 212, or just 1%.
You often know what we’d like to do or could do to increase positive outcomes and decrease negative ones.
You just don’t do it.
All is not lost
The Change Process
Luckily, though, there is a way to change a problematic habit.
In order to change, you don’t have to understand the larger process you go through. If you want you can skip straight to what to do to change a habit.
If you do value a bigger picture view of the specific process people go through when considering a habit change, here it is, on the seminal work of the researchers Prochaska & DiClemente introduced in the early 80s, and has been built on ever since:
- Pre-contemplation: You have not consciously acknowledged any problem with your behavior (even if you sense it unconsciously), nor are your consciously considering alternatives.
- Contemplation: You are asking yourself “should I stay with these habits and attitudes or should I try changing?”
- Preparation: You are convinced that you want to change. You know you want to take action, and are getting ready to do so soon.
- Action: You take action in line with your desired change.
- Retrain: You keep taking action in your new, desired way, retraining yourself.
- Relapse (likely but not inevitable): You go back to your previous (less desirable) behavior probably because of a familiar trigger or trying to take too big a step at once. If this happens you will likely need go back to step 3 and repeat.
Of course, this leaves aside the question of what motivates us to move through these stages, or causes relapses. However, it is a strong overview of how we function and the stages a person generally goes through to create change.
If you’re already motivated and clear on the very specific habit you want to try to change (that is, if you are in the preparation stage), here’s exactly what you can do to take action for lasting change.
What to do to change a habit
Get started with a Micro-action
In Stanford Professor BJ Fogg‘s summary Lasting Change, based on decades of research on the subject, he postulates that there are two, and only two, effective ways to create long term change:
-Baby Steps (which I call Micro-Actions )
There are two types of micro-actions. You can either:
- use a scaled down version of the new habit. For example, if you want to write everyday, rather then committing to 3 hours of writing a day, commit to writing at least a 3 sentences a day
- take a starter step that is on the right path. Staying with the writing example, you might go to a meet-up of a local writer’s group
- for a bonus, pair this with environmental changes, like putting only a pen and paper out on your desk every evening.
The hard part is being ready and motivated to change, clear on what habit you want to adopt and why, and identifying your Micro-action.
Today, my wish for you is that you will identify one positive micro-action and take it, as soon as possible to create a more productive and meaningful life.
What is the micro-action you took?
Low-Risk Diet and Lifestyle Habits in the Primary Prevention of Myocardial Infarction in Men: A Population-Based Prospective Cohort Study Agneta Åkesson, PhD, Susanna C. Larsson, PhD, Andrea Discacciati, MSc and Alicja Wolk, DMSc
J Am Coll Cardiol. 2014;64(13):1299-1306. doi:10.1016/j.jacc.2014.06.1190.
Prochaska JO and DiClemente CC ( 1984 ) The Transtheoretical Approach: Towards a Systematic Eclectic Framework . Dow Jones Irwin , Homewood, IL, USA
Fogg, BJ “Lasting Change” Online. Available: http://bjfogg.org/lastingchange/ Accessed: September 22, 2014.