The decade is new. The year is fresh. Long squandered hope is once again making it’s much anticipated appearance. Optimism is in the air. THIS TIME, THIS YEAR, you will accomplish THAT goal. THAT body. THAT health. THAT relationship.
Perhaps you are the type of person for whom behavior change comes relatively effortlessly. You set a goal for yourself – 100 push ups a day, maybe – and you then proceed to meet it. Good for you.
Chances are, however, that you are more like the rest of us. The rest of us for whom behavior change is markedly straining. Distinctly difficult. Undeniably effortful and, after some period of time, a buried dream. A relic of what might have been, and, perhaps, of what could be – NEXT YEAR, mind you.
Many researches have taken it upon themselves to solve once and for all this riddle of habit-formation and habit-deconstruction. (For an excellent primer on this, I would recommend listening to the December 30th edition of Hidden Brain). There are two key take-aways: 1) we are wired for short-term reward over long-term reward and 2) the amount of ‘friction’ in the way of a behavior determines the likelihood that we will engage in said behavior.
When it comes to picking up a new habit, we want to be sure that it is in some way enjoyable. Doing 100 push-ups a day may not, in and of itself, be an enjoyable enterprise, but if we did it while listening to the podcast we never have time for or while watching the television show we never allow ourselves to indulge in, we may start to look forward to the activity. In our mind, push-ups become associated with something that IS a short-term reward.
Similarly, we want to ensure that the process leading up to the activity is as smooth and easy as possible. If we want to start going on a run in the morning, we might consider putting our running clothes at the foot of the bed. Perhaps we even choose to sleep in them. This practice reduces the barrier, or “friction,” that precedes the desired behavior of running.
These are ways of working in accordance with the symmetry of our brains. Because our brains are oriented towards short-term reward, we give it to them. Because our brains don’t like difficulty, we make engaging in the new behaviors as simple as possible.
By working with our wiring in this way, we increase the chances that the habits we want become just that – habits.
We can use the above principles in the opposite manner to challenge the habits that no longer serve us.
Let’s say we want to reduce our drinking. Drinking is a short-term reward. We drink, it feels good. The “feeling good” is the reward. To avoid the drink, then, is to lose the short-term reward and experience distress and discomfort in its stead. Not a trade-off our brains like.
In the interest of increasing the likelihood that we follow through with the resolution, it would make sense to replace the reward of drinking with a different short-term reward of our choosing. Perhaps we put a snack that we enjoy in the place that we normally keep the liquor. When we compulsively go there in the future, we may not get what we initially wanted, but we won’t come away empty-handed, either.
Additionally, by moving the liquor to a new location – ideally a difficult to get to location – we are introducing additional friction. The price tag of getting the drink we wanted is suddenly higher than it was. It requires more effort. There is also the likelihood that we will have more time to consider our action while we walk to the new liquor storage. Both the additional effort (which our brains don’t like) AND the space that we now have to think about our behavior, are two factors that make drinking less likely.
To summarize: if we want to do something, we find ways to make the behavior rewarding in the short-term and we make the barrier to engaging in the activity as small as possible. If we don’t want to do something, we replace it with a different reward and we make the barrier to engaging in that thing as difficult as possible to overcome.
Where Things Get Interesting
The above strategies dramatically improve our odds, but they aren’t a surefire guarantee that we will follow through on our resolutions.
Our brains are simply wired to like what is easy and to avoid what is difficult. We can make running as enjoyable and accessible as possible, but, at the end of the day, running is still running.
If engaging in our desired behavior is dependent on us feeling good and feeling motivated, we are, in my estimation, doomed. So long as our behavior is chained to an experience of comfort, ease, and motivation, we can only go so far.
What I propose is that we adopt a warrior-like mentality in regards to habit-formation and habit-deconstruction. This means that we cultivate a willingness – a eagerness – to deal with our inevitably difficult experiencing head on.
Transformative change necessarily entails feeling uncomfortable.
So, to be successful, we might consider committing to the disturbance, discomfort, frustration and despair that are sure to make themselves known in the pursuit of our goals.
Instead of looking at disturbance as something to turn away from, we can look at disturbance as something to turn towards.
We can begin to prioritize short-term discomfort over short-term comfort. We do something as crazy as this because we have a hypothesis that the short-term discomfort will lead to long-term health and well-being.
We engage in the behavior precisely because it doesn’t feel good.
The methods of fulfilling our resolutions that this post led with are very much about working in concert with our brains. The strategies are helpful and well worth adopting.
The last section introduces a counter-instinctual practice. I believe that the path to health and sanity oftentimes demands an approach that challenges our biology and our natural inclinations. This approach requires discipline, practice and a willingness to not turn away from difficult experiencing.
If you find that you struggle in attaining your resolutions year-after-year, or if challenging your natural tendencies proves too demanding, I am happy to help.