How To Build A Better You
I see behaviour change as the process of moving yourself from who you are, to who you want to be.
If you stop reading now, just remember: behaviour change is a process, not a switch.
It’s like learning how to play an instrument, or speak a new language.
Deciding today to learn the guitar doesn’t mean tomorrow you’ll wake up and play a song tomorrow.
Deciding today to change yourself doesn’t mean tomorrow you’ll wake up and be a different person.
But the most important thing is to know that you can use techniques and practice and repetition to get better at changing yourself.
The Elements of Successful Behaviour Change
Before I outline what I see as the elements of successful behaviour change, there’s an important caveat to be be made. A one-size-fits-all formula for behaviour change is impossible. Every change is different — compare starting a flossing habit with breaking a heroin addiction with training for your first marathon.
BJ Fogg’s Behavior Grid describes the 15 ways behaviour can change really succinctly. Trying to script a formula for all 15 is a mistake.
But in my view, what has worked for me in behaviour change, and what I’ve seen work well for others is the following model.
The first element, and probably the most overlooked, is creating the right mindset for change. I think most people fail at change before they start because they haven’t set the right expectations for the change process.
The second element is setting the right goal. Another major reason people fail is because they set a goal that isn’t right for them. It might be impossible or unrealistic or it might be something they don’t want or aren’t willing to do.
Assuming your expectations are reasonable and you’ve set an appropriate goal, the third element is determining with sufficient specificity the activities that will move you towards your goal.
The final element is regular review, both of your activities, and your goal. You have to take what you learn as you’re going to adjust your goals and your activities.
The cycle of these elements is ongoing. The regular process of review will allow you to calibrate your mindset, which will allow you to better define the right goals for you, which will require you to adjust the activities you’re doing, which will require regular review… and so on and so forth…
Breaking Down The Elements: Setting Your Head Right
There are some general points to consider to set your expectations of change correctly.
- I can get better at this.
- The journey, not the destination.
- Don’t pretend you have a different life.
- Start now.
- Expect disruption.
- Expect failure.
- Remove guilt.
- Be patient.
- Live through the seasons.
- You are Pacman.
I can get better at this.
This is the fundamental belief you need to start changing. It’s not the same as thinking — “I can change” — which might actually work against you. It’s the mindset that whatever you’re going for, the goal is progress, not perfection.
The journey, not the destination.
When people think about change, they think about intervention.
You’ll eat less, lose 15 kilos, then that’s the end of it.
But it doesn’t happen like that, because change is a constant process. You’re always going to be changing something. And when you get done with changing one thing, there’s going to be something else that emerges, some other change that you’ll need to work on. Expecting this up front saves a lot of disappointment down the track.
Don’t pretend you have a different life.
This ties in to the earlier point — whatever you’re struggling with today — making a decision to change it doesn’t remove any of the elements in your life that make that thing a struggle today. You are always going to revert to the mean when it comes to motivation or optimism and you can’t expect that to change.
Picture yourself making changes in the course of normal life, not in some idealised world in which you have more time, energy and motivation. That place doesn’t exist.
As Ben says: “Your future self doesn’t exist. There is no future you. All that exists is a series of present selves, all shirking responsibility and assuming versions of themselves that don’t exist will solve their problems.”
Equally, the best time to start the process was yesterday. The next best time is now. It won’t be easier after your vacation, or when you move to the new house, or when you get the new job… it will be just as hard and you will have less time to make the change.
So start now, no matter how inconvenient the circumstances might be.
Every month, you should expect that 1 in every 4 days will be impacted by sickness, injury, travel for work, personal travel, or an intervening event like a hangover, a Superbowl, a bar mitzvah or a hen’s night.
The most under-rated change skill you can develop is the ability to plan in and around those constraints.
You have to be ready to fail multiple times as you try to make something stick. Failing isn’t a sign to stop, it’s a sign to try again. This time with more information about what works and what doesn’t.
Successful people love the Yoda quote: Do or do not. There is no try.
That’s not how it works when it comes to change. In changing, you will encounter so much ‘do not’ that the only thing that matters is ‘try’.
Remove the guilt from change. If you fail, start again. Guilt and shame are HUGE wastes of energy. Remove all your negative emotions around change, forget all past failures and just try again. Every other approach is inefficient.
You will grossly overestimate your ability to change. Really. You want to underestimate and then overdeliver. Not the reverse.
People’s favourite change is weight loss. We now have extremely sophisticated models to show how change happens with weight loss.
I’m 200 pounds. Let’s say I commit to a perfect year of diet. Where I forgo 1 meal/500 Calories a day and drop to just 2 meals a day.
How much weight can I expect to lose? Well, it turns out, not much. Over that time, I’m only going to lose 8 or 9 pounds. In a perfect year!!!
That’s a really good proxy for how most change happens. It takes much longer than we want to admit.
Live through the seasons.
Your changes will come in seasons. It’s rare they’ll last for more than 3 months without starting to feel stale… So you’ll want to keep that in mind — you’re not changing forever, just for a short time and then focussing on something else.
Note, this isn’t the case for breaking nicotine addiction, or making a one-off change (BJ Fogg’s Behavior Grid is worth revisiting here.)
You are Pacman.
You are Pacman. You have endless lives. You get reborn every time you decide to try again. So don’t be afraid to try and fail.
Breaking Down The Elements: Setting The Right Goal
Setting the right goal is a really important part of achieving it. Here’s some important points to consider.
- Do you really want this?
- Can you really do it?
- Are you really motivated?
- Limit yourself.
- Have a clear destination.
- Set a time-limit.
Do you really want this?
My favourite example of “do you really want this?” is six-pack abs. Abs are a function of body fat percentage. And if you can keep yours below 8 or 9%, the muscle form will start to show.But maintaining sub-10% body fat is really hard. You basically have to plan every meal, avoid foods you love and be a martyr in every social situation. You’re the guy at dinner ordering a salad and a water. So you may think you want a six-pack, but do you really want what that change actually means for your life?
Can you really do it?
You may have competing interests and priorities that are going to stop you from doing the activities necessary to get you to your goal. Family, professional, social or personal commitments might be more important to you. So don’t pick the goal that you really can’t do.
Are you really motivated?
In working with people, I’ve realised that many of them actually aren’t that motivated. They say they want to change, but their actions show the opposite. The stages of change model is a good guide here — be honest about where along that path you currently sit.
Don’t change it all at once, even if it all needs to be changed. If you have more than 5 goals right now, chances are that two of them aren’t getting all that much attention.
Q: How do you eat an elephant?
A: One spoonful at a time.
Have a clear destination.
Clearly defined, ideally written down in detail.
Don’t say, “I want to be healthier”. That could mean so many things that you’d have no idea if you’d ever achieved it. Instead, try something close to: “I want to drink a glass of water before breakfast every morning.” The test for clarity is that if someone was to ask you whether you’d achieved it, you’d instantly know.
Set a time-limit.
Once you’ve defined the end point, give yourself a fixed time to get there. Less than a quarter, and ideally less than a month.
Breaking Down The Elements: Setting The Right Activities
Taking your goals, and breaking it down into a set of activities is crucial for making the goal possible. Here are some things to think about.
- On the path.
- Regularly rewarded.
On the path.
The right activity is the one that’s going to get to your goal. It’s easy for some goals and not so easy for others. But break it down in real time… what has to happen before, during and after the activity so that you’re progressing to your goal.
If you want to run a marathon, it’s not enough to just focus on regular 5k runs. Your activities will need to be tailored towards getting your body ready to run 4 hours nonstop.
This is a key word. Small. Start with small activities. There is no lower limit to how small. Flossing one tooth, turning on a light, putting your shoes beside your bed all count. The key is to make it doable, so the initial friction of starting on the path to your goal disappears.
By making it small, you can reward yourself regularly on your way to the goal. Rewards can be tiny — a glass of water, a fist pump, but you need to recognise your progress with positive emotion.
You want momentum. You want to be the snowball coming down a mountain. So take all this — small, defined, achievable — and create activities that get you to your goal on a daily basis at least.
Breaking Down The Elements: Regular Review
- Weekly, monthly, quarterly.
- Visually tracked.
Weekly, Monthly, Quarterly
This is model I use. Quarterly goals. Monthly reviews. Weekly check-ins against activities.
You should experiment and find your own rhythm, but that’s what works for me. Regular review is the best way to avoid the disruptors we spoke about earlier and the best way to gradually, noticeably improve your change technique.
How change happens.
Why tracking matters.
The brain loves progress. Give it some signs it’s making progress in the most visceral way. Seinfeld knew this. So did Ben Franklin. Lots of great tools exist to help you do the same, from a pen and paper, to an Excel spreadsheet, or even something like Chains.cc.
So we’ve covered the basics.
- Set your head right.
- Set a goal.
- Break down it’s activities.
- Review things on a regular basis.
Let’s talk now about how we can optimise the model. To start you need to identify your accelerators and your blockers.
Blockers: Environmental and Psychological
The biggest blockers are environmental. Your commute, dog, kids, lunch-hour…Think of everything in your environment that might obstruct your progress and work through ways you can deal with them. Some will be immovable. Some entirely subject to manipulation.
Then you have to know yourself. What have you done in the past, that you think might slow you down again? What things about yourself do you believe to be intrinsic and unchangeable? Think about your own psychology — are there tricks you might play on yourself to hold yourself back? Deal with this stuff ahead of time, be aware of it and plan techniques for solving it.
This is over-simplification — environmental and psychological blockers are worthy of much greater depth of analysis — but for the purposes of this post, just be aware that they’ll be the two major factors that will slow your progress.
Accelerators: Triggers, Rewards, Fear, Community and Competition.
I’ve spoken a lot about these in the past, but the cliff notes:
- Triggers are artificial constructs that take the form of the thing you do right before you do something else. The best trigger is something you do anyway, such as brushing your teeth or waking up in the morning. If you create triggers off things that always happen (I floss after I brush my teeth, I walk the dog as soon as I wake up), you’re likely to be able to more regularly and reliably ensure your activities happen.
- Reward is a huge driver and we’ve already covered it a little. But simply put, build a reward into what you’re doing. A new shirt if you hit 30 days in a row of flossing… Anything to reward and ritualise your success.
- Even stronger than reward is punishment or fear. Commit to losing something if you don’t do your activities. Money, rights, anything. A negative incentive can be a powerful motivator.
- Community and the process of changing with others is a huge accelerator. The shared goals, support and accountability can be the difference between success and failure.
- Finally, games or competitions, even with yourself can help. Striving to do more last week than this week, to do more than a friend, to walk further, to lose more weight can greatly increase the initial stickiness of a change.
So Where Do I Start?
Start with the Scientific Method you learnt in Grade 4.
- Observe yourself for a short period of time in relation to a behaviour you’d like to change. Tracking might help inform the research phase.
- Use your research to form a hypothesis: “I seem to sleep better when I shut down my computer earlier.“
- Make a prediction: “If I turn off my computer at 9pm, I will sleep better during the week.“
- Experiment: Turn your computer off at 9pm every night and see what happens.
- Conclusion: Decide whether your prediction was right. Optimise the experiment. Set an alarm as a trigger. Tell your housemate she has the right to enforce the rule on your behalf. Go to the Meatball Shop if you can do 5 straight nights of 9pm computer shutdown. Keep testing it a week at a time, to see what works for you. If it doesn’t work out, new hypothesis, new prediction.
This process allows you to have a suitable mindset for change, get better at setting goals, get better at defining the right activities to achieve your goal, and gives you short time frames and structures to conduct regular reviews and allows you to adopt a growth mindset:
The growth mindset is a buffer against defeatism. It reframes failure as a natural part of the change process. And that’s critical, because people will persevere only if they perceive falling down as learning rather than as failing.
If you’re still playing along at home, I put together a GoogDoc to help you start to make the right kind of change.
(Originally published August 15, 2012)