If you are like most people, there are a lot of things that you would like to change about yourself. Maybe you wish you could exercise every day of the week, or procrastinate less, or study instead of surfing the web, or get up early every morning, or stop smoking. In this post, I will share with you the scientifically proven method to change your behaviors, your habits, and your life for good.
Chances are you’ve already read books, blog posts, and watched countless videos on how to build good habits in place of your bad habits. Problem is, you still haven’t changed because you’ve only been attacking the problem from one side. Here we will go over a scientific method to actually implement the changes that you want to see into your life.
This post is based off an excellent book written by Dr. Sean Young, titled “Stick With It: A Scientifically Proven Process for Changing Your Life – For Good.” If you like the content in this post, you’ll definitely enjoy the book.
Now there are two steps to the process for creating lasting change. First , you must identify the type of behavior you are trying to change. Second, once you have determined the behavior type, use the appropriate techniques and methods to elicit change.
Step 1. Identify the Behavior Type
The ABC’s describe the three types of behaviors.
First is Automatic. Automatic behaviors are those behaviors that we do without conscious awareness. It is almost impossible to stop ourselves because we’re not even aware that we’re doing them. They are therefore the most firmly engrained behaviors. Examples would be biting your nails or unconsciously slouching with poor posture.
Next are Burning Behaviors. This refers to those activities you do because of an irresistible urge. Burning behaviors are the second most ingrained behaviors because of feelings that seem impossible to resist. Examples include constantly checking your phone for Instagram likes or emails, or feeling the need to play video games.
The third type is Common. Common behaviors are the most common behaviors that people try to change. These are the least engrained but are still difficult to change. We do them repeatedly and consciously. An example would be wanting to eat junk food rather than exercising or hitting the snooze button on your alarm.
Step 2. Implement the Appropriate Techniques
Now that you’ve identified whether your unwanted behavior is an automatic, burning, or common behavior, the next step is to utilize the appropriate forces to elicit a change. There are a total of 7 techniques in your tool box, and the easy way to remember them is with the acronym SCIENCE:
Now let’s go over each one in order.
Dr. Young suggests a three tiered model: Steps, Goals, and Dreams.
We all have lofty goals, ambitions, and dreams. And there’s nothing wrong with that, but its critical that you understand having dreams is not what will push you to through the day-to-day that life puts in your path. Dreams are lofty goals such as becoming a plastic surgeon or a movie star. Goals are more quantifiable and would be something like getting 1 million subscribers on your YouTube channel. Steps are even smaller, bite sized chunks that direct you in achieving your goals and dreams.
If you focus on your goal to become a physician, that will motivate you, but it just won’t last. You will end up planning large steps that are so big they can’t quite get things done, get discouraged, and quit. Science shows that people have a better chance of success by focusing on small steps. When I say small, I mean tiny. So if you want to be a doctor, start small and break it up into steps. Rather than completely focusing on getting into medical school or residency, instead break the task down. You need better grades. How do you do that? Study more effectively. How do you do that? Start by doing 2 hours of Pomodoro per day for a week. Then go up to 3 hours of Pomodoro per day. Or start doing flash cards every day but start small with just 10, then 20, then 30. Start small and slowly build.
Dr. Young breaks down the science of why cults are so effective and turns it around to teach us how to train ourselves to implement good habits.
Effective communities yield great power in influencing us to change our behaviors. These effective communities utilize 6 principles:
1. The Need to Trust: when people trust other community members, they become more willing to learn, more open-minded, and more willing to change
2. The Need to Fit In: people need to feel like they fit in with this community of people.
3. The Need for Self-Worth: people will keep doing things that make them feel good about themselves. Building on this improves self-esteem and keeps members motivated.
4. The Need for a Social Magnet: this is a symbolic magnetic draw between community members that keeps them working towards a common goal.
5. The Need to Be Rewarded: people like to be rewarded for good behavior.
6. The Need to Feel Empowered: people need to feel like they are control of their lives to satisfy this need.
How can you implement this in your life? Let’s take exercise – to implement community with exercise, you could either join an online community on reddit or a fitness website or find a group of work out buddies that align with your goals.
Conventional wisdom says that there are “motivated people” and others who are “lazy.” If you’ve been unable to go to bed early or watch less TV, you may consider yourself lazy. But scientific research shows that this is not accurate at all. The problem may be that you just didn’t understand the importance of doing it.
People are more likely to change if they’re motivated and understand that the behavior change is important. What things do people find important? The three biggest ones are MONEY, SOCIAL CONNECTIONS, and HEALTH. If you can tie your behavior change to one of these three, you will impart it with great importance and increase the likelihood of being successful with your desired behavior changes. Only YOU can decide what is important to YOU. For me, I exercise regularly because its important to my health and social connections. Being stronger allows me to do the fun activities I want to do, prevents illnesses and injuries, makes me feel more energetic and happier, and of course I look better with my shirt off.
Once upon a time, a man named Joseph Coulombe owned a convenience store, but a 7-Eleven opened in his neighborhood and he was having a tough time competing. Growing frustrated and unable to change customer behavior to patronize his stores, he took a vacation. He went to the Caribbean, where life was easy. It was easy to think, easy to drink, and easy to make decisions. There was one restaurant within walking distance from his hotel, and the Hawaiian-shirted waiters were happy to direct him to the limited list of places to visit and sightsee. Joseph realized he needed to bring this lifestyle to his stores. How could he do this? By making the shopping process easier. Rather than offering customers a plethora of what to eat or drink, he would offer a few high quality targeted selections. He rebranded his store as Trader Joes. Next time you shop at Trader Joe’s, the floral patterned shirts of the employees will remind you that it was all inspired by Joe’s trip to the Caribbean.
The moral of the story is make things easy. This is one I’ve mentioned multiple times on both of the YouTube channels. People want to do things that are easy for them. Small changes in the environment can make big changes in behavior. It’s easy to eat healthy if you don’t stock cookies and chips in your cupboards at home. It’s easier to go to the gym if it’s on your way back from work and you already have you gym bag packed the night before with clothes, charged headphones, and a towel. This is one of my personal favorites because of how powerful it truly is. It’s easy for me to use a standing desk because I simply don’t have the option to sit when I’m working.
Dr. Young describes Neurohacks as shortcuts to reset your brain. Conventional wisdom teaches us that behavior change begins in the mind. Change the way you think, and then you’ll change the way you act. Instead, make a small change in your behavior and let your mind reflect on that change. You’re exploiting the importance of self-identity in your behavior. If you want to be a nicer person, don’t tell yourself you’re a good person. Just start helping people and you’ll become a good person, and the self-identity will make it much easier for you to stay a good person.
When Benjamin Franklin was running for his second term as a clerk, one of his peers delivered a long speech that attempted to ruin Ben’s reputation. Mr. Franklin ingeniously used a neurohack to win over his enemy. Knowing that the man proudly owned a rare book, Ben contacted the man and asked to borrow it. Flattered by the request, the man quickly sent the book over and Ben wrote a nice thank-you note in return. The small act changed their relationship dynamic. The man realized Ben wasn’t an enemy, because enemies don’t loan each other books and act graciously. This changed his identity and he began to see himself as Ben’s friend rather than his foe. The man was now committed to doing nice things for his friend Ben.
In an interesting study, researchers had two groups of students listen to the same advertisement. One group nodded their heads up and down while listening, and the other group shook their heads from side to side. The group that nodded their heads rated the advertisement much more positively.
So how do you apply this powerful technique to your life? If you want to stop procrastinating, then start a self-help group or podcast on how to stop procrastinating. It’s hard to procrastinate when you’re the leader of a group that teaches others not to procrastinate. There’s much more to neurohacks, beyond what I can cover in this post, and I recommend you read the book to learn more.
People respond to rewards, but not just any reward. The trick is that the reward needs to feel incredibly powerful – captivating. Studies have shown the following things are captivating rewards:
1. Financial rewards
2. Social rewards, such as belonging to a community or competing successfully against others
3. Psychological states such as feeling in control of a situation or feeling calm and tranquil
4. Good health
5. Freedom and independence
6. The list goes on!
Here are 5 methods you can use to actually make something captivating
1. Make doing the “Right Thing” Fun – most of us believe that doing the right thing can’t be fun, like eating healthfully
2. Use the carrot instead of the stick – fear motivates people only for a short while. Positive incentives are much stronger
3. Money is NOT the best reward – money is rewarding for some people, and only up to a certain point
4. Forget Using Education by Itself – educating people on the toxic effects of smoking isn’t enough to get them to stop
5. Make the Activity Itself Rewarding – this can be done by gamification, or by providing social capital, self-esteem, and fun by participating
The last force is to engrain the habit. Our brains are amazingly efficient. We try to make tasks easy. Driving to work or school takes very little thought and effort because the brain has recognized this pattern and easily places you on autopilot.
The secret to making things engrained in the brain is repetition: if you can do the same thing, in the same place, at the same time, every single day, you are telling your brain that this needs to be remembered – start making this easy for me.
If you want to meditate every day, build a habit and set an alarm every morning that alerts you its time to meditate. Pairing new behaviors with habits you already have also increase the likelihood of them sticking and becoming engrained. Every time I watch TV, I’ve made it a habit to stretch. It’s now engrained that before watching TV, I will grab my yoga mat and foam roller to get much needed mobility work while watching TV.
Putting it All Together
Now that you’ve identified the ABCs and are familiar with the 7 tools, its time to make the magic happen. The more tools you use, the more likely you are to make a behavioral change. I do acknowledge, however, that it is nearly impossible to utilize all 7 for every single behavior change we come across. Here’s a quick cheat sheet to determine which are the most effective for each behavior type.
With Automatic behaviors, Easy and Engrained are the two most important, but Neurohacks and Captivating Rewards can also be helpful.
With Burning behaviors, Easy and Engrained are again the two most powerful, followed by Neurohacks and captivating rewards. Stepladders, community, and important are slightly less effective.
With Common behaviors, the most important is Community. After that, try to utilize stepladders, important, easy, captivating rewards, and engrained.
There was a lot in this post so feel free to bookmark and reread this from time to time. Use it to reference your own behavior and strategies to change your habits.