Power up life with focused behavior change

Changing anything in life can seem difficult. But it does not have to be. I have achieved amazing results with small and focused behavior change.

It is common for self-help books to suggest to start from the very top — with life philosophy.

What are my values?

What are my beliefs?

What is most important to me in my life?

And questions along those lines. Everyone who has tried analyzing their values, know it can be quite the work. Then mapping my future life, what changes needs to be done, setting goals and creating plans.

Usually, I run out of energy halfway through and the half-baked plans end up in a drawer somewhere.

I am not going to say it is a bad approach. Not at all. It is imperative to know your values and beliefs! Work towards becoming an authentic and congruent being. All that jazz. I am on it. Still…

What I am suggesting is: Don’t delay with analysis but get started!

I want to introduce tools from behavioral economics that have helped me circumvent my automatic systems. Systems that can prevent or slow changes. Tools that need less motivation and brainpower. Tools that will make change easier.

The most important lesson from behavioral economics: It is a fallacy to believe that Knowledge + intention = action.

“Knowledge + intention ≠ action”

Let us take an easy example: All smokers know that smoking is bad for them. Smokers that want to quit i.e. have the intention to quit, do they always succeed? Not at all.

It takes way more than knowledge and intention to get action. Motivation can be key to push through barriers but motivation can also be a fickle friend.

I have wanted to start regular exercise in the gym for many years. I know all the benefits to my health, looks and general wellbeing. Every time I join the gym I have the intention of going twice a week, but I don’t follow through. I end up going two or three times and let the membership run for six months before giving up. Sad. Very sad.

So, to get to the good part. The three tools for quick and lasting changes:

  1. The Pledge,
  2. Routines and barriers
  3. Behavioral clues

First, no way around it, I needed to know what I wanted to change!

What am I not satisfied with, in my life?

What do I want to change in my life?

Lately, it has been about health. Both what I am eating but equally the amount of exercise and general movement I manage to put into my day. I have not been happy about my general wellbeing for some years. I have had backaches (and I am not even forty), too little energy and some weight gain. Must admit it. Even if it is hard.

So what can I do about it? To the tools!

1. Using the pledge

Sometimes it is easier to perceive things in black or white. As yes or no. As this is allowed or this is not allowed. I have always had trouble with moderation. as in “It is ok to smoke a little or to eat five pieces of candy”. I am the type of person that continues eating until the bag of candy is empty.

Choosing the way of duality has a lot of benefits. First of all, it removes all the micro-decisions that take up energy and that often lead to bad conscience when they fail.

Instead of having to decide at every piece of candy, then the simpler model is to make the superior decision to not eat candy at all. Or eat candy on Saturday evening only. What is important is to decrease the number of choices by making a few big ones.

“Eliminate decisions”

Pledges should also be considered as something much bigger than a decision. When I pledge myself, there is no going back. A pledge is not something where I can just say

“Oh well, I changed my mind”. No, I really pledge myself.

Adding an extra effect would be to include someone else. If you are religious then make your pledge to God. If not, make it to a friend or group of friends. Create some social pressure on yourself. That will increase the power of the pledge, that’s what I usually do.

2. Using routines

Routines are my friend. And they are already a great part of life. The brain loves to create routines as it frees up capacity for more important thoughts. Think about walking. That’s probably the first time you have done that for a long while? We do that automatically — without thinking about it at all.

If I think about my day. How does it usually start? What do I do every day? Is there a typical order in which I dress, shower, eat breakfast, brush my teeth?

There sure is. I pretty much do the same thing every morning. At least on weekdays and weekends does not look that different when you have kids.

Routines can be leveraged to create new and easy change.

Let’s say, for instance, that I wanted to start taking vitamins every day, but often forget it (I used to do that). What I did was to combine taking vitamins with a routine that I have already established. I put my vitamins next to my toothbrush and voila! I take my vitamins every day.

There are many awesome books on building habits, great articles as well so consider this a quick fix for some simpler changes.

Step 1: What do I want to start doing or stop doing?

Step 2: What routines are fit as leverage (Same frequency or same type)

Step 3: Bundle new routing with existing and enjoy

Hint: The better the routines fit together, the more natural it is to combine them, the easier it will be to get success.

3. Using decision points to change behavior

Decision points are one of my favorite concepts from behavioral Economics. A lot of our day consists of small decisions. Whenever I open the fridge and look for something I will be invited to make decisions. What to eat, what to drink etc. And decision points can be leveraged.

I know, in point 1 I proposed to eliminate decision points by using pledges. That is a great strategy, but there are other ways to use decision points and sometimes that means making more of them.

Some of the ways to use decision points are:

A. Change an automatic process to a deliberate choice

Daniel Kahneman wrote a great book: Thinking fast and slow. Extremely simplified we have two modes of thinking. The fast one is our automatic and instinctive thinking where the slow one is our rational and deliberate thinking.

The important point here is to use this knowledge for designing choices that lead to change. Go for automation on the places where automatic decisions are good and try to interrupt automatic decisions when they are not good.

An example: I eat too much candy when I watch TV. So I introduced more decision points by only bringing 3 pieces of candy with me to the couch. I interrupted my automatic response of eating until the bag is empty and introduced new decision points (and a great barrier of getting up from the couch to get more candy).

Read more about Kahnemann in this article by Conor Dewey

B. Make something easy or difficult to nudge towards the better choice

It sounds so simple — and it is! But am I doing it? Let’s stick with the candy example. How accessible is the candy and how accessible are the apples?

I wanted to eat more apples and less candy and the easy way to nudge myself towards that is to move the apples to the easiest possible location. In my case, the Kitchen Counter. And move the candy to a very difficult one. What would happen if it was to the Garden Shed? Ok, that may be to take it too far, so I moved it to the top shelf in the kitchen where I need a chair to get it. Not impossible, but definitely a barrier.

It doesn’t have to be candy either. I have had trouble going for a run in the mornings. So to make it easy I just place my running clothes at the bedside to make it easy to get it on in the morning and the first thing I see when I get downstairs is my running shoes.

Creating decision points moves decisions from your fast (Instinctive) brain to the slow (deliberate) brain. It makes it easier to make a rational choice. For the candy though. I would always go for the pledge.

In conclusion

Change can be hard and building habits can be a challenge, but there are shortcuts. Sometimes those shortcuts are all it takes to get moving.

Published on Medium Dec 11, 2019