We all know the feeling of setting goals for ourselves only to watch our commitment fade as time passes.
Why is this? For one, change scares people more than death. To drive that point home, 90% of people who undergo coronary bypass surgery do not change their lifestyle , despite having just received the scare of their lives.
If people who face a life and death situation are resistant to change, it’s no wonder that we struggle with even minor habit changes.
Don’t Fight Your Biology
Habitual behavior is created by thought patterns, which create neural pathways and memories, which eventually become the default basis for your behavior when you’re faced with a choice or a decision.
Our brains desperately seek pleasure over pain. The effort to abstain from bad habits compels you to do them more because abstention feels bad. Ergo, you will fight to feel good.
To effect change requires new ways of thinking, to trigger new neural pathways, which will in time reward you the same way you were neurologically rewarded by the bad habit.
Easier said than done.
This process initially creates significant psychological discomfort, whether we’re aware of it or not.
Choose Gain Over Loss
As humans, we are loss-averse: it hurts us more to lose something than to gain something (e.g., it’s more painful to lose fifty dollars than it is to gain fifty dollars).
When you focus on stopping a habit, you fight your natural, human urge to gain over lose.
We will therefore white-knuckle our terrible habits when they are framed as things we need to lose or stop.
The Bottom Line and What to Do About It: To avoid the white-knuckling, re-frame the challenge into something you gain and learn, versus stop.
We are well-practiced in the art of learning from the minute we are born. We learn, we don’t stop.
Rather than say, “I need to stop spending money,” frame the change as “I want to learn how to have financial flexibility and gain financial freedom.”
It might seem small, but the reframe packs a punch.
Think in Steps
Large, daunting steps will be harder to accomplish and have the potential to thwart your ultimate goal of creating a new desirable habit. Similarly, so will small, too easily accomplishable steps.
According to social psychologist, Emily Balcetis, our body gets excited – showing a rise in systolic blood pressure – when anticipating an achievable goal, even more so with a slightly harder but still achievable goal.
If, however, the goal is too large and daunting, it throws it into the “impossible” drawer.
The Bottom Line and What to Do About It:
First, create an action plan. Break your new habits into small, attainable goals. Tap into your physiological and psychological tendencies to make the change stick.
Second, establish different cues that will help you meet your goal. Cues are often centered around location, time, emotional states, other people, or something that precedes an action; cues help solidify habits.
For example, if you typically find yourself noshing on junk at your desk every afternoon at 3PM, identify a different 3PM cue to help you learn the new habit (e.g., at 3PM go for a 10-minute walk or hold your daily team meeting).
See the Finish Line
Balcetis discovered something else in her research about attaining goals: keeping your eye on the prize makes the prize in question appear closer than if you let yourself get distracted.
In the study, one group was told to focus on the finish line in the distance, and the other was told to take in the surroundings as they walked toward the finish line.
The researchers found, “People who kept their eyes on the prize saw the finish line as 30% closer than people who looked around as they naturally would.”
The Bottom Line and What to Do About It: Perception is everything. Visualise the finish line as closer than it is to make the process feel easier. The more distraction you allow, the further your goal will appear.