Can people really change? We tend to assume that circumstances change easily and often, but that people change rarely, slowly, and with great difficulty. But these assumptions are wrong.
The truth is that people can change easily and instantly. The real problem is that they also change back just as easily!
Meanwhile, the circumstances of our lives change slowly in comparison. If you’re fifty pounds overweight, and you just changed your eating habits, it’s going to take a while before the change in your habits shows up on your body. And if you decide that your new habits aren’t helping, you just might change them back! Meanwhile, your friends are telling themselves, “Yep, like I always say, people just don’t change.”
Hogwash! People do change. But there’s a time lag before the changes show up in their lives, and in the meantime, they can also change back!
So if you want to change your life, you need to do three things:
- Focus on changing your actions, not your circumstances
- Accept and plan for your weaknesses, instead of toughing it out
- Periodically review your results to fine-tune or re-think your approach if needed
I could probably write a book on each of these three things, especially the second one. And in fact, I’m working on a course (called Get Ready to Change) that will include quite a few lessons on these subjects. For today, however, I’m going to just hit a few highlights from the first topic above.
Change Your Actions, Not Your Circumstances
Focusing on results is a losing game in two ways. First, it’s discouraging, because you’re not going to lose fifty pounds in a day. You’re probably not going to clean years of trash accumulation from your garage or house in an hour or two. Really worthwhile changes take time.
Second, focusing on results makes you want to take rash shortcuts. Shortcuts like using diet pills when you should be changing your eating and exercise habits, or like indulging in a fit of “spring cleaning” that sucks up all your time and still doesn’t get the job done. These intensive efforts throw your life out of balance: they use up all your focus and willpower long before you can “finish” the results you want, and do nothing to fix the real problem: a lack of positive habits in the relevant area.
So the key question to ask is this: what habits do I need, in order to have the results I want as a natural consequence? Remember, life is every moment. The conditions you have in your life are the result of the choices you make – and the actions you take – in every moment. Take care of your habits now, and they’ll take care of you later.
But don’t get the wrong idea: you don’t need to instantly start working out for an hour a day or do marathon housecleaning sessions every weekend. What you want to do is work with the smallest possible actions first. Substitute one food. Pick up or put away one thing. Why? Because this will actually build a habit faster than more intensive efforts will!
Here’s the thing: a habit is something you do automatically. To do it automatically, it has to be unconscious. So, you have to teach your unconscious mind to do it. That means it has to be simple.
Now, I’m not saying you can’t teach your unconscious to do complex things. It’s just that complex things are made of simple pieces.
The Slow, Fast Way
Consider house-cleaning, for example. Over the last week or two, I’ve been working on developing habits to keep the house neat. One of those habits is just throwing away tissues that didn’t quite make it to the trash can when I threw them in that direction. Another habit is picking up individual dishes that Leslie or I have left in other parts of the house, and taking them to the kitchen. Another one is processing a few pieces of unopened mail each day.
These are all very simple habits. Collectively, they make up a small portion of the total number of habits that I will need in order to eventually keep the house as nice as I would like it to be. It will probably take a considerable amount of time to develop all the necessary habits. However, I’m already starting to notice improvements in the condition of the house, and that’s a strong positive reinforcement for the habits.
Now, let’s contrast that with what I used to do. I used to go on periodic cleaning binges, trying to clean a particular area of the house. I would spend an awful lot of time and conscious effort, and in the end, I would have a clean room or rooms… which would within a week or two be well on its way to looking the same as it did before! So I invested a lot of focused effort and got a result, but not a change in my ongoing actions.
You see, focus is a limited resource. It’s almost as if we are all handed a certain number of “focus points” each day that we can choose to spend as we wish. Anything that requires conscious attention uses up focus points, so just living your normal life uses up most of your focus. If you then want to also change something in your life, you will need to borrow or steal the necessary focus points from other things.
But if you try to make too big of a change in too short a period of time, you won’t have enough focus left over for living your normal life. Soon, other things in your life will demand your attention again, and since you feel like you at least “made some progress” with your big push at change, it won’t seem quite so important to keep pushing your new change forward. Surely, you think, you can let it go for a day or two…
And that, of course, is where the backsliding starts.
If You Have To Think, It’s Still Too Hard
Luckily, the cleaning habits I’m now developing take up only a few moments’ attention here and there. In fact, they’re so simple that they scarcely use my attention at all. Whenever I find myself having to think about how I should tackle a cleaning task, I just stop right there, making a mental note to maybe develop another habit at another time.
I don’t allow myself to get caught up in achieving the results of cleaning, because my goal is to develop the habits of cleaning. I know that at some point, it’ll become obvious what to do with the task that I have a question about, and I’ll see what new habit(s) I need to cultivate. In the meantime, I don’t let it distract me from accomplishing the things I already know how to do.
This is very different from some previous efforts I’ve made at doing the same thing. Back when I wrote Falling Behind, Rising Above, I tried to develop a couple of cleaning habits, but they were more complex. For example, I tried to create a habit of “leaving each area nicer than it was when I arrived”.
This worked okay for a short period, but it soon fell apart because of the degree of conscious attention it required. After I had made the most obvious improvements in a particular area of the house, I had to start thinking too much to figure out what else I could do to “leave it nicer”.
So now, I’ve made the process much simpler. I only add new habits when it becomes obvious to me that they are needed, and I can develop a purely mechanical approach to them. That way, I don’t use up too many of my day’s “focus points” on developing the habit, because I don’t have to switch my focus to cleaning.
As time goes on, I do expect my behavior to become more complex, as a natural outgrowth of developing these individual habits. Because I don’t have to think about them, my brain will be free to combine them in interesting and surprising ways. Remember: the brain is a parallel processor, so every mental program you create is potentially capable of running at the same time. I can, for example, pick up different kinds of things with both hands, or put a dish in the sink with one hand while wiping down the counter with another. My brain is free to activate two or more of my habits, if they are triggered at more-or-less the same time.
But notice that this kind of behavioral complexity is possible only because I’m not thinking about it. If I had to actually stop and think about it consciously, I’d be slowing things down because I can only think about one thing at a time. I would spend more time planning the move to pick things up with both hands, than I would actually spend doing it in the automatic case. Plus I’d have to think of every possible combination, and manage all the details. Why do all that when I have a brain that can do it for me?
So by training myself to act without thinking, I make it possible to excel in ways that would not otherwise be possible. And at the same time, I don’t use up precious “focus points” that I need elsewhere in my life, just to develop habits for things that should be – dare I say it? – dirt simple.