With Habits It’s Easier to Swim Downstream

With Habits It’s Easier to Swim Downstream

Apr 22nd, 2021

You can’t force change. The internal resistance is too powerful. Behavior science tells us it’s easier to swim downstream when it comes to habits. Go where you want to go. We’ve all got a petulant child inside fighting change in that one area of life where we need it most. My advice? Don’t force it. Start where you think it’ll be easiest to shift. Tackle the albatross later.

This isn’t flippant advice. I’ve been studying with BJ Fogg, a Stanford behavioral scientist, to become a habit coach. He’s helped over 50,000 people transform their lives with this simple maxim. ‘Help people change what they already want to change.’ In other words, don’t waste your time and effort convincing yourself to change in an area the ego isn’t ready to let go of. 

I’m living proof the theory holds. Most of my life I nagged my father to stop smoking. I used to mail him horrific pictures of cancerous lungs, buy him Nikes and gym shorts for his birthday and lecture him about the dangers of nicotine. Deaf ears. He’d tried and failed a couple of times, but it wasn’t until I was pregnant with our first child that he made the decision to change. See, a grandchild was leverage and I knew it. He couldn’t hold my baby if he was smoking. Period. 

Fogg calls this an epiphany. A sudden turn of events that causes a sudden motivation to change. Whether a death in the family, an illness or an ultimatum, it can work. The scales suddenly tip. The problem is that epiphanies aren’t predictable so I don’t suggest relying on one as a mechanism for change, but it worked for my father. The month before our son was born, he quit smoking and didn’t touch it another day in his life. God bless you, Dad! 

So what’s going on? There’s research here. Motivation and resistance, self-confidence and the ability to change. Take weight loss. There’s a track record of failed attempts. Of cycling between being on a program, dropping some weight, feeling great only to fall back into old habits when life gets stressful or busy. 

This yo-yoing wreaks havoc on self confidence and kills motivation. Beaten down, the mindset becomes fixed. “I guess I’ll never change. I’m just big-boned. It’s my thyroid. I’ve never been athletic. That’s not for me. Dieting is hard. I’m too old. It’s my hormones.” 

No wonder we resist trying again. So how can sustainable change happen without shaming and blaming? How can we break free from the yo-yo cycle of on again, off again diet and exercise programs? Pretty simple. Start small. Like teeny tiny. 

A pianist doesn’t start with Beethoven concertos. They learn Old MacDonald first. Same principle applies to any habit you’d like to change. The principle behind this learning method is that people change best by feeling good. It’s one of Fogg’s behavior change maxims. Struggling with complex chords doesn’t feel good. Mastering Old MacDonald does. Piano playing abilities increase quickly. That builds confidence. You begin to associate piano with mastery, not struggle. Self-confidence builds momentum. You start practicing more, not because someone’s telling you to. Because you want to. Once you have momentum, the ripple effect starts. Success in one area of life makes you naturally want to make other changes, try other new things in other areas. 

So what’s going on here from a behavior science perspective? According to BJ Fogg, the Stanford behavioral scientist who created the Tiny Habits Method who I trained with, here’s how it works. 

    1. Competence increases. Skills are acquired. Old MacDonald hits the sweet spot. Challenging enough to push you beyond your limit, but not so tough that you resist or want to give up. Once you master Old MacDonald, you move on to Chopsticks.
    2. You feel good. This is critical! If you spend your daily practice time cussing at the piano, it won’t end well. Feeling good, recognizing the song as you play it, seeing your progress. That’s what keeps you coming back.
    3. Confidence builds. Starting small and racking up quick wins builds self-confidence. Quick results make you believe in yourself.
    4. Momentum Because you’re getting better and it feels good, you keep coming back. There’s no resistance. Practice isn’t painful. It’s fun! A virtuous cycle of practice, feeling good and confidence building.
    5. Identity Shifts Along the way, your identity shifts. You begin to see yourself as a pianist. Seth Godin, one of my favorite marketing experts, speaks about identity as it relates to building a community around a brand when he says the aspiration is that we want customers to identify with the brand—get them thinking ‘people like us do things like this’. In the same way, as you begin to identify with the new habit, you start to recognize the dissonance in your life.

Take someone who’s been losing the same 40 lbs for years. Rather than tackle the nutrition side of the scale, you approach from behind with exercise. And we’re not talking about a Learn to Run program. Start small by lacing up a pair of shoes every day and walking around the house. Quickly you start to think ‘well, this is easy. Maybe I’ll just walk to the end of the driveway and back.’ No baggage over here like there is in the kitchen. You feel good in those shiny new sneakers. You strut your way to the end of the driveway and get back to the house victorious. ‘Yay, me!’ 

Feeling good, you decide to drink a glass of water. Before you know it, you’re walking half an hour more days than not. And without effort on your part—this is the magic—you notice you’re not as hungry for chips when you sit on the couch. You decide to try a salad for lunch. You keep a water bottle on your desk and find yourself filling it a few times per day. 

What’s going on here? The magical ripple effect of habit change. Identity is shifting from ‘I’ll never work out. I can’t do that. It’s too hard. I’ll never run. It’s my hormones. I’m not athletic.’ to ‘I’m an athlete. I’m someone who takes care of my health.’ 

Once identity starts to shift, it’s like a light is shone on all the habits that are out of alignment. Now they don’t feel quite as good. The effect isn’t what it used to be and over time, you adopt new eating habits that better align with who you’re becoming without dieting! You eat like that fit, healthy person you’ve become that takes care of your body and mind. 

Try it for yourself and see. Start small with an area of your life you want to change. One that’s emotionally neutral, not the albatross. Praise yourself immediately after you do the new habit. More praise is better and be consistent! Celebration hard wires the new habit into your brain. When you celebrate, you get a hit of a feel-good chemical called dopamine. Like a gambler at the slots, it keeps you coming back for more. 

Then watch what happens. Sure. Sometimes you might forget or slip back, but you won’t slip far for long. You’ll return because it feels good. And before you know it, you’ll shift the balance towards health and longevity and life-affirming habits and away from self-destructive, sabotaging habits. Without the struggleyou’ve come to associate with change. It’s pretty amazing! I feel blessed to coach people to freedom after so many years of struggle. 

I was so enamored by the science of habit change that I became a Certified Habit Coach under the tutelage of BJ Fogg, a behavior design expert—the Stanford researcher who taught his methods to the founders of Instagram and other Silicon Valley founders. It’s a scientific process. It’s a proven method that works. Habit change is a skill anyone can learn and once you do, anything is possible! Really. I mean anything.

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