I’m going to start by confirming a belief about behavior change you already have.
You’re destined to fail.
You know this. When January is around the corner you already know you won’t make good on your resolution. You realize things will go down hill the minute you make the oven-banked chicken breast and vegetable meals for the week (in fact, you know you’ll be eating fast food by the end of it). You tell yourself this is going to be your year, even though you know it won’t.
In essence, you’re screwed and you will continue to make the same mistakes over and over again until you die.
Well, that is, unless you understand the truth.
We know my introduction isn’t 100 percent true because there are people who succeed, follow through with their goals, have six pack abs, make great livings, etc.
We want to be like them, but how?
The key here is realizing the truth – your life probably won’t turn out exactly the way you want it to. You’ll never reach that ideal state.
But, if you learn to discard that longing and instead focus on making the teeniest tiniest dent in the universe — knowing you’re fighting a losing battle in the first place — then you can achieve a small measure of success compared to your expectations, but large compared to what most other people do.
That was a mouthful.
Let me explain what I mean in more depth.
A month or so ago I tried the keto diet.
I went all out. I visited Trader Joes to get organic food.
Over the weekend, I cooked all the meals I’d need for the week.
Monday went well.
Thursday…force feeding myself.
Friday…succumbing to special fried rice, lo mein, and egg rolls.
What happened here? I failed to apply the principles I’ve managed to use in other areas of my life like writing.
See, when you get riled up and try to come out of the gate hot toward your new goal, you’re failing to realize the truth that allows people to reach goals in the first place — you can’t suddenly take control over your circumstances.
Not without understanding the underlying principles that govern your behavior.
Not without building safeguards against your behavioral traps.
And not without realizing that concepts like dieting, budgeting, and productivity methods are useless in and of themselves without understand this.
I read a fascinating articles that inspired me to write this one called The Psychology of Money by Morgan Housel.
This quote sums up not only why we have budgeting problems, but problems in every other area of our life that requires discipline and delayed gratification:
[…] investing is not the study of finance. It’s the study of how people behave with money. And behavior is hard to teach, even to really smart people. You can’t sum up behavior with formulas to memorize or spreadsheet models to follow. Behavior is inborn, varies by person, is hard to measure, changes over time, and people are prone to deny its existence, especially when describing themselves.
He goes on to say:
[…] managing money isn’t necessarily about what you know; it’s how you behave. But that’s not how finance is typically taught or discussed. The finance industry talks too much about what to do, and not enough about what happens in your head when you try to do it.
That last sentence applies to most concepts.
We talk about what to do but not about what happens in your head you try to do it.
In my case, I thought a trip to the grocery store and some Tupperware containers would undo 29 years of deep-seated beliefs, behavior patterns, and experiences I’ve had with food.
Behavior change is hard because most of what drives our decision making — and inevitably our outcomes — lies beneath the surface. Doing things like keeping a budget, diet, and acted-on calendar fly in the face of what we genuinely want to do deep deep down.
Until you understand this, nothing will change.
Accept the premise that you’re fundamentally irrational.
And, accept the fact that self-help is a losing battle.
Personally, if I became 10 percent more rational over a lifetime, I’d consider that a wild success
This isn’t pessimistic. It’s optimistic.
It’s not self-help. It’s real help.
Self-help writers (including me from time to time) play on your ego and sense of grandiosity to inspire you enough to buy their books and courses. I’ve played that game and I don’t like it because it doesn’t work.
I want to create self-help that takes…reality…into account.
The reality is that behavior change isn’t easy. It’s hard. It is doable, though.
But you’ll never make significant progress until you understand where you’re starting from. If anything, progress is 99 percent the cessation of lying to yourself and 1 percent following through with the prescribed steps.
“What gets measured gets managed” – Peter Drucker
That quote isn’t universally true, but it’s useful.
If you’re one of those people who say “I don’t eat that much,” track your calorie intake for two weeks. Not to become an obsessive calorie tracker, but to stop kidding yourself.
The olive oil you use to cook counts. So does the tablespoon of butter on your breakfast toast. Those little gas station stops for donuts and coffee add up.
Same thing with your money (I had a rude awakening when I checked my finance tracking app for the month of October).
The goal here isn’t to become a productivity nerd with two dozen apps (that doesn’t work either).
When you have an objective measurement of your own behavior, it’s hard to argue with.
Yet, you will still try to.
It’s an uphill battle all the way. You have to find techniques like this to chip away at your delusions. Tracking serves this purpose.
You can use tracking to look at your life on a micro-level, which is important because little things do add up. But this can still lead to being penny wise and dollar foolish.
You have to look at the big picture too.
We all have that big thing we’re choosing to ignore.
Maybe because it’s too painful to deal with.
Maybe because admitting our “elephant in the room” shatters our self-opinion.
It’s unsettling to admit you’ve spent years of your life in a bad relationship, chose the wrong career, wasted large chunks of time, or a myriad of other obvious-yet-tough-to-deal-with facts about your life.
Fundamentally, it’s hard to admit you’ve let yourself down in a big way. You are — after all — you. How could someone so self-interested let their own self down? You care about yourself, a lot, and that still wasn’t enough to help you take care of yourself. That’s a tough pill to swallow.
When you take a different viewpoint, though, it’s not tough to swallow at all.
You don’t have as much agency and free will over your life as you think you do. Yes, you’re faced with choices and the consequences of those choices. But our underlying narratives and beliefs usually shape the decisions we make. Until we take a deep look ‘under the hood’ we’ll never get to diagnose what’s really going on.
Self-help is the idea that we have the ultimate power to change our destiny.
Real help is the realization we’re fighting a losing battle and need to work hard to counteract a human nature that’s designed to cause blindspots, doubts, anxiety, reality-twisting, and a weird mixture of self-interest and self-defeating behavior.
When you come from that point of view, you don’t aim to completely transform your life.
You realize that just getting — to put an arbitrary yet useful for perception purposes number on it — ten percent better over a lifetime is an amazing feat.
So where do you go from here?
Even after you’ve developed some real self-awareness, you still have to go out and tackle the challenges most people fail it.
I’ve given up the feelings of victory and defeat in terms of creating habits and goals.
I go into each attempt knowing failure is likely — when I make success impossible to achieve, that is. I’m not going to eat perfectly every day, or write every day, or read every day, or be nice to people every day, or use every minute of my day wisely every day, or follow my budget every day.
I just want to, on average, get better at these things over time.
A simple goal that acknowledges the totality of human experience.
I still set goals, but with less emotion.
I create habits, but with less self-help gusto and pressure.
Some days I’m very motivated. Some days I don’t feel like doing anything.
I don’t give myself too much credit on the former and I don’t beat myself up too much over the latter.
Improve in increments knowing you’ll fail, but allow yourself enough emotional room to keep improving over a long period of time.