“We are what we repeatedly do. Excellence is not an act, but a habit.” – Aristotle
This works in both directions. We are what we repeatedly do in both a positive and a negative sense. What we say doesn’t matter all that much. Neither do our intentions. There is a win and loss column in your life defined by your behavior.
Have you ever had a friend who says they hate drama and gossip, but always create drama and gossip? Do you know someone who always talks a big game about the next project they’re going to start, but never finishes any of them? It’s pretty easy for you to notice the mismatches in other people, but do you notice them in yourself?
Self-awareness is a tricky beast. After all, you have plenty of reasons to lie to yourself. And true self-awareness, if it’s even possible, often means confronting things about yourself that you simply don’t want to know. When it comes to changing your life, you actually have to change what you do, and that’s difficult because of the pain you’ll have to expose yourself to by engaging in those behaviors. But it’s the only way.
So, how do you do it? Um, it’s hard. There is a reason why self-improvement advice is so terribly ineffective. No amount of advice can substitute for being in the arena itself. It’s a losing proposition to start with, but still worth doing, because it’s better than the alternative of staying stuck in the trap of thinking but never doing.
Let’s take a look at this from as many angles as possible and see if we can find one that motivates you to change.
They say the first step to fixing a problem is admitting you have one in the first place. How much time have you stepped back to analyze your own behavior? When have you taken the time to be objective about who you really are right now? Not who you think you are or who you want to be, but what your actions tell you.
We all have a bunch of beliefs about ourselves and the world that don’t match our behavior. It can be unsettling at first, but noticing these mismatches is often a great start. I’ve read a bunch of books about risk, investing, and probabilities, etc. I know, in theory, the right way to behave when it comes to these matters, but my behavior tells a different story.
In my head, I thought I was financially literate. But over the past year, I’ve made all sorts of financial mistakes like spending way too much money, engaging in highly risky investments, and making irrational bets. So, I knew what to do and how to do it the right way, but I still didn’t do it.
This brings me to one of my favorite quotes that doesn’t just fit the arena of finance, but many other areas of life:
That’s because 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.
So, if behavior is hard to teach, and being intelligent doesn’t help you make better decisions, then how do you change your behavior and make better decisions? Observation can be a great start. Maybe if you look long enough and the things you do even though you know logically you shouldn’t be doing them, those observations can be enough to at least stop digging.
Start watching what you do, not what you say. Start watching what other people do, too. When it comes to the way the world works, stop thinking about how you think it should work and try to be objective about the way it behaves — the way it seems to operate regardless of your opinions.
Awareness is a good start. It can floor you a little bit to finally notice all the ways you’ve been behaving that don’t match up with the way you see yourself or the way you really live. This might give you enough pause to want to change things, but it’s very easy to fall back into your patterns no matter how aware you are of them.
That’s the thing about our biases and deeply rooted habit patterns. They have an extremely strong pull that often overrides your logic. Again, the answer is attempting to fight a losing battle combining awareness and action. Maybe you never fully cure yourself, but you try to get a little bit better and a little less inefficient.
Before we get to the action part, let’s dive a little bit deeper into why negative patterns are so difficult to break. Why do we self-sabotage? Why do we know the right thing to do yet choose the wrong one? You can sum it up in one simple word: payoff.
Humans are reward-based creatures. Even if you engage in negative behavior, you get something out of it. And that something, at least for now, is more valuable than the payoff you’d get from changing your behavior. Usually, the payoff you get from a negative pattern is immediate and the payoff you get from a worthwhile habit takes time.
Once you realize that you’re getting something out of your behavior, even if they’re behaviors you say you don’t want to engage in, you can make sense of your patterns instead of just wondering why you keep falling into them.
So, let’s say you’ve somehow managed to even get a bit of a grasp on both your behavior patterns and the identity they’ve created. How do you actually change anything? It’s a bit of a catch 22 or a chicken and the egg scenario, right?
If you want to change the way you see yourself deep down, you have to change your behavior. But, to change your behavior, you have to behave in a way that isn’t true to the way you see yourself based on your former behaviors?
This is where the advice of ‘fake it until you make it’ comes in. But why does it have to be framed as being fake? If you’re engaging in a certain behavior in a certain way, you’re simply behaving in a certain way. Does it matter whether or not that behavior feels natural to you? Do you have to believe in what you’re doing to do it?
You’re only faking it if you try to selectively adopt these behaviors. This excerpt from a post about the power of acting confidently puts it well. It talks about why attempting to be powerful in isolation doesn’t work well, e.g., puffing your chest up to talk to the pretty girl across the room, but why consciously trying to be more powerful just might work:
That shame is the result of faking it, of putting on an identity that isn’t really you (I’m powerful) and having it exposed (rejected.) The solution is to not fake it. That doesn’t mean not try, that means instead of sitting up straight before the presentation, sit up straight all the time. At least train your body to naturally adopt what your mind is too nervous/self-conscious to do.
If this study (about assuming powerful body posture] is at all representative of the truth, it means that eventually you will physically change into the person your body is pretending to be.
Remember the headline: your behavior tells you who you are. To change your perception of yourself, ‘acting as if’ is a viable strategy, but it has to become a way of being. And that’s where method acting comes in.
When an actor uses method acting, they literally become the character. When you were watching Heath Ledger play the Joker in Batman, you were watching the Joker, not Heath Ledger. The Joker became more real than the man behind the makeup. So much so that some say it drove him to an untimely death. That shows the method acting in a negative light, but it can be used in a positive direction as well.
Don’t just try to tell yourself a story in your head about how you can be a different person. Just be one. Do the things that the person you want to be would do. And try to behave this way as often as possible. Often, ask yourself what that person would do and find a way to bring yourself to do it. Sorry, in self-improvement often the answer involves bringing yourself to do something, somehow, even if it doesn’t feel right right away, even if you’ve failed to do it before.
A practical strategy for changing your behavior can be hard to come by. Yes, you have the habit and productivity routines, you have all the information in the world available to you, but you still have to just freaking do it. There are some strategies you can attempt to use, though.
First, be very mindful of what you say as well as your intentions. Start to consider whether or you’re really going to do something you either say you’re going to do or intend to do. Try sitting with it for a while before you make that firm decision.
It’s important to create the habit of actually doing the things you say you’re going to do. Don’t make a to-do list with 19 items if you’re only going to do 3 of them. Don’t make a list of three if you know you’re going to do just one of them. You’re better off achieving smaller commitments than breaking big ones.
When it comes to all of these different routines out there to change your habits, behaviors, and patterns, just pick a certain method and stick with it. Don’t try to follow every piece of advice all at once. The next time you pick up a self-improvement book, attempt to do what it says and live by the methods in that book before jumping to the next one. Implement the advice.
Some of the best books on habits and behavior around are:
I should’ve just given you one book recommendation, to be honest, but pick one and try the advice. Better yet, try a very specific piece of advice or a strategy to use in that book and hammer it over and over again until you get it right, then choose another one.
When it comes to changing your life and behavior patterns as a whole, just know that it’s going to take a while to re-wire your behavior. I mean, think about how long it took you to create those behavior patterns in the first place. Try your whole life. There is no magical recipe for delayed gratification other than to continue thinking about your future self in the present moment. It takes time to become that person and you’re going to have to catch yourself when you slip over and over again. Notice the patterns you’re engaging in today. If they’re good, continue. If they’re bad, notice the pattern as it emerges and see what you can do to break it.
Self-help is both a crapshoot and a life-changing journey. You can consume tons of it without ever changing a damn thing or you can use it to transform your life.
Gotta stop being an ‘insight junkie.’ Knowing isn’t doing. Consuming self-help tricks you into thinking you’re doing something when really you’re just passively consuming information that makes you feel good about yourself for a little while until you slip right back into doing the same old s***.
Always revert back to behavior. What are you doing? What’s actually happening right now? Don’t focus on who you think you are. Judge yourself by the things you do over and over again. Maybe there will come a point where you observe your behavior to such a point that you finally say enough is enough.
When will that point come for you? I have no idea. That’s totally up to you. But I do know that as a self-improvement writer I want to contribute to this conversation as honestly as possible. So that’s what I have for you today. Your behavior is the truth. Nothing more.