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Effective strategies for behavior change. No silver bullet available, it's still gonna be tough!

Updated: Jan 26, 2023

First and foremost, I’m not a behavior change role model (yet) and I think changing behaviors is one of the most difficult things we’ll ever do. So no silver bullet available.

I’ve read a lot of theory about behaviors, and I’m still work in progress, aspiring to convert more of the theoretical knowledge into action.

Last year I’ve learned 3 important lessons on habits – theoretically I knew them but I’ve finally seen them at work in my life – the change in identity makes a lot of difference,

if you don’t enjoy it it won’t stick, changing behavior is a marathon not a sprint.

I think that with the New Year Resolutions being our most popular and in the same time ineffective construct for habit changes intentions, we need to empower ourselves to do better when we set our minds to change something we’ve repeatedly done in the same way.

I’m a believer in intentional, long-term change and in building new habits or die trying :))). There’s no other way to close the gap between who we are and who we become.

Here is a summary of some of the most valuable lessons I gathered on habit change:

1. The most important reasons why behavior change fails

1.1. We don’t have the same readiness to change for all our resolutions and, depending on the stage we are in, we have different needs and that requires different actions.

Sometimes it takes years to get ready. Oh, nooo!

According to the Trans theoretical Model of Behavior Change or the Stages of the Change Model, change is a process involving 5 stages – pre-contemplation, contemplation, preparation, action and maintenance.

Briefly, in pre-contemplation you don’t see the behavior as an issue even if others try to tell you it is.

In contemplation you are aware but you perceive costs and benefits weighting the same and you are not commited to change.

In preparation you make a commitment to change, you intend to change and maybe even make small changes. In the action stage there is a strong commitment to change and the change is intentional. It takes months until you solidify the new behavior. Maintenance is about fully integrating the new behavior and avoiding relapse.

1.2. Long term, sustainable behavior change is one of the hardest things people do.

It’s a complicated process, not an one-off instance, it requires patience, persistence, willingness to fail and iterate, a strong commitment. Even the fact that we underestimate how challenging the process is makes it more likely to fail.

1.3. Homeostasis – the tendency to maintain the status quo of a system. Whenever we try to change there’s an alarm that rings warning, something new and different is about to happen. That triggers our sabotaging inner voices that try to hold us back when change becomes a possibility.

1.4. We try to change a lot of major things at once and place all our bets at the beginning of the year. Since it requires a lot of our limited will power, we need to pick our bets carefully.

And there are some habits that once formed have a ripple effect on other habits e.g. exercising leads to improved fitness but also to productivity, impact on sleep, food choices...

1.5. We have an all or nothing mentality/cognitive bias while chances to succeed as we imagine, all smooth and without setbacks are not in our favor.

1.6. We have to many ‘should’ reasons vs. ‘want’ reasons to change

1.7. We don’t really commit

1.8. We tend not to be specific enough

2. Helpful strategies to increase a new behavior

2.1. Design rewards, make it attractive and satisfying

Reward - you provide a desired thing for completing a certain behavior - e.g. if you exercise for an hours, as a reward you can watch an episode of your favorite show.

While the idea of reward is the most basic aspect we need to consider in a change process, it is too often neglected.

Make it attractive -e.g. Start with the fruit you like the most, so you’ll actually want to eat one when you see it, and Make it satisfying from James Clear’s book - e.g. If you like the fruit you picked, you’ll love eating it and feel healthier as a result!

2.2. Build on existing habits and design the environment

Premack Principle - preferred behaviors can be used to reinforce low probability/to be developed ones - e.g. moving from 'you rarely eating salad at dinner but always eating dessert after dinner', towards ‘you can only have dessert if you eat salad at dinner’ will increase the likelihood to eat more salad.

Habit stacking - when a current habit becomes a trigger for the new one (e.g. When I feel stressed or anxious, I will close my eyes and take five deep breaths/from Habit Stacking, Atomic Habits bonus).

Prompting - Prompting is about cues that remind us to perform the target behavior - e.g. Signs stating Am I really hungry?, placing healthy snacks in the on fridge/cupboard doors.

Or from James Clear Atomic Habits – Make it obvious (e.g. Don’t hide your fruits in your fridge, put them on display front and center.

Make it easy - e.g. Don’t create needless friction by focusing on fruits that are hard to peel. Bananas and apples are super easy to eat, for example.

Design the environment – We all have limited will power, don’t stack the sugary stuff all around if you want to give up sugar.

2.3. Start small, really small, track it and build it patiently and gradually from where you are

Starting really small makes the failure highly unlikely and helps you with the biggest initial challenge – starting. This is connected with another concept, the one of shaping.

Shaping - since behavior changes are challenging, they require practice and effort to achieve. It’s not possible to run a marathon without training for it.

Shaping is about the successive steps to get you closer and closer to the desired behavior (start from really small and build gradually on previous effort, adding the reward after each new stage)

Track it – use checkboxes, be ruthless about knowing exactly where you are

A famous example is Jerry Seinfeld’s productivity hack, which involves taping a 365-day calendar to your wall and marking each day you succeed with a big, red X on it.

2.4. Get better at recovering

Some days you will not make it. And that’s normal.

It’s your ability to recover and start again that will make a difference in the long run.

And don’t forget that habit change is a marathon not a sprint!

3. Some books I recommend on behavior change and change in general

  • Atomic habits – James Clear

  • The power of habit – Charles Duhigg

  • Shift. How to change when change is hard – Chip and Dan Heat

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