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You Probably Won’t Change That Bad Habit

What do you think the chances are that you would change a long-standing habit if you were in a life-or-death situation? Like, for example, your doctor told you that after your $100 000 heart bypass operation, you needed to change your lifestyle dramatically. WIthout any changes, the best-case scenario is that you end up back on the operating table in two years. Worst case is that you end up dead in two years.

Probably 100 percent, right? No chance in hell that you’d ever disregard anything that important.

Ha.

How about ten percent?

Dr. Edward Miller is quoted as saying:“If you look at people after coronary-artery bypass grafting two years later, 90% of them have not changed their lifestyle. And that’s been studied over and over and over again. And so we’re missing some link in there. Even though they know they have a very bad disease and they know they should change their lifestyle, for whatever reason, they can’t.” [source] These words are from the dean of Johns Hopkins University medical school (and CEO of the affiliated hospital), who was speaking at the Global Medical Forum conference.

The same approximate figure is echoed by Brad Blanton, PhD, a psychotherapist, and author of Radical Honesty. He estimates that about 12% of patients get “good” results from psychotherapy, with others achieving “barely adequate” results or even no changes at all. This, despite the fact that these patients have sought out or been referred to psychotherapy due to depression and other mental health challenges that seriously damage their quality of life.

Let’s be real here, most of the situations that you’re dealing with right now are unlikely to be more serious than clinical depression, heart surgery and potential death. So how can you possibly get motivated to make changes when even the threat of death is not enough for most people?

Don’t worry, though, there’s hope.

Be aware, though, half-assed changes aren’t likely to stick. In order to really change one thing, you need to be willing to change everything, at least potentially. Habits don’t exist in a vacuum, they exist in the ecology of your whole life – all your other habits, responsibilities, schedules, connections to other people, institutions, and so forth. It’s like trying to select and extract one specific rice krispie out of a rice krispie square – not that easy to do, since they are all stuck together. And yet people often naively think they will just change one little thing – “smoking”, or “not exercising”, or “chronic disorganization” – and be done with it. It’s not always that easy.

Are you willing to go all in? Are you willing to place all your chips on the table? I’m not talking about little mincing, apologetic, “please Sir, may I” changes. I’m talking about full-on, titanium plated, nuclear powered, guns blazing, powerful changes. How far are you willing to go to make the transformation that you want to see in your life? :)

Remember, the good news is that ten percent of people were able and willing to make lasting and significant changes. If you know what you’re doing, you can make yourself part of that top ten percent.

So let’s begin.

Big changes can be easier than small ones.

Paradoxically, one thing learned from working with heart patients on their lifestyles is that in many cases big changes are actually easier than small ones.

Dr. Dean Ornish discovered in his landmark heart disease study that he could take “meat and potatoes men” whose lifestyle had sent them in the emergency room, and reverse their heart disease by teaching them yoga, meditation, and radical dietary changes, and holding regular support group meetings in order to assist them with these big changes. Instead of getting half-assed results from half-assed changes, the study demonstrated that radical changes that holistically addressed all of the dimensions of the problem – physical, psychological, social, and spiritual – were much more effective. The study discovered that people in crisis benefit greatly from rapid relief and fast victories, and that joy in living can be a more powerful motivator than fear of dying. He described his program in detail in his book, Dr. Dean Ornish’s Program For Reversing Heart Disease, but obviously, you don’t need to be living with heart disease to benefit from the positive effects of the program.

One great way to prepare your foundation for future big changes, is to practice life-long learning. When all you do, day after day, is reactivate the same old neural networks and pathways, then breaking a bad habit pattern and implementing significant changes can be much harder. You simply don’t have the habit of changing your brain in place. However, when your brain is already accustomed to change through the process of ongoing learning, then making behavioral changes in your life is easier. Don’t wait for the day when you might “need” to change – keep your brain sharp and keep learning new things.

Keep in mind, however, getting better and better at your job by performing the same tasks and running the same habits, while useful, doesn’t count as new learning. To activate your brain to stimulate new connections, do something that you never would have expected, maybe something that scares you a little bit. If you’re an desk engineer, study painting or sculpture. If you’re a visual artist, take a class in computer programming or math.

Yes, it’s unfamiliar, it’s outside your comfort zone, and you might suck. So? Remember: for true growth, go to the places that scare you.

Behavior leads belief

As O. H. Mowrer said, it’s easier to act yourself into a new way of thinking than to think yourself into a new way of acting. Believing that you will make a change when your thinking changes is a trap, because it won’t happen. Reciting affirmations, a popular self-help practice, often simply leads to longer and longer lists of affirmations, and the growing belief within the affirmer’s mind that if only he found the right affirmation, and recited it enough, he’d create the perfect mindset to take action [1].

Bullshit.

The best way to actually change your thinking and beliefs is to make a radical change in the external circumstances of your life – your behavior, your environment, your habits, or your peer group. Military boot camp is an example of this – in order to install a new set of specific beliefs and habits in their new recruits, the boot camp dramatically changes all of these factors at once.

If you want to make a habit or behavior change inevitable, you don’t have to sign up for boot camp, but it’s still important to address it on all fronts. Here are several ways to do this.

Do you really want to change, or do you just want to want it? Take action – it really will work better than just thinking about changing.

Change your frames, not your facts

By “frame”, I mean a mental construct that provides you with a characteristic way of interpreting the world around you. You can think of a frame like a kind of filter. Framing things in a resourceful way is incredibly important, because if something can’t fit in your model of reality, then your mind will actually make the facts fit your frame, rather than reject the frame itself. Your set of frames is encoded quite deeply into your brain – it isn’t something that can be changed by slapping it with more facts.

This idea is pretty abstract. An example will make this more concrete. If someone has a frame of “I can’t win”, then their mind will delete, distort, and generalize the incoming facts in order to fit them into that frame. A genuine compliment or personal success is incompatible with the frame of “I can’t win”, so they reject or alter the facts rather than change their frame. For example, they might explain away a compliment as: “he’s just being insincere, he says that to everybody”. (Obviously, such a frame is highly undesirable for a person who wants to experience happiness and self-esteem.)

Frame change is essential for long-term habit change. For example, when I first experimented with changing to a plant-based diet in order to permanently lose weight, I deliberately redesigned the frames in my mind that were associated with food and eating. Most people use willpower and rewards when they “go on a diet” and it works for a little while, but I wanted something that would really stick. I also wanted to put this habit on autopilot and reserve my willpower for new goals, since human willpower is a very limited resource.

Even though I changed what I ate purely for health and fitness reasons, I deliberately and consciously altered my frame to one in which eating animals was absolutely inconceivable as a moral and environmental principle. To do this, I read a lot of radical vegan writing, and reprogrammed my mind to reject meat, eggs, and dairy as “disgusting”. Then I sought out various facts that supported this standpoint and reminded myself of them at regular intervals. With this supporting frame in place, and a stack of facts that fit easily into that frame, it was a lot easier to install plant-based eating as a lasting habit. Of course, nothing about the frame-changing method that I used is specific to a plant-based diet – you could run a similar strategy with paleo, raw food, or other unconventional diets, and your results would be exactly the same.

The Ornish study also involved a very significant change in frame (“reframe”) from the usual medical practice. Instead of simply giving patients the medical facts about living longer (“taking this medicine will add X years to your life on average”), the study promised and delivered a better experience of life to its patients. Ornish recognized that “living longer” wasn’t a very strong motivator when a patient was experiencing severe chest pain and couldn’t walk a few hundred meters without gasping for breath. Who wants more time in which to feel pain and limitation? Instead, by focusing on increasing patients’ subjective experience of joy and well-being, and making their time truly better – and not just longer – the study was able to create lasting behavior change. (Happily, the new habits that the patients learned also contributed to their lifespan as well.)

So what’s the bottom line?

Change is hard. In most cases, when attempting to make life changes, people focus too much on facts and information, and not enough on their environment, their actions and habits, and their frames of mind.

Fortunately, by learning what really works and putting it into practice in your own life, you can transform yourself into one of those top ten percent of people who are actually able to make positive changes stick.

Now that you know this, what are you going to transform today? :)

[1] The habit of positive self-talk is extremely important, and memorized affirmations can help get the ball rolling in this direction. However, this is never a substitute for real action.

Jack Bennett is a life coach and blogger at thirtytwothousanddays.com. The title of the web site refers to the approximate length of a human life and is a reminder to seize the day and take decisive action on your most meaningful life goals. Jack’s focus areas in coaching are habit and behavior change, handling life transitions, and career advising. Check out Jack on Twitter at 32000days and get free blog updates via RSS.

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