Why Can’t We Do What We Know Is Good for Us
5 steps to make a hard change easier
The intelligent want self-control. Children want candy. Rumi
My success as a life coach depends on my ability to help clients break through barriers to make positive changes in their lives. After a few minutes of coaching it often becomes clear to me, 90% of my clients already know what they need to do. (E.g.- To improve their health, they need to eat more nutritious food, get 8 hours of sleep and exercise more.) So why don’t they do it? Let me share with you what I’ve learned.
“First we make our habits, then our habits make us.” Charles C. Noble
Change runs the gamut from effortless to difficult, and what one person finds easy can be nearly impossible for another. Easy change is like downloading an app. Once we install it, we follow the prompts, practice a little bit and voila! Done. Hard change takes more than bits of information and a few prompts. Hard change requires a whole new operating system.[i] Why?
It’s because our habits are hard wired into the circuits of our brain. (In 1880, Sigmond Freud called it association by simultaneity[ii].) The grooves we’ve worn into our neural circuitry are like deep ruts in the snow on the cross-country ski track. We naturally fall into line. To break out of our ruts requires desire, (motivation), strategy (cognitive reframing) and technique, (habit building skills). You need all three to get the job done.
“Neurons that fire together wire together.” Donald Hebb
When we face hard change, we tell ourselves we’ll do it sometime in the future — i.e. our future self. In MRI imaging of the brain, when test subjects think about their future self, it’s not in the same location as their present self. It’s in the same location of the brain as a stranger.[iii] It’s as if we expect someone else to make the hard change for us. So how do we break the cycle?
Here are 5 tips to make hard change easier for you.
1) To begin you need to build up your motivation and self-control. The easiest way to do that is to reduce your stress level. Stress drains your brain’s willpower.[iv] One of the best ways to reduce your stress is exercise. Exercise is also a keystone habit for most people. Keystone habits are the ones that have spillover effects that change our lives. When 24 people were given a free gym membership with a personal trainer for 8 weeks, they not only improved their exercise habits and reduced stress, they also ate less junk food, drank less alcohol and coffee, watched less TV and smoked fewer cigarettes, without ever being asked![v] The exercise program increased their willpower muscle and spilled over into other areas of their life. If you’re not into exercise, try putting yourself on a budget to control your frivolous spending habits. It works just as well as exercise to improve self-control.[vi]
“Motivation is what gets you started. Habit is what keeps you going.” Jim Rohn.
2) Ask yourself, “What is my old habit doing for me? Do I actually enjoy it? Is it worth it?” Allen Carr’s Easy Way to Stop Smoking, which has been clinically proven more effective than nicotine replacement treatment,[vii] uses the strategy of identifying irrational beliefs and challenging them. In cognitive behavioral therapy it’s called cognitive reframing. Here’s an example from Carr’s book.
“Some say cigarettes relieve boredom…There is nothing interesting about a cigarette… It’s oral satisfaction…Then why do you light it?…It’s the feeling of smoke going into my lungs…An awful feeling…It’s called suffocation.”[viii]
3) Ask yourself, “How would your life be different if you did make this change?” This connects your present self with your future self and makes short term gratification less attractive than long term goals.[ix] For example, a future without cigarettes would mean you’d save about $30,000 over 10 years if you smoke a pack a day in California.[x]
“No man need stay the way he is.” Harry Emerson Fosdick
4) Pivot your self-identity to embrace your future self. If you want improve your health ask yourself, “What would a healthy person do in this circumstance?”[xi] Take small steps to reinforce the new you. Your identity will change as you prove it to yourself with evidence based on your new behaviors. Even though I’ve published a novel, I still felt like an imposter when I introduced myself as a writer. Now I write 5 days a week and I’ve become a writer.
“Good habits can make rational sense, but if they conflict with your identity, you will fail to put them into action.” James Clear
5) Design your environment so it’s easy to accomplish what you want. It’s called choice architecture, designing your environment so the choices you desire are the path of least resistance.[xii] The steps involved are simple. 1) Find a trigger to start your new habit. (E.g. When I finish brushing my teeth, I will meditate for 5 minutes.) 2) Make the behavior you want easy to initiate. (Set up a place in your bedroom to meditate beforehand.) 3) Remove barriers and distractions. (Leave your phone in silent mode.) 4) Reward yourself when you follow through. (Enjoy your morning coffee after you’ve meditated.)
You can learn more in James Clear’s “Atomic Habits.”
“We are what we repeatedly do. Excellence, then, is not an act, but a habit.” Will Durant
Stay curious. Be humble. Laugh often.
Gary Gilberg is a certified life/executive coach. Sign up for his free newsletters at https://garygilberg.com/newsletter-sign-up.
[i] M. B. Stanier, “The Advice Trap,” (2020) Box of Crayons Press, pg. 22
[ii] Loch, Alexandre Andrade. (2013). It’s not your imagination: things you must know about anxiety, depression and other emotional disorders that affect one in every three individuals. Archives of Clinical Psychiatry (São Paulo), 40(3), 120–121.
[iii] H. Hershfield, “Future self-continuity: how conceptions of the future self-transform intertemporal choice.” (2011) Annals of the New York Academy of Sciences, Oct., Volume 1235: pgs. 30–43.
[iv] S. Segerstrom et al., “Heart rate variability reflects self-regulatory strength, effort and fatigue.” (2007) Psychological Science 18, pgs. 275–281
[v] Oaten M., Cheng K. “Longitudinal gains in self-regulation from regular physical exercise.” Br J Health Psychol. 2006 Nov;11(Pt 4):717–33. doi: 10.1348/135910706X96481. PMID: 17032494.
[vi] Oaten M., Cheng K. “Improvements in self-control from financial monitoring.” (2007) Journal of Economic psychology, Vol 28, Issue 4, Pgs. 487–501.
[viii] Allen Carr, “Easy Way to stop smoking,” (1954) Sterling Publishing, pg. 40
[ix] A. Rutchick, “Future self-continuity is associated with improved health and increases exercise behavior.” (2018) Journal of experimental psychology: Applied. 24, №1, pgs 72–80.
[xi] James Clear, Atomic Habits. (2018) Penguin Random House. Pg.40
[xii] R. Thaler & C. Sunstein, “Nudge” (2008) Yale University Press. Chapter 5 pgs. 81–100