I was on the phone with my mom the other day, telling her about certain habits I had adopted and how easy it had been to make change. How I live healthier than I used to, work smarter than I used to, and certainly feel a lot better than I used to.
This conversation really reminded me how easy changes can be once you’re motivated to make them. Like once you know exactly why it’s important to you, and what to do moving forward.
Today I want to talk about the process of making those changes. What you can do to prepare yourself, and how you can avoid losing momentum as you’re trying to improve your life.
I’d like to take a page out of this book: SWITCH: How Change Things When Change is Hard by Chip & Dan Heath.
Chip Heath is a Professor of Organizational Behavior at Stanford University, and Dan Heath is a Senior Researcher at Duke University.
It’s a book about how to lead change in organizations, and also in personal life. I thought it was interesting for the way it boils complicated research down into a simple framework for making change happen.
I have written about why some people fail to recognize when things needs to change in their life, but if you’re reading this I assume you’re either facing a challenging situation right now, or you’re simply interested in optimizing your life.
And that’s great.
Our discussion starts with a simple observation:
Some changes are easy, and some a lot harder.
I’m sure most of us can point to at least one time when we were able to kick a long-standing habit with relatively little effort.
I’ll never forget senior year high-school, a person I was dating at the time, she said: “You know I’m really shooting for like a 3.0 average this year. Minimum, ya know?”
Now, admittedly, I had been coasting in high-school for a few years prior. Just barely trying because well, I could.
But when I heard this, I thought: “I better get to work, otherwise she’ll show me up by the end of this year.”
I valued other things above good grades at that point in time. But what I valued even more than those things, was this person’s respect. (Values are powerful motivators, I talked about that in another recent article)
“When you find your WHY, you find a way to make it happen.” -Eric Thomas
And once I had that reason (I need to work hard because she might lose respect/trust in me if I don’t), it didn’t take a lot of nudging at all to get me to study often.
(And I did do very well in the end.)
This reason was my motivation to “work harder”.
So that’s the first thing, but certainly motivation isn’t the only thing. We’ve all been motivated to “work harder” or “be healthier”.
But how do you make sure these good intentions get carried into reality?
Get clear on what you’re trying to accomplish.
Clarity means seeing tangible ways to make progress towards your goal. “Being healthy” isn’t much of a goal if you can’t identify specific behaviors that make you healthier.
In SWITCH, Chip and Dan Heath talk about how two health researchers, Steve Booth-Butterfield and Bill Reger, (professors at West Virginia University) were contemplating ways to persuade people to eat a healthier diet.
These two researchers determined that milk (being one of the largest sources of saturated fat in the American diet) was going to be their main focal point.
So now they had their point of intervention. Next they came up with the actual change they were going to encourage consumers to make: Buying skim milk instead of whole milk.
They launched their Health Campaign with this one crystal clear message: ” Eat healthier, by buying skim milk over whole milk.”
Reger and Booth-Butterfield monitored milk sales data in eight stores in the intervention area. Before the campaign, the market share of low-fat milk was 18 percent. After the campaign, it was 41 percent. Six months later, it held at 35 percent.
This campaign was effective in changing purchasing habits in that area. Even long after it was over.
Many don’t take their goals beyond “Eat healthier “, and that’s one of the main reasons it becomes hard to carry through.
If you’re going to carry your motivation through, you’re going to need clear action-steps.
Change = Inspiration x Willpower
Inspiration is what I felt when my friend told me she was going to do everything in her power to keep her grades above a B throughout the year.
I thought: “Wow.”
But see that “Wow” is not what made me work so hard. Working hard takes more than just being inspired. You have to be inspired, but also disciplined. Obviously.
But that’s the thing right, discipline is where some change efforts get stuck. 🙂
You have a genuine desire to improve your life in some way (you feel inspired), but somehow you don’t always feel like doing what it takes. At least not every day.
To sustain your motivation you have to provide the direction (we talked about that), the inspiration, and the willpower. But what most people don’t realize is that willpower is a limited resource.
And if discipline comes from having the willpower to control one-self, then discipline comes in limited supply as well.
(There’s very interesting research on willpower that is referenced in the book too.)
Willpower is (literally) the energy your mind uses to fight instinctual urges. (Dan and Chip Heath call the instinctual urges your “Elephant”, just like Jonathan Haidth in The Happiness Hypothesis.)
“When Rider (the mind) and Elephant disagree about which way to move, you’ve got a problem. The Rider can get his way temporarily. He can tug on the reins hard enough to get the Elephant to submit. (Anytime you use willpower you’re doing exactly that.) But the Rider can’t win a tug-of-war with a huge animal for long. He simply gets exhausted.”
-Switch: How To Make Change, When Change Is Hard
And what happens when the Rider gets exhausted? You have no power. No willpower. No control over your instinctual urge to avoid pain via binge or procrastination. Without willpower, there’s no discipline. And with no discipline, all the motivation (and good will) in the world will be ineffective.
Have the elephant work for you
You can do that by engaging your emotions.
When my friend told me she was going to go for a 3.0, I had a very clear picture in my mind:
Her, with a really good average on the year, honors from the jury, all those good things.. And me. With only “so-so” grades, looking quite foolish in comparison.
I guess some pride kind of got into it, but that’s good. That’s why it worked. Whenever I thought of procrastinating on those hours of study a voice in my head would say: “Sure, go right on ahead and embarrass yourself in her eyes later.”
Not a good feeling, and I certainly didn’t want that. That’s something I actually cared about right there.
It might sounds petty but, the main thing is that this emotion helped me stay disciplined. The vision was an emotional trigger for me.
That’s why I always say if you’re not fed up with what you’re seeing in the mirror , on your bank statement, on reports about you…etc, it’s going to be a hard change.
Not an easy one like what I just described.
Just as fighting a 6000 pound animal in the jungle is not easy. You might be better off just running away from that problem until you’re hurt and cornered bad enough that you’ve got no choice but to put up a serious fight.
(Isn’t that what most do?)
I guess what I’m trying to say is that change also takes pride. It takes emotion. And if you’re serious about making changes, clarity should be just as important.
Check out SWITCH: How To Change Things When Change Is Hard by Chip Heath and Dan Heath
I wrote a follow-up article to this one, PART 2
Lots more in there about the psychology of change, backed up by a ton of research.