Behavior change is hard, it takes a lot of time and consistent effort to change behaviors but it can be done. And the best part is, it doesn’t need you to be really motivated or highly disciplined to do it.
Behavior in psychology is defined as an organism’s activities in response to external or internal stimuli.
In simple terms, behavior consists of the actions that living organisms use to adjust in their respective environments.
This definition came from Lewin’s equation, B = ∫(P, E) which states that your behavior is a function of you, (P) including your history, personality, and motivation and your (E), i.e. your environment including your physical as well as your social surroundings.
Now since we know what behavior is, is it possible then to change our behavior?
Looking at the equation above, we would make a calculated guess that if we do want to change our behavior we need to change either the person (P) or their environment (E).
In this blog, we will discuss what it takes to change our behavior and how we can use those ways to create massive and lasting improvements in ourselves.
5 stages of Behavior change
While behavior change is possible, it is hard. In 1980 alcoholism researchers, James O. Prochaska and Carlo C. DiClemente formed a trans-theoretical model to explain it.
The trans-theoretical model they proposed said that a person needs to go through 5 stages for behavior change namely-
Each stage prepares you for the next stage and thus it is important that one gives enough time to each stage and not try to skip them.
While trying behavior change it is normal to fail a couple of times and relapse.
Which is why you might have to go through these five stages repeatedly, each time you relapse is an iteration that teaches you where you need to work on and why you failed thus forming a feedback loop for behavior change.
In this first stage, people either are in denial or are ignorant of the problem. Trapped by their limiting beliefs these people resign to fate.
This is even more painful when they have tried and failed in the past.
To get past this stage you need to introspect and analyze your behaviors.
Which unhealthy behaviors are hampering your progress and are the beliefs you keep repeating subconsciously true?
For example- “My parents never went to college, how can I score well? That is just how it is, Intelligence is genetic.”
“We cannot change anything until we accept it. Condemnation does not liberate, it oppresses.”―Carl Jung
In the second stage of contemplation, people are aware of the benefits of making a change.
However, they still have not committed to it. Studies of the Trans-theoretical model classify them as people considering a change in the next 6 months.
People tend to stay in this stage for years. To overcome this stage we first have to rationalize the need for change in our mind.
Making a pros and cons list or recognizing barriers to change can go a long way for people to change.
Let’s say, you wish to work and are constantly distracted at home. Can you put a pair of headphones on?
Maybe you can shift your work schedule to when it is more peaceful. Maybe going to a library or Coffice might be more productive.
In this third stage, you know you have to change and believe you can change.
You thus start making action plans and take initial steps for the change in behavior to take place.
In this stage, you must prepare yourselves for the troubles you expect to happen and things that can trigger unhealthy behaviors.
Make small changes to eliminate past behaviors and stick to them, for example, substitute a cigarette for stress relief with a five-minute meditation or run around the block.
Write down goals and then prepare a realistic action plan starting with small steps.
If your goal is to exercise, start by doing 10 push-ups daily and scale from there.
Having goals and implementation intentions can help you go a long way. More on that later.
“To change a habit, make a conscious decision, then act out the new behavior. “―Maxwell Maltz
At this stage, the change you prepared for has taken place. Unhealthy behaviors are gone and now you feel a bit uncomfortable adjusting to the new reality.
Often times it is easy to fail here due to lack of consistency. Revisiting the preparation stage and finding better ways to continue new healthier behaviors can help.
High self-esteem will help you stick with the action stage and keep your motivation high.
Writing down the motivations for behavior change and reading them daily can help with that.
Another way to stick to change is to have a good support system of people that care about you.
When you have been in the action stage for six months approximately you reach the maintenance stage.
This is the last step and your focus here is to prevent falling back into old unhealthy patterns.
A good way to avoid relapsing into old patterns is to find ways of Resisting Temptations.
This might mean completely any environmental factors or situations that may trigger old habits.
It is also essential that you bounce back quickly if you do fail. Being empathetic to yourself when you fail, helps you learn from your mistakes and come back stronger.
On the contrary, if you are too hard on yourself it can reduce your self-esteem and lead to giving up easily.
4 step pattern of all habits
I recently read the book Atomic habits by author James Clear. It was the inspiration behind this blog.
I have read about the nature of habits and even written about them in some of my other articles however, this was the first time I saw them in such a simple and actionable way. I highly recommend that you read it.
James Clear mentions in his book that a habit is essentially a repetition of a four-step pattern.
James calls the first two (Cue and Craving) as the problem phase and the last two (Response and Reward) as the solution phase.
The problem phase presents the brain with a need for change and the solution brain is what the brain comes up with to attain that change.
This forms a feedback loop of …cue-> craving ->response -> reward -> cue…
Cue – Cue is anything in our internal or external environment that triggers your brain to initiate a behavior predicting a reward.
Craving– Craving is the desire for change in your internal state a behavior might deliver. Thus, craving is our brain’s interpretation of cues
Response– Response is a thought or action that you perform after the influence of cravings depending on your motivation and the resistance associated with your behavior.
Reward– Reward is the final goal of a habit. Rewards satisfy your cravings after performing the response and thus our brain starts to associate cues that can help us reach those rewards in the future. Thus, rewards are essential for sustaining a habit.
What are the 4 laws of behavior change-
Based on these four stages of a habit James goes on to provide a system for creating good habits and breaking bad habits.
For this, we make it as easy as possible for a habit to occur at each stage when it comes to good habits.
On the contrary, when it comes to bad habits we create as many obstacles in each of those four steps as we can.
Create a good habit-
- Make it obvious
- Make it attractive
- Make it easy
- Make it satisfying
Break a bad habit-
- Make it invisible
- Make it unattractive
- Make it difficult
- Make it unsatisfying
Following is a short summary of some of the best points I learned about those four laws, I still recommend that you read the full book too.
1st law of behavior change (Cue)
Make it Obvious/ Invisible
Journaling can make you aware of your habits, the book recommends the process of habits scorecard which is simply you writing down all the things you do throughout your day.
After you have written them down place +, -, = after them denoting if they value positive, negative, or value-neutral respectively.
Two most common cues are Location and Time. Thus, he mentions implementation intentions, which can leverage both these cues.
Implementation intentions have a format like- “When situation X arises, I will perform response Y.
An implementation intention is an action plan in the preparation stage of behavior change.
Another way to do this is to do what author James calls as habit stacking. You build a new habit on top of a current habit you already do.
The habits you do already have location and time cues in them, which is why it is easy to stack habits on top of one another.
Now to break the bad habits in your scorecard, identify the cues that trigger them, and remove them from your environment.
If you spend too much time on your phone perhaps, what you can do is keep your phone on airplane mode while you work or better to keep it on the other side of room.
Tailor your environment where cues of bad habits become Invisible.
2nd law of behavior change (Craving)
Make it Attractive/Unattractive
The cravings you have come from the anticipation of a reward.
Thus, the more you anticipate the reward, the more dopamine shoots in your brain thus causing your motivation to act.
The easiest way to use cravings to create good habits is Temptation bundling. You pair what you need to do with what you want to do.
You can do this simultaneously or by doing something you enjoy immediately before a difficult habit.
For example- listen to music while you go for jogging, or just before you study.
Another powerful thing to make a habit attractive is to join a culture that values those habits.
Because those habits will help you fit in the tribe, they will begin to feel attractive.
To break bad habits at this stage you need introspection. Figure out how you interpret the cues.
Craving after all comes from your interpretation of cues.
After you can figure out the underlying motives of a habit, you can reframe them for a habit to look attractive or unattractive.
It is had to do but once you do that, it causes an identity level change that will be worth all the hard work you put into it.
3rd law of behavior change (Response)
Make it Easy/Difficult
Habits aren’t formed by the time you spend doing them but by repetition.
Thus, you meditating for 1 hour is not that important if your goal is to meditate, what is important is that you meditate daily.
By repeating habits daily you tend to reach automaticity i.e. the ability to perform something as if it was second nature example driving.
The first thing you can do is decrease the habit you want to perform each day to a task that takes barely 2 minutes to perform.
This makes it easy to reduce the friction in performing a habit. Apart from that try to redesign your life in a way that important actions have the least friction.
Utilizing commitment devices or creating strategic one-time decisions for example investing in retirement savings, automatic investing in tax saving funds, etc.
These can help to restrict bad habits. An example of this can be an app that cuts out social media apps on your phone.
Creating an environment where bad habits are difficult to pull off makes it easy to stay committed to good behaviors.
4th law of behavior change (Reward)
Make it Satisfying/Unsatisfying
While the first three laws make it easy to perform a behavior, the fourth law makes it easy to sustain a behavior.
Most of the habits that are good for us usually give delayed gratification.
Thus we need to create ways where the gratification of those good behaviors immediate and the bad habits we want to break are associated with negative gratification.
Simply put make the ending of a good habit satisfying. You can do this by a habit tracker, which tracks your habit throughout the month.
Another thing to sustain a habit is to try to never break a chain and if by some mistake you miss once make it a priority of never missing twice.
As James Clear put it, missing twice is the start of a new habit.
To break bad habits create a cost for bad behavior. You can do that with a habit contract or having an accountability partner.
This way missing on your habit has a social cost attached to it.
“We don’t rise to the level of our expectations, we fall to the level of our training.”― Archilochus
This is perhaps the recurring theme of this book.
Making goals is useful but goals can only help initiate behavior and as the motivation drops it becomes harder and harder to sustain good behaviors.
Three layers of behavior change
Our training however is us working on our systems. Author James clear mentions in his book the three layers of behavior change-
Most people begin trying to change their habits by focussing on what they wish to achieve. This leads them to build outcome-based habits.
The issue is that outcome-based habits are hard to sustain, either they are based on extrinsic motivation which is unreliable or they lose all meaning once the outcome is achieved.
Good habits can make all the rational sense in the world and people will still find it hard to stick to them unless they match with their identity.
This is in psychology is known as cognitive dissonance. The best way to create an identity is to form small habits and stick to them.
By these small repeating wins, you build up an enormous body of evidence about the kind of person you are.
If you exercise even for just 5 minutes for an entire month, your identity begins to shift and you see yourself as a person who exercises regularly.
Just like, you identify as a person who brushes their teeth first thing in the morning. It is only when you can sustain a habit that you can scale it.
We urge you to explore what your callings are. Do you possess the courage to chase them? We provide a free ebook called The perfect beginning that might help you in finding those callings.
Well, that’s all for this post. Have a good day and a good life.