Why people fail at making big life changes

Personal change has two parts, but we only pay attention to one

Behavior vs Evaluation

Let’s say you want to change something about yourself. You want to lose some weight, get better at chess, or be less anxious in social situations. All personal changes break down to one of two types: changing what you do (behavior) or changing how you feel (evaluation).

Changing what you do means changing what behaviors you engage in on a regular basis. Despite what you may think, this is actually the easier area to change and one that is well documented. The science of behavioral analysis has amazing efficacy around doing just that. And it has nothing to do with motivation or discipline.

Changing how you feel is more complicated. Every time we encounter some stimulus — you see a loved one, you get cut off in traffic, you open the refrigerator, you contemplate a decision — every time any of these stimulus run through your brain your brain quickly processes what the event itself means, what the options related to it mean, and what feelings to attach to those. This is called a value judgement. And value judgements are flexible.

An event is only bad if you think it’s bad. But if you think it’s bad, your brain will oblige you by bringing up a negative emotion to match your evaluation.

To make real, lifelong changes, you need to adjust both your behavior. and your evaluation. If you just modify behavior then the habit will only last as long as you continue to focus on it. If you change your evaluation but continue behaviors that are contrary to it, your brain won’t actually let you keep that new mindset long term.

Results are not changes

There seems to be a lot of confusion around what is a change (like a behavioral change) and what is not. I think of this as “goal syndrome”.

We’re all taught to set goals as though the act of imaging a thing that we want actually gets us closer to the thing itself. But goals are usually focused only on results and not on actual changes that you can make.

The reason this gets mixed up for a lot of people is because most personal change is focused on the outcome — the goal setting — and not on the change itself.

For example, say you want to be rich. Being rich is not a personal change. Despite what a bunch of snake oil salesmen will tell you about the law of attraction, there is no switch you can flip inside yourself to suddenly become rich. Accumulating wealth can — sometimes — be a consequence of changing the way you evaluate things (like investments and risk) and the behaviors you engage in on a regular basis.

But it’s important to remember that you can only choose the behaviors and evaluations — you cannot choose the result.

Here are the parts broken down graphically:

[The way you evaluate things][the behaviors you engage in on a regular basis][some factor for luck] = [RESULT: you are or are not rich]

E* B* L = R

The luck factor is important to remember because you can make a correct decision or engage in a correct behavior and still lose.

Restated (because it’s that important): just because you lost doesn’t necessarily mean you did the wrong thing.

Some wisdom from Captain Picard (Photo used under Creative Commons license)

Action and Motivation

I have a personal rule: Movement leads to motivation leads to movement.

A lot of people think that you need to feel some motivation before taking action. Tony Robbins says “if you want to get moving, get inspired”. Okay, cool Tony, but how do I get inspired?

The reality is that starting to do things often leads to that inspiration that you need to get yourself to do more things.

This is why depressed people (heyo, it me) find that performing a small action like taking a shower or making their bed helps them disproportionately.

Sean’s Statute #3: Movement leads to action leads to movement

Of course, it works the other way too. Feeling motivated leads to movement. So if you want to feel motivated and do stuff, you can start anywhere on this cycle. Hence, movement leads to motivation leads to movement.

There’s a corollary here with Evaluation and Behavior: consistently feeling motivated changes how your mind evaluates things. The world is an exciting place when you have energy. Similarly, consistently performing actions changes your long-term behaviors.

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