When people want to change a behavior, what’s their first reaction? To think about it and then tell the world about it:
“I want to quit smoking”.
“I will start a business next year”.
“I really need to lose some weight”.
That’s why new year resolutions are so popular: because everyone has always something to say. However, how many people actually stick to what they promised some months before? Very few.
Because while recognizing a problem and knowing you need to change is important, that is just (a very small) part of the equation. As a matter of fact, this is sort of a mixture of the second and third steps (out of six) of the Transtheoretical Model – or Stages of Change – which explains in detail the “journey” people need to go through to set a change in behavior.
1. Precontemplation (Not Ready)
People are not intending to take action in the foreseeable future and can be unaware that their behavior is problematic.
2. Contemplation (Getting Ready)
People are beginning to recognize that their behavior is problematic, and start to look at the pros and cons of their continued actions.
3. Preparation (Ready)
People are intending to take action in the immediate future and may begin taking small steps toward behavior change.
People have made specific overt modifications in modifying their problem behavior or in acquiring new healthy behaviors.
People have been able to sustain an action for at least six months and are working to prevent relapse.
Individuals have zero temptation and they are sure they will not return to their old unhealthy habit as a way of coping.
Definitions from Wikipedia.
And while this model has been accepted by many – including, of course, the “scientific community“ – I believe real change happens when you start taking (small) action first, before you even change your attitude. Taking into account this model, that would mean to jump directly from step 2 to step 4.
First of all, the obvious: according to my experience and from what I see from other people’s behavior, it is exactly when (most) people find themselves in the preparation phase that they tend to assess every aspect of a possible change, ending up not doing anything (over-thinking and over-analyzing are probably terms you have read ad nauseam).
Sounds familiar? That is why today I want you to see things from a different perspective.
What if changing a behavior didn’t need all that mental work?
There is a principle called attitude-behavior consistency. In theory, when you support or have a certain attitude towards something, your behavior will most likely follow that attitude.
For instance, if you are against any type of animal suffering, one can assume that you won’t eat any kind of meat or fish. But humans are a little bit more complex than that and some studies have shown that anytime we engage in some behavior, especially one that is new to us, our reaction towards that behavior will more likely change.
Just think about a choir boy who has been raised in a very traditional family, who has always heard that going out, drinking alcohol, and partying is bad. Until one day, he’s alone at his campus room and some colleagues suddenly “break in”, pull him from his bed and take him to the party next room. Two months later, this guy is more addicted to parties than a junkie is addicted to heroin.
So as you can see in the example above, it doesn’t matter whether the action is considered good or bad, appropriate or reprehensible, destructive or constructive. Because whenever you engage in any sort of (new) behavior, you will most likely repeat it and do it more often – that’s why you’ve got to be very careful with what you begin in the first place.
Even if our brains have many ways to distinguish what is right and wrong (at least based on our beliefs and on our set of values), they can rarely take that decision beforehand. Especially because most of our behaviors start at a very subconscious level – you start doing something repetitively, for a certain period of time, until it develops itself as a habit.
For instance, if you slouch once, twice, the whole day, the whole week, you’ll soon slouch every day. And before you even notice it you’ll be often looking at the floor and have a terrible posture.
Moreover, such behavior will also influence your attitude and how others perceive you. You will look sad. Unsure. And exude little confidence.
Now imagine the opposite: That for the next month you will stand straight, look forward, and pull your shoulders back. You will also use posture correction exercises and strengthen your back muscles.
Before you know it, you will be walking around as if you had become a local celebrity, even if nothing else in your life has actually changed. Yes, not only you will look more confident, but you will actually FEEL more confident.
And this concept can be applied to everything in life.
For instance, you may develop the “right attitude” towards women, to read the ten best books about seducing them, and to watch endless videos on how to pick up chicks but, if you don’t take action, all that knowledge will mean nothing. Pure theoretical horseshit. And in the end, you’ll never gain neither the confidence nor the practical knowledge to get better with the opposite sex.
Now try this: instead of all the theory, just talk to the first lady you see on the street. It doesn’t matter whether she’s old, ugly, or fat as a whale, you just have to do it. And you know what? Don’t do it only today, but tomorrow, the day after tomorrow, and so on.
Basically, this will be your ritual anytime you leave your house. No excuses (trust me, I’ve heard them all). Do you know what will happen after a couple of months? You will talk to women as if you were brushing your teeth or doing any other mundane activity. Yes, without even thinking about it.
But life is much more than seducing women. For instance, let’s consider positive affirmations. I’m honestly no fan of such motivational crap like “think positively” or “tell yourself positive things every day”.
On the other hand, what happens if you remind yourself every day that you can’t do something? That you are too weak, too poor to too little gifted? How does it help to say that you don’t have what it takes?
Honestly, not only it doesn’t help AT ALL, but it will actually harm you. If you don’t have “it” yet, telling that you can’t have it or that you will never be able to reach it will not only keep you where you are right now (in this same position of “nothing”) but actually even push more away from where you would like to be. Being realistic is good, being pessimistic is not.
So start telling yourself that you are the best. If your goal is to make money, start saying every night before sleep that you will make a million dollars in the next 5 years (don’t say in the next year, that’s just too silly). If your goal is to win a dancing competition, then start reminding yourself about it every single morning, when you look yourself in the mirror.
Even if you had a failure recently or in your past, don’t think about that failure. Don’t think that you lost all your money or that you didn’t reach the final in the last dancing competition you went to. Instead, think about what can you DO from now on to put you closer to the goal you had already buried long ago.
(Don’t let your past failures and mistakes affect you, but MAKE SURE you learn from them. That’s how successful people and champions are born, by the way).
Start bugging your brain and flooding it with your everyday “delusional” talk. Program your mind in such a way that it will actually believe your words until you no longer have to fake it.
Because even if what you say is not real and it has never happened, your words are REAL. The sounds that come from your mouth are not an invention, but something that can be proved, something that exists. And so, by having something “palpable”, it will be easier for your mind to believe in it.
Plus, there is also some scientific evidence that supports this premise. For instance, Gary Wells and Richard Petty (1980) found that people who were asked to shake their heads up and down rather than sideways while reading arguments favoring or opposing tuition increases at their school ended up agreeing more with the arguments of increasing the fees.
And Daryl Bem (1965) found that when people were told by the experimenter to say that certain cartoons were funny, they ended up actually finding those cartoons funnier.
It appears in these cases that it was the behavior that generated the attitude, even if people probably thought the opposite. If they moved their head up and down or said that the cartoons were funny, then they must always have thought that in the first place (which was clearly not true, as their decision was INFLUENCED by the action they were asked to do).
Now, this experiment probably worked because these people agreed to be part of a study or research. They were WILLING to do it. It was their decision to take part in it and, even if they were somehow “forced” to perform an action (like the two examples shown before), they truly believed that this decision came from themselves anyway.
But in real life, we usually don’t have scientists forcing our behavior.
That is why you need, FIRST, to make a decision about the outcome you’re trying to achieve. Let’s say you smoke and you want to quit it. However, there’s a part of you who doesn’t really want to give up. And so, even if you put your cigarettes aside for a couple of days, you’ll easily return to this old, bad habit after a while.
On the other hand, if you are really committed to change this behavior, and you ALSO repeat to yourself every hour that you are not a smoker and that you hate smoking, that will probably influence your decision of smoking over time.
But that’s about YOUR decision and YOUR actions. What about influencing others – especially if those are people you are directly responsible for, like your children? Well, that’s harder, but not impossible.
You just need to find clever ways to make it look “natural” so that the other party believes that he/she was the one making the decision that led to a certain action.
That is why you should avoid both punishing a child for bad behavior and promising him/her good rewards in case of a positive accomplishment, as the child may avoid the bad behavior, for the former case, or simply do the activity, for the latter case, just due to external pressure.
Because when he goes back to his “normal routine” or in case you are not watching, the little devil will realize that he acted not because he really wanted it, but because he was told to.
And so, very likely he will never change his behavior (in case he performed badly or poorly) or will end up not liking the process that leads to a certain activity (for instance, go to school and have good grades).
So always find the right balance between punishing and rewarding someone, especially if we are talking about children who are “quick learners”.
So as you can see, the motive or the reason behind any change is actually not that important: what really matters is that you FEEL you were the one making the decision of changing.
Otherwise, if you feel that there are some external factors or pressure influencing your decision, you will not get the necessary inner “motivation” (better call it strength or structure) to keep that change, and so you will easily find excuses or motives to give up.
Now, let’s say you have decided to change your behavior and you have finally taken action (or perhaps you just took action first, and your attitude followed, as I wrote before). How long will that behavior last? Or better said, how long will it take until that change of behavior actually becomes the behavior you wanted to change into in the first place?
Well, you need to commit at least for a month, but preferably two as one of the few studies (https://psychcentral.com/blog/need-to-form-a-new-habit-66-days/ ) on the matter showed that it takes about 66 days to form a new habit.
Just remember that this number is just an average…and that it can take a whole lot longer than that. Yeah, forget about the myth of 21 days – which actually came from a misinterpretation of Dr. Maxwell Maltz’s work “Psycho-Cybernetics” – used for so many years and spread by major “self-help gurus” like Zig Ziglar or Brian Tracy.
As a rule of thumb, whenever you feel that a certain behavior comes automatically then voilá, you’ve formed it. Otherwise, just keep pushing until it “makes or breaks” (attention: this can sometimes be the BEST solution in case something simply does not stick. e.g.: after a couple of months trying a new diet, you have some strange side effects and somehow you can not cope with it).
Lastly, it is worth noting that you don’t need to follow it RELIGIOUSLY. So if you skip your “new behavior” for a couple of days, nothing terrible will happen, as long as you stick to it in MOST days.
A REAL change happens when we realize we have a problem, and then take IMMEDIATE ACTION on that pain point.
When John comes back to the beach after two years, and realizes how other guys are much more in shape than him and how most women even avoid looking at him, he FEELS such a huge frustration inside that he finally decides he needs to do something regarding his bod.
And for the first time, he will think SERIOUSLY about changing his diet and start hitting the gym. So right now he’s determined and will do whatever it takes to get in shape.
But this is exactly where most people get stuck. Because if you realize, this is just an attitude change. “Right, I realize I’m fat, so I need to change”. But our brains are tricky, and more often than not, we tend to fall into old habits, and, in one year from now, John will come back to that beach exactly how he was before: out of shape.
That’s why it’s important, after recognizing the need to change, that you take IMMEDIATE action. To take some initial, SMALL steps that seem irrelevant at first. Until they finally become part of your routine (remember the part of building habits before?) and will start working at a subconscious level.
Taking into account the previous example, that John commits to a single action: to do 10 push-ups in the morning for ten straight days. Nothing else matters, only those 30 seconds of sweat anytime he gets out of bed.
Because after a while, and before he even notices it, a kind of magic will have happened: in one, perhaps in two or even in three months, suddenly he will have this “strange” habit of doing pushups EVERY morning. Yes, until it has become exactly that: a HABIT.
By having induced a certain behavior repeatedly, his attitude has automatically changed. Now he really FEELS, not just thinks, how important it is to change his lifestyle and eating habits. He is already on the right track, without “even trying it”, just because he started with what was apparently insignificant: 10 pushups every morning.
Humans, and especially our brains, are complex. But curiously enough, it is simplicity that usually has a deeper and stronger impact on us. So anytime you’re thinking about changing something, stop. Instead, just do it (it’s not a coincidence that the NIKE slogan is a timeless success). Literally.
It’s amazing how our brains react to action. For instance, most people still believe the good, old “do what you love” or “follow your passion”, especially in terms of following a career or having an occupation that will put money in your pocket.
But while this sounds tremendously sexy and appealing, the truth of the matter is that the world most likely doesn’t give a shit about what you like.
Now imagine the opposite: that you perhaps hate accounting and that numbers were never something you were really into. Still, you spotted a great need in your country to help small business owners or entrepreneurs who are struggling with having their tax forms correctly filled. And so, you decided to give it a try.
One year later you are financially independent and the most respected accountant in your field. And guess what? Now you are passionate about it!
All because you started doing a certain behavior that led to a new attitude – and if you had looked for the right attitude first (the one of enjoying accounting), you would have probably waited forever. This is just a clear example of how changing behavior and taking action is the most effective way to have the right attitude about it.
So stop overthinking and only caring about the things you like (which is the same thing to say that you keep yourself in your comfort zone). Instead, look for what you want to achieve and where you would like to be and take that as a motivator to start doing something, even if your lazy brain is telling you not to.
So talk to that girl, even if you feel you first “need” to watch a couple of videos on Youtube teaching you the right things to tell her. Why? Because even if NOW you hate the process that leads to it, you know that you love women, and so you just need to do the things that will lead to a more abundant sexual life.
Or when you know you want to develop the habit of writing every day and eventually start a blog or an email list, but you are still researching the best topics and things to write about.
Well, guess what? You can exactly write about the process of writing (how difficult it is, what your struggles are, etc), until you get so used to do it that you will find yourself writing about other things in a “natural way”.
Or even when you know you hate physical exercise, but you love the idea of being in shape. And so, you start hitting the gym, forcing yourself to do something you don’t really want, until it finally sticks – and you realize that working out is actually not that bad.
This is basically the “fake it until you make it” you have heard so many times, mixed with the “3-second rule” of Mystery plus whatever rule or motivational hack you want to add here.
It’s all about taking action – from taking the very first action until keeping it, with marginal improvements every single day – and changing your behavior until your mind catches up with and gets used to it.
Because action, even if in its smallest form, is the mother of all changes. And the more action you take, the more you will keep that action rolling – that’s also called momentum, this powerful force that explains how we basically went from being cavemen to putting people in Space.
Sure, you may fall back into old habits and eventually start everything all over again. Or you may try to change a behavior that will lead nowhere. But in most cases, you will change and be in a better position than when you first started it.
The secret sauce is that there is no secret sauce: it’s all about taking action and learning from EXPERIENCE. So don’t change your attitude, change your behavior.