Just had a smart conversation yesterday about this. It's been something I've been thinking on for a while.
There's a bit of a problem with long term habit change. If you're working on something that takes a while to achieve, you spend a lot of time falling short of your target and aware of it.
So, let's say you were currently drinking a lot of soda, and you want to quit.
You start replacing soda with other drinks, trying to order different things at restaurants, buy other things, turn friends and family down when they offer you a soda, get a bottled water instead of a coke at the movie theater with popcorn, etc, etc, etc.
Sometimes you go to a barbecue or a cheap lunch with pizza, and the only drink is soda. You try to just have nothing those times.
There's lots of opportunities to drink soda. If you were a big soda drinker, a gradual scaling-down of soda-drinking might take six months.
For that whole six months, there's going to be some neurosis and pressure. You're going to be aware of falling short every time you have a soda. It's likely you'll feel some disappointment or neurosis every time you cave and have a soda when you didn't plan to.
Then, one day, you'e scaled down almost all the way, and then you quit entirely. BAM! You're no longer a soda drinker.
How long do you celebrate? I'm going to guess... less than two weeks.
And I think that's a huge problem with long term habit change. Six months of hard work, of being constantly aware of falling short, of the disappointment and neurosis from false starts and mistakes, and then... less than two weeks of feeling good about it, before on to the next thing.
Yes, you get all the health benefits. But you don't necessarily get rewarding feelings anywhere near the pressure and neurosis and disappointment while working on it.
I'm gradually becoming more aware of this. I don't have a perfect solution to it, but I think celebrating more often is a part of the puzzle.
Celebrate small wins, have a little moment of satisfaction when your consumption of soda (or whatever) improves a little bit, reflect on the wins and the changes, celebrate a little longer and bigger when you have large wins.
Also, perhaps less neurosis and disappointment when falling short? I'm not sure it's necessary... perhaps it can act like a spur in your side to some extent, but maybe it'd be possible to just adjust without feeling bad? Saying something like, "Ok, I fell short. Time to get back on track" without the neurosis?
I'm reminded again of that Tomas Schelling quote from Choice and Consequences -
Some people who run for exercise discover that the fear of quitting – not the fear of running painfully, but of quitting – becomes so severe that they are tempted to quit to get rid of the fear. Once they’ve run the course the mental agony is gone and the physical agony bearable; so they sometimes treat themselves at the end to a little extra when, anxiety gone and nothing at stake, they can at last run for the fun of it.
Perhaps long term habit change is like that, to some extent. The neurosis and battling might be more difficult than the habit change itself.
Perhaps we can correct course without the neurosis, and celebrate more often? I don't know, I need to think on this more. Your thoughts in the comments?
That is great stuff Daniel. I found the same thing. I had 60lbs to lose (20lbs to go still). Thinking of trying to climb the mountain of shedding that much weight was just too much to take on at once so I decided to do something very similar to what you did.
I created a calendar and charted out into the future losing 2lbs a week until I hit my goal weight. (I am on track for that happening on March 16th 2011). Twice a week I log my weight in this calendar and it gives me a real guide as to where I have had successes and where I need more work. Every time I look at the calendar I make it a point to go back to the beginning and take a look at how far I have come and where I am headed and celebrate the victories that I have had all over again. On top of that I am tracking daily all of my calories and exercise daily (and getting on the scale every morning to take note of where I am starting off that day). What this has done is allowed me to create a situation for myself where I am celebrating small successes multiple times a week and the days that I don't have anything to celebrate, I have not veered so far off course that I bag the weight loss plan all together. Weight loss used to be an unmanageable monster that I would try to beat and fail. Now that I have a clear plan to tackle this in small increments, I am seeing far more success than failure and it is not a matter of if I can accomplish the task, it is when.
Wow, that's interesting. I think you're definitely on to something.
When I was in high school, I was on the soccer team. We conditioned every day. And we ran. Ran for miles. I hated running. So I picked up a few tips to get by. It turns out, you can play some mental games to push yourself further than you otherwise would.
The trick is to create small challenges for yourself as you run. It gets you past the fear by giving you explicit chances to quit. And it gives you the satisfaction of winning. Over and over. I'd think to myself: I'm only going to run to that light post up ahead then I can quit. I'd pass it. I'd celebrate. And I'd run a bit further. What really surprised me though was how easy it was to keep on running--even at the same pace--while mentally celebrating compared to when I was struggling through the challenge.
The mental stress always crept back in though. So when it did, I'd think up another challenge. Maybe a longer distance that time. While going a little faster. I can always quit after winning this next challenge. Then again, if I felt like I couldn't quite make it any further, I'd create a shorter, more attainable goal. And even after that small win, knowing I gave myself permission to quit, the decision was mine again. I could choose whether or not to push on. So I did. These little wins are what kept me moving forward. I'd have given up otherwise.
Now running may not quite be the same as long-term habit change. But when you're required to run several miles a day for weeks at a time, it certainly feels like it! Besides, I continued to run after high school soccer ended. It ended up being habit. (It may also have helped that we were coached through it all though. It's certainly harder to do these things on your own. I think you can learn a lot from being coached and applying the same strategies to your own long-term habit changes. After all, these guys are trained to train.)
Great point. I think it's one of the key reasons that my weight-loss method at http://danieltenner.com/posts/0018-how-to-lose-weight.html works well... the daily weighing and graphs allow you to celebrate your weight loss every day.
Sorry, Looks like I screwed up when I put in the quote tags. You may want to edit the above post to make it more readable.
This reminded me of something Steve Litt (troubleshooters.com) wrote about regarding troubleshooting:
"Take pride in what you just did. GLOAT over how you beat the problem that was trying to beat you. SAVOR the victory. GO OVER in your mind every step of the way to victory. REVIEW the course of the troubleshoot, where you were brilliant, where you could have done better. BRAG to your co-workers."
He used that technique as a defense against burnout, perhaps we can apply the same process to changing habits? Celebrate all the little victories as you go along, take pride every day you skip soda, or every time you resist temptation. Change the solution around from having a two week long celebration at the end to some amount of random positive reinforcement when you successfully follow the new behavior. Then continue reinforcing the behavior a decreasing amount after you've succeeded in adopting the new habit until the habit has become second nature.
I don't know if the above would actually prove effective or useful, but I thought it might be relevant.
Some people who run for exercise discover that the fear of quitting - not the fear of running painfully, but of quitting - becomes so severe that they are tempted to quit to get rid of the fear. Once they've run the course the mental agony is gone and the physical agony bearable; so they sometimes treat themselves at the end to a little extra when, anxiety gone and nothing at stake, they can at last run for the fun of it.
Made me think a little bit. Interesting.
From Choice and Consequences (Google books link).
I've had a few friends who've gone through quitting smoking. The hard part, they say, is that certain things trigger wanting to smoke. Stressful situation? Time to smoke. Driving a car? Time to smoke. Drinking at a bar? Time to smoke. The reason that bad habits are so hard to quit is that we have these many triggers that start us down that path almost automatically. A compulsive eater might get into a stressful situation and have a hamburger halfway into their face before they even consciously think about whether or not they should be eating.
The silver lining of this nuance of human nature is that we can also harness triggers to create positive habits. Just as bad habits are so hard to break because of our triggers, good habits can be made resilient using the same mechanism. And just as bad habits are built slowly and incrementally, so are good habits.
I meditate for five minutes every day. As soon as I wake up, I grab my phone and press the start button on a five minute meditation timer. Waking up is my trigger. At first I had to remind myself to do the meditation every morning, but now I do it almost automatically. It would feel strange not to meditate. Just as a veteran smoker is likely to have a harder time quitting than a new smoker, the longer I keep my meditation habit, the easier it becomes to maintain.
There are two main types of triggers: contextual triggers and constant triggers. Waking up is a constant trigger, since I do it every single day and want to meditate every day. A contextual trigger is something that happens at an inconsistent frequency. For me, feeling tired during the day is a contextual trigger. Whenever that happens, I drink a glass of water, because I've found that sometimes I'm just dehydrated and not actually tired.