When we try to change ourselves, most people think it requires will power. We are supposed to cultivate will power, because change is hard, and to overcome that difficulty we need will power. People who do great things have lots of will power. Or so we think.
This is an extremely unhelpful way of thinking about the problem, just short of flat wrong. How can we frame this more productively?
Let’s take an example like a person who wants to lose weight. Any task we try does not happen in a vacuum. Life has a “backdrop” of what is happening, and how the new task fits into it, or doesn’t.
Day-to-day life is a repeated set of the same transactions. Lives have structures, whether that structure is a job or career, or just people you spend time with. Humans are built to form patterns & habits, because they act like “mental shortcuts”. There is too much information in the real world for us to cope with it all, so we adopt habits as short cuts to make decisions.
These habits in turn put us into self-reinforcing behavioral loops. We can think of positive loops as virtuous cycles, and negative ones as vicious cycles.
Relative to weight loss, here are two possible loops a person could be in. Both are self-reinforcing: the more you do it, the more you will continue to do it, because each arrow in the loop provides the motivation to drive the next. As you take that action over and over, habit results. This idea of “self-reinforcing loops” is everywhere in the world once you open your eyes and look.
This gives us the first piece of how to think about hard personal change tasks:
It is not a matter of “doing the thing” (once). The task is to create a stable loop of actions and habit that “delivers the outcome”.
These loops are a key idea. But how do we actually move from state to state? What makes it so compelling, when you are in one bubble, to move to the next bubble in the cycle?
Context & Cues
In the vicious cycle up above, over-eating usually occurs when the person is in a bad mood. It may never happen while they’re having fun with their friends, or working on something intently. Similarly, a sense of accomplishment and a good feeling in the body might happen right after exercise. The context is all about where you are, what you’re doing, what time of day it is, and so on. The context sets the stage for the next action to happen.
“Cues” are the tiny little things that you may not notice, that tell your brain it’s ready to take the next step in your usual behavioral loop. They can be external (co-workers are leaving for the day, it’s time to go home) or they can be internal (feeling bad about yourself). But cues are the feelings or occurrences that happen right before the behavior. They are the immediate trigger, but not necessarily the cause.
Understanding both context and cues will be key to disrupting the pattern, as we’ll see.
Friction is the stuff that makes things hard. If you imagine waking up at 6:00AM to go to the gym and work out, that “ugh” feeling that you want to stay in bed – that’s friction.
In behavioral loops, the path around a well-established loop usually has very low friction. That’s part of why it’s easy to keep doing the same thing. Consider someone who smokes cigarettes. It’s very common for folks to smoke with friends, and maybe to go have a beer and a smoke on the porch. This makes people feel good and relaxed, which in turn drives more trips to the porch, which in turn encourages more smoking, because friction is low: other people are smoking, lighters & ashtrays are available, and the social expectation is there.
Behavior outside of the loop, or which contradicts the loop, has very high friction. That would be getting up at 6:00am when you usually sleep in to 8:00am. No wonder it’s so difficult, every step of a new behavior takes more mental energy than doing what you usually do!
To adapt your behavioral loops then, we need to change the friction picture, to lessen the amount of will power it takes to make the change. So the principle is this:
Make your current (undesirable) behavior harder by adding friction. Make your desired behavior easier, by removing friction.
This may sound too abstract, so let’s take the smoker as an example. How can she/he add friction to the negative behavior (smoking)?
- Change setting: Meet friends in a restaurant where smoking isn’t allowed, to keep the social aspect but make the environment high friction for smoking
- Change context: Don’t carry a lighter, rely on other people’s lighters, creating situations where it’s harder to find one and they might not always be available
- Disrupt your cues: meet friends at a different time of day. If you’re used to that “ahhh” after work cigarette, maybe you go for a short walk right after work to unwind mentally. This isn’t random, rather if the “end of work” is your cue to smoke, you want to disrupt that cue. Now, instead of following your tired old pattern that traps you, you’re in a new situation where you get to choose what to do.
Quitting smoking can be brutally hard, but it might not be so bad to leave the house in the morning without putting a lighter into your pocket. That’s just 2 seconds of will power you need on your way out the door. Taking a 10-minute walk after work instead of immediately going to see friends takes 10 minutes.
On the other side, to create a new behavioral loop you should reduce the friction necessary for it. Let’s use as an example getting up at 6:00am to go to the gym.
- Lay out your gym clothes the night before (or wear them to bed) so you don’t have to think when you wake up
- Recruit a friend to meet you there, or go to a class where you can meet people
- Get a programmable coffee maker and set it up so that fresh brewed coffee will be ready at 6:05am with no effort
- Listen to good music first thing in the morning to get your brain going and heart pumping
- Go gradually; move back your wakeup time by 15 minutes each week.
These new behaviors that you’re doing to remove friction will become the context and cues for the new behavioral loop. This is how you design a new loop! Each thing, by itself, does not require massive will power.
Involve your friends and family with your new patterns & habits wherever you can. If your friends expect to meet you out for a run, you can use that weight of expectation to keep you behaving as you want. Once you get a new behavioral loop in place, social interaction & accountability serves to keep you in it. Another way of looking at that is that in a new pattern, you want “out of pattern” behaviors to be high friction.
Tell a close friend your goal and encourage them to check up on you. This is another form of accountability: if you know they will check up on you, it adds friction to the old behavior.
Adding friction, removing friction, and recruiting accountability — this is what it means to make structural changes in your life that lessen the amount of energy required, which is the key strategy to make real changes.
How do you do this for yourself?
You are an individual – the only one of you that has ever existed on this planet, and I would be a fool to give you detailed instructions. The examples above are only examples. Whether those individual steps would work for you to quit smoking isn’t the point, it’s just an example.
You are the only person who lives between your ears, and you are the only person who is qualified to answer how this should be done. Reject gurus, quick fixes, and anyone’s promises. Put your faith instead in general principles, self-experimentation, and regular work.
The principles of how to do this yourself are these:
- Identify your loops first. Which patterns and habits are you in?
- If it helps, draw them out like the diagrams I have above
- For each arrow, identify the context or cues that make you do the next thing. When you do the bad thing that you wish you could stop (like smoking) — what happens immediately before that? That’s the cue.
- Disrupt the cues in the bad habits
- Change the context for the bad habits
- Lessen friction in the new behavior, creating new context & cues.
- Recruit accountability, and make your new patterns social. Friends are powerfully reinforcing for good behaviors.
- Go gradually. Rome wasn’t built in a day. Slow and steady wins the race.
- Practice, practice, practice. If you fail, get up and go again.
Self-experimentation means accepting that you might not get it right the first time, but committing to watching what happens, and trying to learn from it. If you do this, you may fail, but you will increasingly hone in on what is right for you as an individual. Given time, you cannot fail.
Where does this leave Will Power?
It’s still real, and it’s still necessary. But you don’t have to have huge amounts of it to change your life. The function of will power is to temporarily overcome what your animal brain wants, which is usually sleep, food, comfort, emotional stability, and so on. Most people can sustain small amounts of will power for short periods of time. This will power is crucial in doing the initial “bump” into a new pattern or habit.
But will power isn’t the primary force that will get you to change. When we think of it in terms of vision, strategy, and tactics, we can properly place what will power is:
- Vision is you imagining a future self that is better because you’ve made a change
- Strategy is what this article is about: how to recruit your resources to get it done.
- Tactics are the individual changes you make to add friction, remove friction, recruit accountability, and so on. And will power is a tactic you will use to make those changes.
There’s a bit of short term vs. long term going on here. In a previous post, we covered how your mood is akin to the weather, where your overall life satisfaction is more like the climate. Similarly here, will power governs what you will do in the short term (say, the next few hours). Your stable patterns of habit and behavior will utterly dominate what outcomes you get throughout your life. When thought of this way, will power is a very limited short-term play, and it’s just never going to work to deliver big life changes & outcomes. But that’s OK, we’ve got planning rational brains to help us get where we need to go.
Excessive Focus on Will Power is Unhelpful
Once you understand that will power is short acting, and that it is merely a tactic you use, you may set yourself up for failure if you rely on it, or if you confuse this tactic with a strategy. It won’t work, and you will conclude that you’re a bad person with moral failings as a result.
People who fail by over-relying on will power aren’t bad people. They are just people with no strategy.
But by decomposing what we’re trying to do into pieces, and avoiding taking on too much, we can build smart strategies for changing our behavioral loops. This creates situations where we never needed to have massive amounts of will power in order to get the job done.