This is part three of five in my series on changing and taking control of our habits. In my introduction, I discussed what a habit is and some methods that can give us some insight into our own behaviors. Once you are aware of your habit, the way to make changes is simply to condition an alternative. Using both natural and simulated conditioning techniques, you can modify your habits so that they no longer require willpower or conscious effort to work.
Habitual Mastery – Series
What if you’ve tried making a habit change, but you simply didn’t have enough willpower and self-discipline to see it through to the finish? Natural conditioning models can permanently install a habit with just some short-term work, but what are we supposed to do when we don’t even have the willpower to make it through the conditioning phase? In these cases we have to understand and harness the power of leveraging.
To explain leverage, I want you to think about the root word of leverage, a lever. Like a see-saw a lever is a long inflexible object (like a stick) that pivots on a central point or a fulcrum. If you push down on one end of the lever, the other goes up. If you can remember playing on a see-saw when you were a kid, chances are you understand this principle.
The key to the lever is that by shifting the position of the fulcrum you can increase or decrease the amount of force needed to move the other object. If you’ve ever leaned back when on a see-saw you understand how this seems to move you down faster even if your weight hasn’t changed. Similarly, the idea behind leverage is that you are attempting to utilize a small initial amount of your willpower to set in motion huge changes.
Commitment as Leverage
You may have realized this already by now, but the a large part of goal setting is based on the principle of leverage. The key to setting written down, clearly defined goals is so that you will commit yourself to action even when you want to turn back. In essence, you are leveraging a small amount of initial willpower to commit to the goal in order to leverage your action in the future.
Commitment is a form of leverage. By writing down your goals and reminding yourself of your commitment, you are using leverage. This principle doesn’t just apply to writing goals, however. There are many other ways to use leverage to commit yourself to action.
Publicly announcing your commitment is an excellent form of leverage. Announcing your habit change will make you accountable to other people if you fail. It can take a small burst of willpower to take this step, but ultimately this will reduce the long-term willpower necessary. Because you don’t want to look like a fraud, hypocrite or failure, chances are this small act will make your success far more likely.
You can go to even more drastic examples as a method to gain incredible leverage. My favorite story about this details a Las Vegas casino boss who wanted to quit smoking. He had tried many methods but just couldn’t seem to kick the habit. Knowing he needed to leverage himself to make his attempt successful, he had an idea. This idea was to put a large billboard up with his picture on it. Right next to his picture he wrote that he would pay anyone who caught him smoking $100,000.00. Do you think he quit? Definitely. By leveraging a small amount of willpower (and money) to set up the billboard, he gained incredible control over his habit.
Getting a little more extreme in your leveraging techniques might mean the difference between success and failure. If you want to lose weight, try selling all of your clothes except one outfit and buy new clothes in your ideal size. Tell a friend you will pay him money if you don’t go through with the habit. Put yourself on the line. Again, if you aren’t sure whether you can go through with your conditioning phase, get massive leverage on yourself to ensure you will take action through the entire period.
Pain and Pleasure
Anthony Robbins frequently says that the reason people fail to take action is that they connect more pain to taking action than not taking action. I completely agree with this assessment. If you associate pain to changing a habit, then it is going to take an extremely high amount of willpower to create the change. Worse, if you believe that your habit change is going to cause lasting pain in your life, change will be impossible.
Leverage is all about connecting pain to the idea of staying where you are and creating pleasure with the idea of changing. Conditioning a new habit is still an essential part of changing, but utilizing leverage can greatly reduce the need for willpower. If you link pain, not just to conditioning your new habit, but the habit itself then don’t even bother starting because you are doomed to fail.
If you need to lose weight but subconsciously you think healthy foods are boring, dull and unsatisfying and unhealthy foods are comforting and fun, you will never change your eating habits. Lasting change in this case requires that you switch what you connect pain and pleasure to. I have used this technique to leverage many of my habit changes and I can tell you that it makes installing permanent changes far easier.
Before I had started my vegetarian diet, I had read several books and many articles about diet and fitness. Initially I had though that a vegetarian diet was a little extreme and perhaps a little unnecessary. After reading in-depth on the effects that the consumption of animal products was doing to my body, after reading about the incredibly inhumane treatment of livestock and the disgustingly toxic chemicals used to create these products, that changed around completely. Instead of being something that I should do, changing this pattern became something I absolutely had to do.
If you look at the difficult changes that many people have made, it was almost always the result of applying this principle. Difficult changes only occur when we finally cross the threshold from “I should do this,” to, “I must do this now!” Don’t wait for that threshold to cross itself naturally. Begin studying, visualizing and researching about the effects of your habits. Make the need for change so real and so convincing that it is a must, not a should.
Changing behaviors is relatively easy, in the short term. Anyone can stop smoking for a few days, start a new diet or turn off the television for a week. The biggest hindrance to permanent habit change is often at a far deeper level than conditioning or even pain and pleasure reach. The fundamental obstacle in making a long-term change is identity.
Your identity is simply the answer to this question. Who are you?
The ego has a fundamental desire for self-preservation. Protecting what you believe is part of your identity is a basic human need, even if that identity is negative, destructive and inaccurate. If you feel that you are an overweight person, that is different then having a few extra pounds. A person who has just a few extra pounds can lose them fairly easily. Someone who sees themself as an overweight person never will.
Changing your identity may seem like a drastic step. This belief is also the reason so many people fail to create long-term change. Most people believe that it is far more difficult to change who you are deep down then it is to change a behavior. So as a result most people try to work on their behaviors without working on who they see themselves at the core. As a result, the need for an overweight person to be overweight subconsciously ruins all of their progress.
An shift in your self-image or identity isn’t really as hard as it sounds. The fact is, you’ve been doing it all your life. Think about when you were little, chances are you saw yourself as a kid. Adults were the people who made the rules and were serious and boring about everything. As a child you defined your identity often in terms of your family and parents. Later when you became a teenager you began to see yourself as more independent. Suddenly you began shaping your definitions in terms of your friends, social groups or specific skills. As you got older and entered the workforce, chances are you started identifying yourself by your career. If someone asked “What are you?” you would respond with, “A lawyer,” or, “doctor,” or “business owner.” If you have your own children now, chances are you identify yourself as being a father or mother. Your identity has been shifting constantly your entire life, so don’t make it an excuse for preventing change!
In order to make a truly dramatic change with regards to your identity you need to redefine yourself. If you were previously a smoker, you need to define yourself as someone who wouldn’t even consider cigarettes. You must be the embodiment of the change you are trying to make. To do this you need to reorganize all of the elements of your life that reinforce your past identity. Organize your house in the way that this new person would live. Disassociate yourself from friends who reinforced your old identity and start associating with people that will encourage your new identity.
Luckily, most habit changes don’t require a complete rewrite of your identity. This method is only necessary when your core habits, beliefs and behaviors completely conflict with the process of changing. Although the subject of identity and identity changes could be an entire article series in itself, they are very important to mention in terms of changing habits. If you don’t see yourself as the kind of person who can make the changes you desire, then you can’t. In these cases a drastic readjustment of your identity may be necessary to effect the change you desire. I bring up identity because I don’t want people to use that as an excuse. No matter who you are or who you believe you are, you can gain control.
Leverage is Uncomfortable
If you’ve been reading the series so far you may be wondering about my initial claim that changing habits is a skill that can become fun and even relatively easy with practice. You might have been reading this article and started to wonder why leverage sounds so difficult and painful?
Utilizing leverage is often painful. The whole idea behind leverage is to create enough polarization between the pain of not following through on your conditioning and enough pleasure through your conditioning process to move forward even when you lack willpower. The more difficult the change the more initially painful it can be, but also the more satisfying it is when you are successful. Successfully changing a difficult habit is a very encouraging experience I can tell you.
Changing habits can often require a little bit of pain initially. The fun comes from enjoying the challenge, however! When you start your first few habits (especially if they are big ones) this whole process may seem very difficult and not very fun. However, once you’ve applied these techniques to enough changes, and you have seen enough success, you will actually get pretty good at changing habits. As Kathy Sierra says, you will have crossed the “suck threshold” and your skill at changing habits will give you an amazing degree of control over your life.
So, if you are having trouble sticking to your habit conditioning process, try creating some leverage on yourself. Make a public commitment, set yourself up so you absolutely have to take action and put yourself on the line. Begin to associate massive pain to your current patterns and massive pleasure to the new change. If these techniques still aren’t enough, you may need to take steps to redefine the identity you have that is stopping you.
In my next article on replacement I will discuss how we can smoothly and effectively replace our habits. If you change a habit the way most people do it is like trying to perform delicate surgery with a baseball bat. Finding our scalpel involves recognizing the benefits and downsides of the habits we already have. Installing new habits that don’t compensate for the function of the ones they were supposed to replace is a recipe for disaster. Using this process will help you identify unsustainable habit changes that won’t work regardless of the conditioning involved and allow you to make permanent change easier and more effective.