Changing a habit isn’t that difficult, it’s making that change last where things get tricky. Many people have started diets and held them up for a few months only to break their commitment and have to start from scratch. Building enthusiasm for a new goal or project can get you a few days, maybe even a week. But what is going to keep you going when that emotion fades?
Most people incorrectly assume that the approach to making long-term change is just a longer version of the process to making short-term change. But willpower and enthusiasm aren’t permanent. Your emotional state and environment are constantly in flux. Relying on your environment or emotional state to keep a commitment is a risky gambit.
It has been almost a year since I wrote my Habitual Mastery series about changing habits. Since that time I’ve begun to decode the mystery of why some habits became heavily engrained in my personality and others easily fell apart when put up to pressure.
Looking back, I can see I neglected a very important factor necessary to making long-term change. This is the balance between reward and punishment. Behaviors that reward are easy to maintain and difficult to remove, while habits that punish require only a small push before they topple over.
The best way to change a habit is just to consciously focus on forming it for a period of about a month. Focus on upholding your diet for a month. Work on your goal for a month. Follow a new organizing system for a month.
This process exposes you to the new habit for a long enough period of time that your brain is conditioned to doing it. Doing something repeatedly engrains the neural pathways strong enough that it happens on autopilot. When you go to the gym each day at noon, then when 11:45 begins to roll around you automatically start running the pattern to get ready to go to the gym.
This process of habituation works. I’ve used it successfully to build many habits. So long as you can build up the willpower to last a full month, this process will build a habit just like constructing a new bridge inside your brain.
The problem with this process is that it doesn’t say anything to how strong your bridge is going to be. You may have built a habit, but it may shatter at the first sign of temptation. Unexpected obstacles may make it impossible for you to go to the gym for a week. Will you immediately resume your schedule after this period? That depends on how strong your habitual “bridge” was.
What determines the strength of this bridge? That is your reward and punishment balance. If your habit is extremely rewarding then it can withstand a lot of pressure and won’t be difficult to maintain. If your habit is extremely punishing, then even a tiny obstacle might cause it to collapse.
Carrot and Stick
Reward and punishment isn’t rational. Knowing that you should go to the gym, doesn’t make it a rewarding an activity. Knowing that you shouldn’t smoke cigarettes doesn’t mean that activity is punishing to you. The kind of reward and punishment I am talking about are at a deep emotional level. If it feels bad to go to the gym, it is punishing you. If it feels good to smoke, then it is rewarding you.
In order to strengthen your neural bridge, you need to ensure that the habit makes you feel good and the alternative behaviors you want to avoid make you feel bad. This gut-level emotional feedback will heavily reinforce any behaviors. This means that when temptation and obstacles conflict with your habit it is more likely to resume.
A Balancing Act
Changing this balance of reward and punishment, starts from looking closely and understanding why it exists. Understanding is the key to effectiveness. Without knowing why you find your new habit punishing or your old habit rewarding, you have little hope in changing it.
Deconstruct your old habit or your new habit and pick out the rewards and punishment involved. The taste of the food you know is bad for you. The pain of dragging yourself out of a comfortable bed early in the morning. The extra adrenaline that courses through your blood when running that last mile. Take out a piece of paper and make a list of all the different factors that make you feel good and bad.
Once you’ve deconstructed your habit, you are going to rebuild it. Reinforce incredible reward within the habit and enhance the punishment from the habits you are trying to avoid.
When I switched to a vegetarian diet over a year ago, I built up a lot more rewards to sticking with the habit (more energy, better health, better for the environment). Even more importantly I built up internal punishment to the thought of switching back to a carnivorous diet. During my initial conditioning phase I read tons of research reports and books emphasizing the benefits of this switch.
It would be hard for me to switch back today even if they later found out it was far healthier, better for the environment and more ethically sound to eat meat just because of the gut-level feelings I created. The idea of eating meat is far from appetizing.
I continue to go to the gym regularly because I thoroughly enjoy being at the gym. I like listening to the music, the satisfying feeling after I finish a set and the social aspect of going with someone else. By reinforcing the positive aspects, it means that even if I were forced to take a month off, it would be easy to get back to going.
Changing the balance of reward and punishment isn’t necessary to create a habit, just like having an extremely strong bridge isn’t necessary to have it stand. But because the conditions you will face in life aren’t fixed, changing this balance is critical to making long term change.