Three Strategies for Behavior Change

Most of self-improvement boils down to behavior change. You want to exercise more, eat better, earn more money, learn a new language, stop worrying so much. All of it is a form of changing your behavior.

Looking around, there seems to be broadly three ways of changing behavior:

  1. Bottom-up
  2. Top-down
  3. Inside-out

I notice that people tend to stick with one of these methods, particularly if it has worked for them in the past. But, like all things, sticking to one method dogmatically may not be the best approach. As such, some people find some behaviors easy to manage and others feel completely outside their control.

In this article, I’d like to explore the broad outlines of each of these approaches and end with some thoughts about their strengths and weaknesses.

Strategy #1: Bottom-Up

A bottom-up behavior change process is the most direct. Simply decide how you’d like your behavior to be different and make it so.

Much of my writing on habit-building emphasizes this strategy. You start by deciding you’d like to exercise more regularly. You clarify the goal into a concrete habit (I’ll go to the gym every day for 30 minutes) and then you implement it.

Sometimes this process can be difficult, so you may want to pay attention to even smaller details of the habit-forming process. You may want to start with tiny habits and build up, you may aim to make the routine more consistent, you may want to condition yourself with positive reinforcement or punishment to strengthen the positive association with the new behavior.

The key to a bottom-up strategy is that you directly try to install the behavior you want. There isn’t much emphasis on the outcome of the behavior or how the habit changes who you are.

Strategy #2: Top-Down

Top-down behavior change takes a different approach: start with a goal or environmental constraints that will automatically cascade into a bunch of habit changes.

Undertaking the MIT Challenge was a powerful top-down driver. It automatically reorganized perhaps a dozen habits at the same time. I’d never try to tackle so many at once in a bottom-up fashion, but it was fine top-down since I only needed to mentally keep my goal in mind to reorganize all of my downstream behavior.

The challenge with a top-down strategy is that it depends a lot more on either having the environment force you to change (say by moving or changing jobs) or having so much motivation for your goal that you can obsess over it. Where top-down approaches usually fail is when the goal is only a minor interest, so it isn’t enough to summon up the energy to surmount the threshold for reshaping much of your life towards it.

Strategy #3: Inside-Out

Inside-out change happens when instead of thinking about your behavior or your goals, you make a conscious decision to be a different kind of person.

This strategy, when successful, can be the most powerful of all. Seeing yourself in a different way can often make your likes and dislikes change almost instantly, causing you to act differently as a consequence of believing yourself to be a different kind of person.

The problem with this approach is that it’s the hardest to will into existence directly. It can happen, but identity shifts usually don’t take place under your direct control. Just saying to yourself “I’m going to be productive” doesn’t make it so, and while writing affirmations may cause you to shift how you see yourself, the evidence about them is certainly mixed.

Another problem is that I believe people tend to focus on idealized versions of themselves that they want to be, instead of realizing that all realistic instantiations of their identity will involve trade-offs. Identity shifts happen when you want a new set of trade-offs in life, not because you only focus on the positive.

As an example of this, say you tell yourself you want to be the kind of person who always eats healthy—but then you’re also not the kind of person who relaxes with snack foods or eats a large slice of delicious cake. If you only focus on the positive it’s easy to imagine lots of desirable identity shifts. However, if you actually think about the real trade-offs, many of these are just wishful fantasies rather than real desires to be a completely different kind of person. If your real goal is some kind of moderation, I don’t think this strategy works well–better to go top-down or bottom-up.

However, I don’t think these difficulties in triggering inside-out change, should lead us to dismiss it entirely. Because it can often have powerful, lasting effects, even if it works less frequently, the durability and scope of the behavior change can be enough to keep it in mind.

Comparing the Strategies

My thinking process is usually as follows:

  1. If I simply want a new behavior (such as flossing or being more organized), and it’s not tied to an extremely compelling goal or project, bottom-up is the way to go. It has the greatest specificity but most limited scope.
  2. If I have an obsessive goal and many behaviors will fit into this goal, can I tie them together and approach them as a single unit? This has larger scope, but will fail if my goal isn’t obsessively interesting as much. I often try to jump-start this process by transforming more ordinary goals into obsessive projects, because I know I can ride the effects of these projects to catalyze other related behavior changes.
  3. Is the real aim to become a different kind of person? Not just a new, idealized version of yourself, but someone who pursues different trade-offs in life. If so, focusing on the identity shift may do much of the heavy lifting in shifting my behavior.

What about you? What is your dominant strategy for self-improvement? Share your thoughts in the comments!