Two (silly) Techniques for Lasting Change

The following was sent as a newsletter for the end of 2014. I’ve decided to add it here, for the benefit of future readers (hey, that’s you!).

The world is abuzz with people making resolutions, going on diets, signing up for gym memberships, and making promises to themselves. Promises that they know deep down they won’t really keep

Sound familiar?
If you’re determined not to fall into the same trap this year, read on…

Why change is so hard

You may believe that you have control over your actions, but the harsh truth is you are not in complete control. Your conscious mind, housed in your prefrontal cortex, is a powerful part of your brain, but it’s a small part, and a massive energy drain.

Almost half of the actions you take, the feelings you have, and the beliefs you hold, happen automatically and are in the realm of the subconscious. And your subconscious mind is also extremely powerful, but in a very different way.

This large part of your brain, a part you can’t directly control or access, loves repetition and patterns, loves consistency and hates surprise. Therefore, it hates change.

Change Technique 1: Mini Habits

Habit-formation is a lifelong obsession of mine. In fact, the first piece of software I created and sold (back in 2010) was called HabitShaper. I’ve read a vast number of books on the subject, and done a great deal of my own thinking on it.

But nothing I’ve read, thought about, or created is as powerful (or simple) as the technique of “Mini Habits“, as presented by Stephen Guise.

If anything, it’s main flaw is that it’s so simple, that you’ll be hesitant to believe it actually works.

But it absolutely does. I’ve been writing, exercising, and coding every single day of December so far without fail, even during the sleepless week when my 2 year old son was furiously unwell. And it’s been easy to create these habits, even for someone like me, who seems very disciplined but actually isn’t.

Here’s the technique:

  1. Decide on what actions you’d want to take every day.
  2. Pick one or a few (~3 max).
  3. Set a “stupid small” goal for each (50 words, 1 push-up, 1 commit).
  4. Do at least that, and consider anything else bonus.

Why does this work? Because it requires almost 0 willpower (a finite resource) to take consistent repeated action. And it’s the repetition and consistency of an action, not its size, that sends a clear signal to the subconscious.

Stephan does a great job of explaining the neuroscience behind the technique, and it’s given me new insight into my mind. I highly recommend you at least download a sample of the book here (not an affiliate link. I get nothing for sharing this).

Change Technique 2: Acting As If You Believe

Mini Habits works very well for building small, repeatable, consistent actions. But what about larger changes? What about removing limiting or damaging beliefs? What about choosing and changing your self-image?

In the same way that you can trick it into assimilating new behaviors, you can trick the subconscious into assimilating a new belief or identity. Simply take repeated consistent actions, even extremely small ones, that are in line with the belief you want to create.

The technique is, again, very simple:

  • Decide on what you want to believe, how you want to feel, or who you want to be.
  • Take small actions as if you already believed/felt/were that way.
  • Keep doing so, even through the nagging doubts that you’re just pretending.

The idea is to intentionally create “cognitive dissonance”. You believe yourself to be a procrastinator, but in many small ways, you start to walk and talk and act like a doer. Your mind now holds two beliefs: “I am a procrastinator” and “I am a doer”.

This dissonance is literally painful to the consistency-loving subconscious. But in the same way that you can’t directly control your subconscious, it can’t directly control your conscious actions.

So if you keep acting as if you believe something, your subconscious will go all out to try to find ways to make it true. Either by priming its pattern-matcher to find ways of making it true (i.e. “manifesting” this reality), or by assimilating the belief into your core identity.

A Coda: Ideas with Image Problems

Both of these techniques have image problems.

The first is so silly that one is liable to discount it immediately. “Just one push-up? How could that do anything?”. The second smacks of new-age “manifesting reality” nonsense. “Tell the universe what you want, and it will bring it to you.”

But over the years, I’ve read a vast amount of material, almost indiscriminately. Because I believe that there is a vast store of knowledge of things that actually work,even though the reasons they are said to work might be completely false. After all, humans were smelting ore eight thousand years before we had any idea what the atomic properties of metals were.

As a scientist and a rationalist, it’s very tempting for me to discount vast swathes of wisdom, simply because the stories built around certain techniques are based in fantasy (even though the truth is more interesting and more beautiful).

Which brings me to my final request: even if you don’t believe either of these techniques will work for you (because they sound silly or beneath you), try them anyway.

You have nothing to lose, and just might discover how to create lasting change.

Happy New Year!
Adriano Ferrari

PS: If you want to use Gingko to start planning out your year, remember the Timeline template, which you can find under “My Gingko Trees > New > Timeline”

Further Reading

  • Mini Habits
    At $5.99 (or free with Kindle Unlimited), there’s really no excuse not to check out this book. There’s also a Udemy course currently at $35.
  • Cognitive Behavioral Therapy for Dummies
    Yes, it’s “for Dummies”, but it’s the best I’ve seen on the subject. Teaches you how to spot damaging core beliefs, and techniques to change them.
  • An Actor Prepares by Constantin Stanislavski
    The technique of “Acting as if” requires acting, so this classic is a great read. Even if you’re not interested in acting per se, it’s also contains a lot of insight into how to practice imagination.
  • Mistakes were Made (but not by me)
    Explains everything from UFO abductions & false confessions, to marital quarrels, as the desperate need to resolve cognitive dissonance. Don’t read this if you are afraid of self-knowledge, as you’ll be shocked at how much people can lie to themselves. (other people, of course. Not you).
  • Switch: How Change Things When Change Is Hard
    For changing your own behavior, Mini Habits wins. But if you’re a leader and want to instill change in others, this book is invaluable. And the “Rider and Elephant” analogy for the conscious/subconscious minds is also worth reading.

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