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  • Writer's pictureHugo Menard

The missing element to changing your behaviour

Do you have a behaviour or a habit that you want to change but you just can’t shake it? You know what it is, you know how it’s affecting you, you might even know when and how it started, but the problem is, all that knowing has done diddly-squat in helping you actually change it or overcome it.

The standard formula for changing behaviour

Rob Williams, who wrote a book detailing some interesting new perspectives on this subject gives a telling metaphor about how our struggle to improve can often be misguided: How often have you seen a fly repeatedly hitting into a window, trying harder and harder to get out? The problem is, no matter how hard that fly tries, it’s never going to break the glass or magically pass through it. And it’s so busy trying to do this, that it doesn’t see the open door just a couple of meters away.

The lesson from this is that, for the fly (and often for ourselves) trying harder is sometimes the problem. If the fly stopped for just a few moments and gazed around, it might notice the open door and easily fly to freedom in a couple of seconds.

But how often do we congratulate people on putting in lots of effort and struggling their way to success? This can no doubt work in some situations. Determination and persistence are often needed. But there tends to be an over reliance on these qualities while ignoring other vital pieces. Plus, this approach can lead to a belief that isn’t helpful ie: “If what I’m doing isn’t working, it means I’m not trying hard enough, I’m not putting in enough effort. So when I don’t get the results I want, I need to put in more effort and that will solve the problem.”

Seeing as most of us are already very busy and highly stressed on a daily basis, the idea of putting in even more effort can be crushing. This can lead to either thinking: “well, I’m just a failure / I’m not good at this, I won’t even try” etc. Or, we put in the effort and kill ourselves in the process of trying to “break through the glass” as it were.

However, the reality may simply be that there’s an open door nearby. But if no-one has ever told you that you can pause and look for an open door, and all you ever see anyone else doing is smashing themselves against the glass pane, you may not see it or even think about that as a possibility.

A good first step to counter this narrow focus on “try harder” can be to pause and take a moment to acknowledge that we live in a culture that tends to reward effort. And that we may even feel guilty if we find a way that is easy or dare I say fun, because it can then feel like we haven’t “earned it”.

Williams points out that the typical approach to change is as follows:

insight + willpower = change

The above formula for change can be great for some areas. For example, if you’re wanting to climb Mount Everest you would learn what needed to be learnt (insight), you would train for it, develop your strength, stamina and so forth (will power), and then you would put it into practice and summit Everest (change). Similarly, a musician might practice for hours a day over the course of decades to finally perform masterfully at the height of their career.

The problem is, this doesn’t work for everything. Is it accurate to say that someone who’s trying to quit smoking simply isn’t trying harder enough when they relapse? That someone with a fear of public speaking simply doesn’t have enough insight or isn’t putting in enough work when they freeze up yet again? Not only does it not work for everything, but it’s also tiring using more and more willpower.

We’ve all had the experience of the above formula not working. Maybe you tried not checking social media incessantly but found your addiction was stronger than you thought, maybe you tried being more motivated to live an active life for your new year's resolution but fell back into old ways and habits all too easily. It’s more likely that your experience of changing a behaviour looked more like this:

Insight + willpower + failure + try again + more insight + doubt + struggle + feeling tired = change that lasts a little while or you give up

When it comes to many of our behaviours, knowing the cause, knowing why you have a particular behaviour, knowing the things that make you more susceptible to doing what you know you shouldn’t, knowing the science behind it, knowing other people going through it, knowing that there are support groups, talking to people who tell you their experience of it etc, often does little in affecting real change. It can be helpful, but talking about push ups doesn’t grow your biceps.

In fact, sometimes, knowing that other people have broken a habit or made that change that you’re struggling with, can make you feel worse rather than more hopeful. You look at them and think “they were able to do it but I’m failing, so they must be better than me, I must be a failure.”

When you lose before you begin

Have you ever felt hijacked when it came to changing a behaviour? For example: You tell yourself you’re going to be calm in a particular situation, you’re not going to allow yourself to get overwhelmed or triggered. But before you know it, you’re reacting and doing the same thing you’ve always done and you don’t even remember a point where you chose to do so.

This is in part because our reactions to things happen before we are consciously aware of them. (You can read that again). That’s like going into a boxing ring and being told, “you’ll know what punch he’s going to make once you feel the pain of being hit”. Good luck winning that game! It’s like you’ve lost before you’ve even begun.

There is evidence to show that 99% of our cognitive activity is non conscious. In other words, it’s our subconscious running the show the majority of the time. (This number fluctuates a little depending on who you listen to, but it’s generally in the 80% - 99% range.)

This means that if we’re trying to change something using will power (which comes from the conscious mind) we are mightily outmatched by our own subconscious. No wonder it’s so hard.

The missing element

The key element that’s missing in the formula for changing a behaviour has to do with the subconscious. If you’re going to change any behaviour in your life (or begin a new behaviour from scratch), it would be wise to make sure that your subconscious supports that and is in alignment with that change. Otherwise you’re going to be fighting an internal battle while simultaneously trying to do something that requires focus externally. It will be like trying to move forward while someone much bigger is trying to hold you back.

It doesn’t matter whether the behaviour is to stop checking your emails every two seconds, to start a morning routine, to stay calm in situations that trigger you or to change your work routine so that you can be more effective, working with your subconscious is vital to your success.

When your subconscious does not support your goals, you'll often need to overcompensate with massive action. While this is an admirable trait, it can also be unsustainable. With the knowledge we now have about the importance of the subconscious, it is also arguably an unintelligent and inefficient approach to changing behaviour.

A more comprehensive formula

So what does it take to change with this new understanding? While communicating the desired change to the subconscious is perhaps the biggest missing step, it may not be enough in and of itself. Williams suggests the following to get true lasting change:

First: clarify a goal or intention. We’ve all heard the value of getting clear on what you want.

Second: place the intent to actually do something about it. This is where we take all those wishes and dreams and decide to focus on one or a few that we will pursue with genuine intent. This doesn’t have to be a dramatic war cry or the official signing of a big legal contract, it can simply be sincerity on your part.

Third: instead of using blind brute force to execute on this change right away, use a meaningful ritual that communicates that intention to the subconscious.

This is where the methods I use with clients and myself come into play. While the methods I have trained in enable this to happen quickly and effortlessly, you can also use more well known methods such as: visualisation, prayer, affirmations etc. (Just keep in mind that these will often require repetition and a certain emotional intensity to ingrain them, seeing as you’re using the comparatively small conscious mind to override the much larger subconscious mind).

Fourth: With that support of the subconscious, you can now take action that is far more likely to lead to the desired outcome. This is not to say that you won’t encounter obstacles, but with the support of your subconscious it’s surprisingly more effective, easier and often more enjoyable.

It might be useful to come back to these steps next time you try to change a behaviour. Because it’s so easy to say “yeah yeah I get it” and then casually not do one of the steps.

Be kind to yourself

When you go about changing a behaviour that has been limiting you, holding you back and taking its toll on you, keep in mind that there are many things that can work against you. Yes, your subconscious is immensely powerful and working with that is a real game changer. But it’s not a cure all. You’re human, you’re imperfect, you live in an imperfect world where there are distractions and business and bills to pay. Your behaviours, reactions, habits etc have been programmed over a lifetime. You have your doubts as well as other people's doubts about whether you can or will do it. You have many other balls that you have to juggle at the same time. So being kind to yourself throughout the process and acknowledging this, is much more likely to get you the desired results than demanding that you be perfect on the first go.


PSYCH-K. The missing piece peace in your life by Robert M Williams

Cover image by Yeshi Kangrang on Unsplash

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