You can make any change in your life you want.
Adopt any habit. Give up any habit. Pursue any goal.
(You may not ACHIEVE every goal you pursue, but that’s a different matter.)
Truly, you can make any change you want…but there’s a catch.
The catch is, you have to decide— and then frequently remind yourself— that the UPSIDE of making the change is worth the DOWNSIDE you’ll incur in the process.
Our brains and behavior really aren’t that hard to figure out. They operate on a principle that B.F. Skinner called the Balance of Consequences: we do (and think, and feel) things that we think will lead to pleasure or gratification; and we avoid doing (and thinking, and feeling) things that we think will lead to pain or punishment.
Yes, yes, it seems that we sometimes get our wires crossed— that is, we sometimes think, do, and feel things that seem certain to sabotage us or lead us to painful outcomes— but usually that’s a glitch. We can often understand self-sabotaging behavior if we look for how our brains have construed those choices as more pleasurable or less painful than the alternatives.
(Usually this boils down to, a decision that might be painful in the long term is seen as less painful or more pleasurable in the short term. Our brains aren’t good at thinking long-term; they tend to prefer immediate gratification to playing the long game.)
If you want to get yourself to do something that you’re not doing, or to stop yourself from doing something that you’re already doing, what needs to happen is, you need to convince yourself that one path is more pleasurable and less painful than the other path.
That’s one way to go about it, anyway.
The other way to go about it is to acknowledge, up front, that you’re asking your body and brain to embark upon a project that’s going to lead to some pain, it’s going to involve some forfeiture of pleasure…BUT, those downsides are worth it, because there is a compelling upside here.
Sounds simple. And it is simple— but, as anyone who has ever tried to change a habit can tell you, it’s not particularly easy.
How can we make it easier?
First thing’s first: we have to get super clear on the UPSIDE you’re chasing.
There has to be an actual benefit to the change you’re looking to make, and it helps if that benefit can be quantified and expressed in clear, emphatic terms.
For example: if you’re looking to give up smoking, it’s not enough to characterize the benefit of that as “I’ll be smoke free.” You need to be able to list multiple benefits of giving up smoking, that really resonate with you. You need to be able to make a convincing list, a list that includes upside after upside, benefit after benefit, to giving up that habit.
The good news is, our brains will respond to our attempts to condition them.
As you seek to make long, clear, emphatic lists of the UPSIDES of the changes you’re looking to make, your brain will work with you. The more you look for these upsides, the easier it will be to find these upsides.
Not only that: the more you look for those upsides, and the more you review your list of upsides, the more emphatically your brain will imprint and reinforce those upsides.
The more you think about them, the easier it’ll be to think about them, in other words.
The end goal here is to make it super, super easy to think about the many clear, emphatic, important upsides to making the change you want to make…because in many cases, the downsides, or the costs, are going to be in your face.
This is especially true if you’re looking to quit a habit you’ve been engaged in for awhile.
The brain doesn’t like giving up patterns. Even patterns that seem to be self-harming or self-defeating— your brain likes patterns.
Giving up patterns is a pain in its butt.
So you need to give it reasons to give up those habits and patterns.
Those reasons need to be clear. They need to be real. They need to be things you can review, things you can memorize, things you can pull up on a moment’s notice when your resolve begins to weaken.
You can make any change you want.
But you have to work WITH your brain…not against it.