We’re a generation of information seekers. We hear something interesting and immediately Google, set alerts and throw out polls to gather more data. I’m completely guilty of this, and it’s something I have to continually monitor. I can easily lose hours, lost in rabbit holes of unplanned learning, driven by child-like curiosity.
Yet sometimes, I’ve learned this drive for data gains its momentum from something more significant and worthy of a second look. Sometimes it’s the pursuit of perfectionism that takes over. For me, it might be that if I can just learn every fact, read every article, understand everything available to me, look at every bit of research …then my work will be just the way I want it to be. And I see similarities in peoples’ stories that come talk to me about setting goals, creating new habits and working to improve their executive functioning. For example, people tell me they want to set new health goals but are too confused after reading hundreds of different approaches to diet, or they want to work on making other simple changes, but are overwhelmed with all of the various approaches out there addressing habits and willpower.
I’ve had to learn over time that engaging in this type of perfection-driven procrastination only ends up holding me back in the end, and I know that when I don’t consciously replace that type of thinking with actual doing, I tend to want to stay in the comfortable place of learning. It’s much safer there in the information-gathering, scholarly space. It’s harder to fail when you’re learning. But while the stakes are certainly lower, the potential for rewards is not as high either. Doing means connecting, experiencing, and learning from failure. Living.
From a neurological standpoint, learning can be addictive, as it’s associated with the release of dopamine—the same as cocaine. So much information is available to us, at just a click away, it starts to feel like just one more report, or one more opinion, one more site might give us the perspective we need in order to take action or make a decision. But research doesn’t support this yearning. Studies show that, because our minds do not like uncertainty, we want to fill in blanks and we will also overestimate the value of any data we feel we are missing.
So here’s a little trick I use when I need to start making changes in my own behavior. Dr. Sean Young, UCLA medical professor and founder of the UCLA Center for Digital Behavior, categorizes behavior into three simple categories—automatic, burning, and common. I’ve learned first hand that it truly is much easier to first recognize which category the behavior I want to change falls under before choosing how I want to change it.
Automatic behaviors are ones we do without much conscious awareness under certain conditions—like biting our nails, getting our phone out while we wait for the train, eating food that’s sitting right in front of us when we aren’t hungry.
A burning behavior is a feeling of having an irresistible urge to do something, like the urge to have a cigarette or to check email, or even to immediately respond to an upsetting email.
Common behaviors are the most common ones people try to change, like reducing the amount of take out they order, sticking with a plan to remodel the bathroom, or arriving to work early every day for a week. Common behaviors don’t happen unconsciously, and don’t require the same type of interventions to change as more automatic behaviors do.
If you’ve chosen an automatic behavior to tackle, try one of the following approaches when setting yourself up to change:
· Make it easy – control the environment, remove temptations, limit choices, take advantage of proximity and location—such as joining a gym immediately across the street from work or on your way home.
· Incorporate ingrained behaviors – your brain is very comfortable on autopilot. Try to add additional factors together with your targeted behavior to create a routine, and repeat. Your brain will want to fall into this routine quickly. For instance, if you want to start running in the morning, set your alarm for the same time every morning, place your clothes in the same spot. Even better, engage someone to do this with you as part of your new routine.
If you’ve chosen a burning behavior, one of these approaches will likely work best to create lasting change:
· Neurohacks – Willing yourself to change just doesn’t work. Imagining positive results just doesn’t produce them. But when you start acting on your goals, you are tricking your mind into thinking change is possible. Doing this over and over again creates lasting change. Another cognitive neurohack comes in the form of how you think of yourself. Can you consider yourself a practitioner? For instance, do you consider yourself a swimmer as you start dropping by the pool every day to get those laps in? You can more likely trick your brain into following through on your swimming goals by considering yourself to be a swimmer than if you considered yourself to simply be stopping by the pool to swim.
· Captivating rewards: The difference between just any old reward and a captivating one is that a captivating reward is meaningful and individual. Financial and social rewards, certain psychological states, good health and freedom/independence are some of the major captivating rewards identified, but the key to lasting behavior change is that you have to know yourself and apply the principle accordingly. Fear is not a sustainable motivator, and doing the right thing needs to be fun. Money is not always the best reward—the activity itself should actually feel rewarding.
Finally, if you’ve chosen a common behavior, one of the following approaches may work best:
· Engaging the concept of community to feel empowered, to fit in and to be rewarded socially. Recruit friends to check in with, create a group challenge, let people know what you’re up to.
· Making changes with the stepladders approach. Many people don’t realize just how small the steps need to be when we take small steps toward change. The reality is they should be tiny.
I don’t identify New Year’s resolutions or goals for myself, but I usually choose things to focus or re-focus on. This month, I’m refocusing on moving forward, taking risks, and continuing to recognize the questions worth exploring, and the ones best left unanswered.
(If you’d like to learn more about Dr. Young’s process for changing behavior, you can check out his book Stick With It.)