Amidst the clamor of the new year I find myself amused at the hordes of statuses claiming x resolution, or swearing off y such food, or enumerating z goal.  The truth is that maybe 5-10 of my friends total (out of 411) MIGHT make a behavioral change–and if they do, it won’t be because of the magic of a “new year” it’ll just be business as usual for them, so you would never know by looking at their FaceTwitPlusTagram page.

Think about it.  How many resolutions have you abandoned?  How many years have you told all your friends about whatever change you were making?  How many times have you written down your vow to stop procrastinating?  To lose weight?  To finally be “financially responsible” (whatever that means)?  How many of your friends told you their goals and got a chuckle from you, knowing that their change would never really occur?  How many times have your friends chuckled at you without you knowing?

Most importantly: What always happens?

A few things change… for a week or two, maybe even a month, you actually make your change.  You wake up early or go to the gym or eat healthier…. but pretty soon a day of “lazy” creeps in.  Then another day and then another and–if you were paying attention–you would notice that these days are consecutive.  And if you’re really self-aware, you’ll actually notice that you’ve abandoned your resolution.  But most of us aren’t that sharp, I know I wasn’t.  We just quietly let go of our resolution and hope no one notices.

Isn’t that strange?  What’s going on here?

Applied behavioral change

Behavioral change is a skill, one most of us never got.  Who learns about this stuff?  Where would you even go to learn it?  Before now, have you even encountered that phrase before?

I find this skill set is like so many others out there–until someone points it out to you, you would NEVER have thought about it.  The second someone does, a light goes on and you think “there it is.  Why didn’t I think of that?”  So I guess you don’t have to feel ashamed of yourself for this.  I think you should but I was like you too so… I have an ounce of sympathy for you.  Don’t let it wear out.  I have zero tolerance for pointless laziness.

How to effect behavioral change

High Value Goal setting.

Most people suck at setting goals.  Here’s the basics, you need a clearly defined goal, consequences based on a timeframe, and it should take into consideration what else is going on in your life.  Why?

Most people come up with something vague like “lose weight”.  Okay… so what?  I want to lose weight so… I can fit into that dress?  So I can be more attractive?  So I can have more energy?  No one–INCLUDING YOU actually cares about losing weight.  We want the benefits from it.  So right away, you’re setting a goal that doesn’t motivate you and that you never know when you hit (so it feels impossible–when exactly do you “win” at losing weight?).  Instead try being more specific and results oriented.  I want to lose 20lbs.  Good.  I want to lose 20lbs so I can have more energy to play with my kids.  Better.  I want to lose 20lbs so I can feel more confident talking to women.  Better.

See the difference?  If you write that one down, you might actually stick with your plan for three BIG reasons.

1–It isn’t forever, so there’s a definite “win” point, as opposed to a forever goal that feels scary and like a LOT of hard work (even the hardest working person doesn’t want to do hard work, we’re all lazy at heart so use that instead of fighting it).  

2–it’ll remind you of the “so what” behind your behavior.  That’s what will get you out of bed on those cold, lonely mornings.

3–It clarifies exactly what you want.  If you want to lose weight to be more confident with the opposite sex, okay.  But what if you think losing weight alone will get girls?  Bad, you’d be better off just talking to more women.  You have to make sure your behaviors actually get you what you want.

But that’s not all.  You also need a timeframe.  A big problem with behavioral change is that we don’t set consequences for failure.  In contrast, look at your job.  How many behavioral changes has that imposed upon you?  How many have you stuck with?  Is it amazing?  Are your work masters incredible psychologists with deep insight into the human psyche?  No.  There’s just some definitive consequences for NOT making those changes–namely you get fired.  What happens if you don’t lose weight?  Nothing.  Nothing at all.  Sure we don’t get our result, but sometimes that doesn’t matter.  You have to realize serious behavioral change is a balance between the carrot and the stick.  Somedays, the carrot is enough.  Other days, you need a god damn stick.

So set a time point (this also affects the “forever change” resistance I mentioned above.  “Oh I’m just working out for a month?  You know what?  I can handle that…” ).

For consequences we have a few options, Tim Ferriss has his idea of setting your anti-charity and a friendly but stern judge to decide whether that anti-charity gets your $$ or not.  You also have the option of setting pots of money with your friends and such.  I find just including a friend-in-arms with whatever behavior I need is effective.  Just like getting a workout buddy and all.  Find someone with the same interest and go down that road with them.  Meet at least 3 times / week and get on each other’s cases.  Get confrontational even “look I really don’t think you did your best.”  Workout buddies are the best because there’s an activity you BOTH do, but this idea could be applied to other areas.  For example, when I needed to get really good at Copy Writing, I found a copy writing friend and we both committed to 3 practice pieces a week, which we wrote and edited right next to each other.

Now let’s look at our goal examples.

From “I want to lose 20 lbs so I can feel more confident talking to women.”

To: “In 2 months I want to lose 20lbs so I can feel more confident talking to women.”  Alright, NOW our goal is looking pretty good.  For consequences, you’ve got yourself a friend who also wants to lose weight but he’s married so he’s aiming for more energy for his kids.  Bit different but you guys can overlap and contrast.  I prefer working with differences–you get better insights.

That goal setting behavior by itself could be life changing, but it’s not 100% complete….here’s two more things you really need to consider:  Avoiding Mediocrity and The annoyingly simple “secret sauce” of behavioral change.

The best way to learn something is to practice, so have at it!  Let’s see some high value goals in the comments!