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Doing the right thing can be done step by step

Improving Systems and Habits

Scott Miker is the author of several books that describe how to use systems and habits to improve.  This free blog provides articles that to help understand the principles related to building systems.  

Doing the right thing can be done step by step

Scott Miker

Most of us know what we should do in most situations.  But our behaviors often follow something else.

We go out with friends instead of preparing for the report that is due.  We smoke, eat junk food, and watch too much TV, when we know those things are not good for us.

In The Happiness Advantage, The Seven Principles of Positive Psychology That Fuel Success and Performance at Work, author Shawn Achor says, “Would you be surprised if I told you that cigarettes are not a good source of vitamin C?  Or that watching hours of reality television will not dramatically raise your IQ?  Probably Not.  Similarly, we all know that we should exercise, sleep eight hours, eat healthier, and be kind to others.  But does this common knowledge make doing things any easier?

He goes on to say, “Of course not.  Because in life, knowledge is only part of the battle.  Without action, knowledge is often meaningless.  As Aristotle put it, to be excellent we cannot simply think or feel excellent, we must act repeatedly.”

This principle of life is often missed.  Common sense isn’t common behavior.  We don’t act according to what we know we should do, we act based on something else.

Many times this is because of deep, ingrained habits.  The habit generally forms over years of following short-term gratification over long-term success.  If we do that a few times, it doesn’t do much.  But when we do that over and over and over it starts to form a pattern and makes it easier to keep doing it than to do something different.

While this may seem distressing, the reality is that we can use the same power that habits have over us and use them to our advantage.  Instead of following short-term urges, we can rely on the behavior that we know is the right thing, although in the short-term might not seem to be much fun.

The most difficult time to do this is in the short-term.  Imagine this…

You walk into your favorite burger restaurant.  You had a long day and can’t wait to relax with a beer and your favorite burger covered in blue cheese and Cajon seasoning. 

At that moment you remember your goal to finally lose some weight.  At this point you now have a choice to make.  But the odds are stacked against you. 

There are many ways to start to change your behavior.  One approach is to use effort and motivation to force you to do the right thing.  Relying on willpower seems to be the natural method, but we all know how difficult this can be.

Some fitness people claim that this is the only way to succeed.  We just have to be tough.

But there are actually a lot better ways to change.

Instead of taking the all-or-nothing approach, we can take small steps towards the change we want to see. 

Maybe we start by ordering a light beer.  Going forward every time we eat out we choose light beer instead of regular beer.  Most people at this point would say, “so what that won’t do anything.”

They are right.  That won’t magically change everything.  But it is a very small positive step that you can take and then turn into habit by doing it enough.  The goal isn’t to just change to light beer it is to make that decision automatic and then move to other decisions that you can make subtle changes to.

After a while, maybe you change out the seasoned fries for a baked potato.  Then you stop ordering beer and order a diet coke.  Then you start ordering water.

Then you start ordering the Cajon burger instead of the Cajon, blue cheese burger.  Then you just order the regular burger.  Or you change and start ordering the breaded chicken sandwich, then the grilled chicken sandwich.

Doing this makes the hard, difficult behavior and attacks a small piece at a time.  The key is that we can’t just do it once and expect to gain the benefits of habit.  We have to do that over and over and create a new pattern.

The first thing that most people think is, “that will take me years.”  That is correct.  This process takes years to truly develop.  But to be fair, we developed the wrong habits through years and years of choosing the opposite.  Expecting to change over night isn’t possible in most of these situations. 

This is why we have to understand the importance of patience when we use the systems and habits approach to improvement.  We have to understand that it will take time and that we are leveraging time to help build the right habits so down the road we don’t have to even think about these behaviors, they just happen naturally.

When you start doing this you will start to build confidence.  Not because results instantly follow but because you start to realize that you can change.  That confidence is good because it might help you take additional steps and maybe even take a few bigger steps that you keep doing and form into a new habit. 

The results will come.  Eventually using this method you will build a ton of positive habits that you barely think about because they are so ingrained in what you do that it isn’t an argument in your mind anymore, it is just natural.  Then results start to happen and keep going well beyond when the initial frustration ends.