Three Strategies for Behavior Change

Most of self-improvement boils down to behavior change. You want to exercise more, eat better, earn more money, learn a new language, stop worrying so much. All of it is a form of changing your behavior.

Looking around, there seems to be broadly three ways of changing behavior:

  1. Bottom-up
  2. Top-down
  3. Inside-out

I notice that people tend to stick with one of these methods, particularly if it has worked for them in the past. But, like all things, sticking to one method dogmatically may not be the best approach. As such, some people find some behaviors easy to manage and others feel completely outside their control.

In this article, I’d like to explore the broad outlines of each of these approaches and end with some thoughts about their strengths and weaknesses.

Strategy #1: Bottom-Up

A bottom-up behavior change process is the most direct. Simply decide how you’d like your behavior to be different and make it so.

Much of my writing on habit-building emphasizes this strategy. You start by deciding you’d like to exercise more regularly. You clarify the goal into a concrete habit (I’ll go to the gym every day for 30 minutes) and then you implement it.

Sometimes this process can be difficult, so you may want to pay attention to even smaller details of the habit-forming process. You may want to start with tiny habits and build up, you may aim to make the routine more consistent, you may want to condition yourself with positive reinforcement or punishment to strengthen the positive association with the new behavior.

The key to a bottom-up strategy is that you directly try to install the behavior you want. There isn’t much emphasis on the outcome of the behavior or how the habit changes who you are.

Strategy #2: Top-Down

Top-down behavior change takes a different approach: start with a goal or environmental constraints that will automatically cascade into a bunch of habit changes.

Undertaking the MIT Challenge was a powerful top-down driver. It automatically reorganized perhaps a dozen habits at the same time. I’d never try to tackle so many at once in a bottom-up fashion, but it was fine top-down since I only needed to mentally keep my goal in mind to reorganize all of my downstream behavior.

The challenge with a top-down strategy is that it depends a lot more on either having the environment force you to change (say by moving or changing jobs) or having so much motivation for your goal that you can obsess over it. Where top-down approaches usually fail is when the goal is only a minor interest, so it isn’t enough to summon up the energy to surmount the threshold for reshaping much of your life towards it.

Strategy #3: Inside-Out

Inside-out change happens when instead of thinking about your behavior or your goals, you make a conscious decision to be a different kind of person.

This strategy, when successful, can be the most powerful of all. Seeing yourself in a different way can often make your likes and dislikes change almost instantly, causing you to act differently as a consequence of believing yourself to be a different kind of person.

The problem with this approach is that it’s the hardest to will into existence directly. It can happen, but identity shifts usually don’t take place under your direct control. Just saying to yourself “I’m going to be productive” doesn’t make it so, and while writing affirmations may cause you to shift how you see yourself, the evidence about them is certainly mixed.

Another problem is that I believe people tend to focus on idealized versions of themselves that they want to be, instead of realizing that all realistic instantiations of their identity will involve trade-offs. Identity shifts happen when you want a new set of trade-offs in life, not because you only focus on the positive.

As an example of this, say you tell yourself you want to be the kind of person who always eats healthy—but then you’re also not the kind of person who relaxes with snack foods or eats a large slice of delicious cake. If you only focus on the positive it’s easy to imagine lots of desirable identity shifts. However, if you actually think about the real trade-offs, many of these are just wishful fantasies rather than real desires to be a completely different kind of person. If your real goal is some kind of moderation, I don’t think this strategy works well–better to go top-down or bottom-up.

However, I don’t think these difficulties in triggering inside-out change, should lead us to dismiss it entirely. Because it can often have powerful, lasting effects, even if it works less frequently, the durability and scope of the behavior change can be enough to keep it in mind.

Comparing the Strategies

My thinking process is usually as follows:

  1. If I simply want a new behavior (such as flossing or being more organized), and it’s not tied to an extremely compelling goal or project, bottom-up is the way to go. It has the greatest specificity but most limited scope.
  2. If I have an obsessive goal and many behaviors will fit into this goal, can I tie them together and approach them as a single unit? This has larger scope, but will fail if my goal isn’t obsessively interesting as much. I often try to jump-start this process by transforming more ordinary goals into obsessive projects, because I know I can ride the effects of these projects to catalyze other related behavior changes.
  3. Is the real aim to become a different kind of person? Not just a new, idealized version of yourself, but someone who pursues different trade-offs in life. If so, focusing on the identity shift may do much of the heavy lifting in shifting my behavior.

What about you? What is your dominant strategy for self-improvement? Share your thoughts in the comments!


Lesson #1: An Unusual Approach to Improve Your Ability to Focus

Note: This is the first lesson in a multi-part series for learning faster. The other lessons will only be sent out to newsletter subscribers, so if you’d like to get the other lessons as they appear, be sure to subscribe here.

There are a few core skills that, if you can improve them, can multiply your efforts in almost everything else you do.

Not all skills are like this. Being able to play the flute might be nice, but it isn’t going to help much with helping you lose weight or getting a promotion.

Core skills, like goal-setting, being organized or communicating well, can have enormous spillovers. When you get a little better at that one skill it can be applied to many different areas of life.

Being able to focus is one of these core skills. In this email, I’m going to share an unusual way of thinking about focus that can help you get better at it.

Should You Take an Outside or Inside View?

There’s two ways to approach improving your ability to focus. One is what I call the “outside view”. This is to try to improve your focus by constraining your environment. Eliminate distractions, turn off the phone, block the internet with apps like LeechBlock or better yet, don’t use a computer at all.

Another example of an “outside” strategy is the Pomodoro Technique. That’s where you decide to only focus for twenty minutes before taking a break, and you set a timer to tell you when to stop. The timer forms a constraint on your environment, so it’s easier to commit to focusing.

These strategies are all work. But they’re also probably the advice you’ve heard thousands of times before, so I wanted to share an alternative set of focusing tactics you may not have tried. These work in conjunction with “outside” strategies, so the best approach is to use both.

What are “Inside View” Tactics?

The “inside view” isn’t focused on changing your environment or external constraints. Instead it’s about paying attention to the subtle conversation you hold in your head while you’re focusing. By paying attention to this, and changing the script, you can extract more focus from your limited time.

This approach is very similar to what Buddhist monks often use when meditating. Meditation is a mental state very similar to focusing, however the object of focus usually isn’t a task, but your breathing, thoughts or consciousness.

One of the challenges of meditation is constantly being distracted by your own thoughts or impulses. It can feel almost like an itchy feeling where you constantly want to divert your attention onto some stream of thinking, worry or daydream.

This feeling, unsurprisingly, is very similar to what it feels like to be distracted when trying to focus on work. Although, occasionally, the impulse to move away from task at hand is caused by the environment—a ringing phone, a car siren in the distance—more often the distraction comes from within. It’s our own itchy feeling to escape whatever we’re doing and check Facebook, text a friend or pop open our email that pulls us away.

This problem also explains why, for many people, they can’t focus even when they pick a distraction-free work environment. Because the distractions are coming from inside your mind.

Tools for Combatting the Mental Itch to Distract Yourself

The first step to solving a problem is to properly understand it. So what actually happens, inside your head, when you lose focus?

If you’re anything like me, usually your focus slips without you realizing it. You notice your eyes have been moving but you haven’t actually been paying attention to the book you’re reading. You start thinking about some other issue in your life and realize you’re not actually working.

At some point, sometimes only a few seconds into your distraction, you catch yourself being distracted. This often comes with a wave of guilt over feeling like you should be working hard, but you’re not. Other times, the object of the distraction itself, seems to immediately demand you take action—“I should really check if so-and-so messaged me…”

I’ve often found, when you catch your attention slipping, there is a strong urge to stop with the task you’re focused on. You may feel guilty or frustrated. This may spin into a feeling that now isn’t the best time to work, that you really need a break or that it isn’t worth working on anyways.

How do you overcome this urge?

I’ve found that one of the best strategies is to copy what meditators do. Recognize that getting distracted is normal, and instead of getting mad at yourself, just allow your focus to drift back to what you’re doing.

It sounds simple, but amazingly, it often works quite well. By expecting that you’re going to get distracted, and simply allowing yourself to drift your focus back, you can often break the spell of a momentary distraction.

But what if that still doesn’t work, and twenty seconds later, you’re still itching to quit?

I’ve found there’s a good multi-stage self-talk habit I’ve created which helps me deal with it.

Stage 1: Drift back your focus naturally, no pressure to get work done

The first impulse I get to quit, I just remind myself what I’m doing and lazily return my focus back to the task. How you treat yourself here is important. If you chastise yourself or get angry, like a boss yelling at his employee to quit daydreaming, you’ll only exacerbate the frustrated or guilty feeling you have for not working hard.

On the other hand, if you treat your attention like a lost child who gently needs to be guided back to the task at hand, you’ll feel much better and focus can resume shortly.

Stage 2: Negotiate a future break

Sometimes the gentle prodding isn’t enough. Your mind keeps flitting away from what you’re doing and you can’t help but get frustrated.

Here, what you can do is negotiate a future break with yourself. Glance at a clock or timer and tell yourself that if you’re still unable to focus and it’s after some period of time in the future (say 5-10 minutes), you’ll allow yourself a short break. This can often reduce the feeling of being trapped in this semi-frustrated, distracted state of mind.

Stage 3: Take a smart break

Very often, ten minutes will pass and you’ll be back in the flow of working and you won’t need the break right at that moment.

But, if the time does pass and you still find yourself itching to quit, a good solution is to take a “smart” break. Smart breaks are activities that are relaxing, but unlikely to suck you into themselves. Going on the internet isn’t a smart break, because it’s very easy to get pulled in and find it hard to switch back to work when you need to.

Good smart break ideas include: going for a short walk, getting a glass of water, sitting with your eyes closed or doing pushups.

Summary

Training your ability to focus isn’t easy. However, sometimes just applying outside-view tactics isn’t enough because they don’t tackle the real problem—distractions coming from inside your own mind.

Making yourself feel guilty or frustrated often only make things worse. Better is to gently guide your mind back on task. If that still doesn’t work, negotiate a future break time. If the time elapses and you still can’t focus, take a smart break, rather than one prone to distraction.

Above all, practice this skill. New meditators can only sustain the posture for several minutes, while experienced practitioners can meditate for many hours at a time. So it is with focusing, you need to build your ability over time. If you try these methods and can’t go very long yet, don’t worry. With more practice you can stretch it longer and longer.

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That’s it for today’s lesson.

Next lesson, I’m going to share the two most effective learning strategies, as found by a comprehensive meta-analysis of various learning techniques. Stay tuned! (Want to get the next lessons? I won’t be sharing them here, you’ll need to join the free newsletter to receive them)


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