Changing your behavior for the better is hard.
Luckily, there is a lot science can tell us about how to go about it in a way that gives you the best chance of success.
Anyone who is trying to change their behavior without understanding this science needs to stop, now. Read up on the science. Learn to do it the more effective way.
Then, start again, with better strategies, and create the life you've always wanted.
How hard is it, exactly? Not hard like algebra; hard like piano. You will work on it for "a while" before you get to that dream-life.
What is "a while"? Years, definitely. Decades, maybe.
But that's okay. The secret of self-development is that everybody has to work hard and put in a lot of work. We're all together in that.
It just so happens that here at Fierce Gentleman we believe that every man is destined for greatness ...if he's willing to do the work, and follow the science.
So, below we give you 23 scientific keys you need to put your life on a much better track in the future. These have all made a huge difference in our own lives.
Of course, information alone does not lead to life change. (That's one of the keys.)
But never before has so much high-quality, scientifically-validated information been available for free, to anyone, to get their path started.
You need to learn the information. Then you need to translate it into action.
So let's do that now.
23 Scientific Keys to Change Any Behavior
Willpower is weak. Environmental influences are much more important than willpower. Create the right environment around you, and the rest will follow much more easily. Hint: "environment" includes people.
Information does not lead to action. Emotions lead to action. This one is harder to back up with scientific studies, but it has long been my personal experience....over 10 years of studying both my own behavior, and the behavior of others who I'm trying to help. Information allows us to know in which direction we can go, but ultimately, emotions motivate us to take action.
The Internet destroys your ability to focus. Unless you're reading long-form articles like this one, or serious journalism. But if you're using the Internet like most people, it's eroding your attentional abilities.
Facebook makes you unhappy. Delete your account (unless you're using it for business).
Today's processed foods are engineered to flood the reward centers of your brain, and potentially trigger food addictions that will wreck your health and wellbeing. Eat vegetables instead. Avoid things in packages as much as possible.
Exercise makes your brain bigger. It also gives you more self-control, lifts depression, and stamps out anxiety.
Meditation makes your brain bigger. It also gives you more self-control, lifts depression, and stamps out anxiety.
Give up alcohol. The breakdown of alcohol in your body creates toxins that cause cancer. It is also extra calories that will contribute to extra fat storage. The additional toxic load can make you sick. And drinking and driving (or just being out around other drunk drivers) can kill you. Give up alcohol.
Take time off work. Overwork drains your willpower and makes you stressed and sick. (We speak from personal experience.) Take targeted time off work for active recovery, rest and relaxation. Here is a list of 14 healthy habits that will help you recover.
Maximize neurotransmitters oxytocin, GABA and serotonin. Minimize activities that have you chasing the dopamine dragon. Activities that stimulate dopamine: shopping, gambling, pornography, binge eating. Activities that stimulate serotonin, oxytocin & GABA: getting a massage, swing in a hammock, spending time with loved ones, meditating, praying, listening to music, reading. Spend at least 24 hours per week without looking at a digital screen.Instead of checking your email or “surfing the internet to relax”, write a letter, pet a kitty, swing in a hammock, get a massage, meditate, pray, listen to music, or read a paper book.
Put your best daily decisions on Autopilot. 60% or more of our daily decisions are habitual and automatic. That means that changing our habits is critical to changing our lives over time. (See BJ Fogg's Persuasion Lab at Stanford University and The Power of Habit by Charles Duhigg.) Recognize how many of your behaviors are habitual. Realize that you can changethese habits, and you can put a better life on “autopilot” (with some work.) So write a list of all the healthy habits you’d like to have. Flossing your teeth, running, juicing, socializing? Then get to work on starting to change one at a time.
Start with "wedge" habits that will have follow-on effects. I used switching from drinking coffee in the morning to drinking green tea. The smaller the initial change, the higher the likelihood of success. For me, green tea was a gentler, more long-lasting boost than coffee, with anti-cancer health benefits as well. My performance at work truly took off with green tea, whereas coffee left my dehydrated, frazzled, and talking too fast. Choose the smallest possible change you can make in your life today –such as flossing just one tooth. Do it. Then plan to do it again tomorrow.
Recognize that all habits comprise a Cue, a Routine Action, and a Reward. To add a new healthy habit to your life, use a pre-existing Cue to trigger a new Routine, and be sure to Reward yourself with something. But make the Reward match the size of the habit. If you floss one tooth, maybe reward yourself with a simple pat on the back. If you write a novel, reward yourself with a trip to Tahiti.
Realistic self-knowledge is what wins. In The Willpower Instinct, Dr. Kelly McGonigal covers this: smokers who are the most optimistic about their ability to resist temptation are the most likely to relapse four months later, and overoptimistic dieters are the least likely to lose weight. “The tempted self is an unpredictable and unreliable enemy. . . we need to take steps to predict and constrain that self as if it were another person.” (Behavioral economist George Ainslie, quoted in The Willpower Instinct, p 167). What constraints can you put on your Tempted Future Self? Write down 5 ideas and act on 1 of them.
Breathing is key to willpower and emotional resilience. Breathing more fully and slowly builds willpower, while reducing cravings and even depression. Try "breath pacing". Sit down and breath for 5 minutes, trying to reach only 4-5 breaths per minute.
Sleep is the key to longevity, health, and willpower. Most people run a constant sleep debt. Adequate sleep builds willpower and reduces stress hormones (among many, many other benefits). Say "No" to whatever gets in the way of you getting a full night of restful sleep. Turn off all digital screens 30 minutes before bed for best results.
Relaxation is key. The common sense relaxation is "pop a beer and turn on the TV." Wrong. Both of these things are toxic to willpower and behavior change. Actual relaxation involves lying flat on the floor and progressively tensing and relaxing all the major muscle groups for not less than 10 minutes. Try it. You'll see.
Rewarding yourself disproportionally to you results can set you back. We habitually use good behavior as a 'moral license' to indulge in even more 'bad behavior.' This is the reason many people gain weight on diets. But wait, didn’t I just say “reward yourself when building a new habit?” Yes, but not too much. That’s why we match the Reward to the size of the habit. Look at the rewards you have in your life, and look dispassionately at your results. Are you actually achieving up to the level of your Rewards, or are you over (or under) rewarding?
Forgiveness, not guilt. Being self-critical makes behavior change harder. Self-forgiveness increases accountability. If you’ve been too hard on yourself, let it go. Say “I forgive myself” and move on.
Immediate gratification -- and satisfying it -- is toxic. Whenever you experience an urge for....anything, wait 10 minutes. See if you still have the urge. Most of the time, you won't. Next time you find yourself saying, “Oh, I should check Facebook!” set a timer for 10 minutes. The urge will pass.
Don't believe everything you think or feel. Feelings aren't facts. Your thoughts aren't necessarily true. (This applies to everyone else, too.) Be an observer of your experience, without having to act on every little impulse. Practice observing your thoughts in meditation. Practice labeling each thought as ‘useful’ or ‘not useful.’
Finally, The Most Powerful Secret To Behavior Change: Paying Attention. Training your attention and self-awareness pays the best dividends...and it's free. “The faculty of voluntarily bringing back a wandering attention, over and over again, is the very root of judgment, character, and will… An education which should improve this faculty would be the education par excellence.” - William James. What education is William James, father of modern psychology, talking about? The education of attention. And what educates attention by bringing a wandering attention ‘back, over and over again’, forming the ‘root of judgment, character, and will’….? Meditation. It all comes back to meditation.
Each of the 23 principles could be a textbook in its own right, given the amount of research that has been done in that area -- and there is much, much more to be said about how to actually implement changes using these principles in your own life.
But the information is out there. There is enough knowledge freely available to completely change your life and make it into whatever you wish -- if you are able to take action.
As I used to say when I was working with adult students, "There are tons of ways to be an F student, but only a few ways to be an A student."
Whenever I study another person who is really achieving greatness in life, I see them doing one of a small number of very similar things.
If you do the things they do, you will be much more likely to get the results they get.
The above list is comprised of research from dozens of books and research articles on the subject of willpower, habit formation, interpersonal neurobiology, and cognitive science, and drawn from my own experience of being involved at the ground-level of helping other people change their patterns, habits, and lives for over 10 years.
If you're interested in further reading, see the excellent books, articles and presentations below.
- The Willpower Instinct by Kelly McGonigal
- The Power of Habit by Charles Duhigg
- Review this brief presentation on Tiny Habits by BJ Fogg
- Paper The Physiology of Willpower: Linking Blood Glucose to Self Control; see also studies by Baba Shiv at Stanford
- Switch: How to Change Things When Change is Hard by Chip and Dan Heath
- The Shallows: What the Internet is Doing to Our Brains by Nicholas Carr
- Facebook Use Predicts Decline in Subjective Well-Being in Young Adults
- Evidence for sugar addiction
- Daily bingeing on sugar releases dopamine
- Spark: The Revolutionary New Science of Exercise and the Brain by John Ratey
- A whole host of studies on how meditation increases cortical thickness
- Ahluwalia & Burnkrant, 2004; Burnkrat & Howards, 1984; Hotgraves & Yang, 1990; Sheldon et all 2003.
- Literature review of effects of sleep deprivation on decision making