Vice President

On the key to lasting behaviour change

I’ve always appreciated how convenient it is that they put the tabloids directly in the checkout lane at the grocery store.

You know, all those times where you just stop in to grab a few things -- milk, fruit, whatever -- and if not for the smorgasbord of celebrity goss staring you in the face as you’re about to leave, you might miss out on a lot of important news.

Oh. Just me?

Well, um, actually -- me neither. I don’t read that junk. I was... kidding.

But someone’s reading that stuff. And not just someone. A lot of people. Otherwise, it wouldn’t be occupying such prime real estate at the store. Apparently, batteries, gum and the National Enquirer are the things that make the world go ‘round. Even if nobody wants to own up to them.

So the next time that someone tells you they’re not one of TMZ’s four million YouTube subscribers, you should feel at least a twinge of doubt. And if they claim that they only ever read or watch things that are wholesome or educational, they’re a full-fledged con artist. Time to end your friendship.

Here’s the observation, about people in general: they want what they want. They don’t want what they say they want. In fact, they don’t even want what they think they want. 

I mean, we’ve all had nice thoughts about things we want, right? Right around that moment of peak remorse, 11:15PM on a Wednesday, after inhaling that sleeve of Oreos. One moment you’re a blob of self-loathing; the next you’re a bastion of inspiration -- convinced (CONVINCED, I tellya) that tomorrow morning is the start of New You. Vegetables, water, early bedtime. And New You sticks around...until next Wednesday at 11:15PM. So much for those inspired thoughts.

People want what they want. And that’s it.

You can use this insight to calibrate your trust of others, or to peddle smut if you’re so inclined. But you can also use it to manage yourself.

When it comes to changing your behaviour, your intentions (much less your ambition) aren’t good enough. You can think you want to eat better, exercise more, read instead of watch TV, and so on. But there are a lot of moments in a day or a week or a month or a year, and sooner or later there’s going to be a showdown between what you think you want and what you actually want in that moment. And it ain’t gonna end well, unless your will power happens to pick up the W.

Don’t be fooled though -- your will power won’t save you in the long run. It’s like wearing a seatbelt on an airplane: good for minor turbulence, but when push comes to shove, well… y’know. If you find yourself depending on your will power to keep you on track, sooner or later it’s all going to come crashing down.

The only sustainable way to change your behaviour is to change what you actually want. You can do that by programming yourself to automatically make certain decisions (this is the tactical stuff of personal systems & habit formation), but also by consciously trying to adjust your preferences. Most times, people who exhibit some great discipline have actually just gotten to the point where they prefer the thing that’s good for them. It’s not that their will power is any stronger than yours.

So it’s a question of mindset: consciously trying to find elegance in the subtle flavours of healthy food (until you no longer crave one processed flavour explosion or another), or trying to find some pleasure directly in the centre of the pain of a hard workout, not just in the satisfaction that follows it. Lasting behaviour change is as much about reprogramming your pleasures as it is about the actions you take.

Of course, keeping those Oreos and tabloids out of sight is probably a good idea too. Or, I mean, so I’ve been told.