How to Change Any Behavior: A Definitive Guideby Scott Jeffrey
Imagine your life without impulse control issues:
- You get everything done when you decide.
- The word “procrastination” doesn’t exist.
- You stay focused on tasks without getting distracted.
- Temptations and addictions to food, TV, media, alcohol, sugar, shopping, and other drugs disappear.
It’s fair to say that humans would evolve and develop in ways beyond our imagination.
But why does it seem so difficult to change behaviors, create good habits, and stop bad ones?
I know of one executive behavioral coach who Fortune 500 CEOs pay over $100k to change their behavior.
Can you imagine? They only focus on only ONE behavior—and their work together takes over a year!
So what’s going on here?
This definitive guide reveals the findings on the science of impulse control and outlines specific strategies you can use to change your behaviors for the better.
Let’s dive in…
Table of Contents
- Children and Their Marshmallows
- The Cookie and the Radish
- The Science of Self Control
- THE Major Determining Factor in Success
- Impulse Control: A Pervasive Human Problem
- The Astounding Limits of Willpower
- Breaking Through the Motivation Fallacy
- How to Break Bad Habits
- How to Start Good Habits
- How to Build Willpower
- Moving Beyond Willpower and Impulse Control
- The Power of Free Will
- The Challenge with Inspiring Positive Change
- The Secret to Creating Positive Change
- Three Steps to Changing Your Behaviors
- Two More Essential Inner Tools for Lasting Change
- Mastering the Inner Game of Positive Change
- So Let’s Recap Our Lessons on Changing Behavior
- The End of the Story?
- Book Recommendations
- Read Next
Children and Their Marshmallows
Have you heard of the marshmallow experiments?
One at a time, psychologist Walter Mischel sat four-year-olds at a table, a single item placed before them: one marshmallow.
Mischel or a member of his staff would tell the child that if they wait to eat the marshmallow until they return, they can have two marshmallows instead of one.
Then, the adult leaves the room with only the child, a video camera, and a single marshmallow on a table.
Some kids eat the tasty treat right away. Some fight the temptation for a while before caving. Others regulate their impulses successfully.
Mischel began these tests over 40 years ago, and they continue:
What are the findings of this study?
We’ll get back to that in a minute. But first…
The Cookie and the Radish
Another psychologist Roy Baumeister set up an equally, if not more, sadistic experiment.
Participants enter a room with a table displaying a platter of freshly baked chocolate chip cookies and a bowl of red and white radishes.
With cookie aroma wafting through the air, Baumeister’s researchers instruct one group of participants to eat two or three radishes before asking them to solve geometric puzzles.
Unknown to the participants, these puzzles were unsolvable.
Participants were not permitted to eat any cookies.
Another group, the control group, was offered two or three warm cookies and then given the same puzzles. No radishes necessary.
Compared to the control group, the radish-eating group spent less than half the amount of time trying to solve the puzzles. This same group also recorded about half the number of attempts at answering them.
The conclusion: In resisting the temptation to eat the warm cookies, the radish eaters had depleted their mental strength or what’s commonly called willpower.
The Science of Self Control
These and many other creative experiments that measure the depletion of willpower form the basis and understanding for a new science of impulse control.
Two critical discoveries emerge from these experiments:
- Everyone is born with varying levels of willpower.
- The will, like any muscle in the body, can get fatigued, what Baumeister calls ego depletion.1Baumeister, R. F., Bratslavsky, E., Muraven, M., & Tice, D. M. (1998). Ego depletion: Is the active self a limited resource? Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 74(5), 1252-1265.
These researchers have also illuminated the importance of self-discipline…
THE Major Determining Factor in Success
Mischel’s team followed up with his marshmallow subjects many years later.
Mischel found that kids who were able to exert greater willpower (by resisting the temptation to eat the first marshmallow) were better adjusted in high school and scored higher on their SATs.
Psychologists Angela Duckworth and Martin Seligman even found that self-discipline outdoes IQ in academic performance.2Duckworth, A. L., & Seligman, M. E. P. (2005). Self-Discipline Outdoes IQ in Predicting Academic Performance of Adolescents. Psychological Science, 16(12), 939–944.
As adults, these participants had higher self-esteem, better relationships, fewer psychological abnormalities, and earned more money.
These results show how vital impulse control is for human development.
Impulse Control: A Pervasive Human Problem
Do you struggle with impulse control of one form or another?
According to psychologist Kelly McGonigal, author of The Willpower Instinct, you’re not alone:
“The science of willpower makes clear that everyone struggles in some way with temptation, addiction, distraction, and procrastination. These are not individual weaknesses that reveal our personal inadequacies—they are universal experiences and part of the human condition.”
Well, that’s comforting, to a degree.
But while on a personal level this fact might alleviate a degree of shame and guilt, we all know what it’s like when the limits of our will confront us.
There must be more to the story…
The Astounding Limits of Willpower
Research from Mischel, Baumeister, and others confirms what we’ve all experienced: willpower has its limits.
Willpower is a battle between the immediate desires of your animal self with the long-term goals of your Future Self.
Taoist literature distinguishes the lower soul from the higher soul. The lower soul is our animal nature.
Conditioned, and in many ways, perverted by our environment, this lower soul only seeks what it perceives to be pleasurable in the immediate now.
The higher soul, in contrast, gently guides us on a path of patience and forbearance so we may return to our Original Nature. And our Original Nature isn’t subject to the conditioning of our environment.
But because our animal self or lower soul has been conditioned from early life to run the show (“give me what I want when I want it,” “make me comfortable”), it often wins the impulse control battle. And our Original Nature never returns.
Breaking Through the Motivation Fallacy
Have you ever thought: If only I had more motivation, THEN I would be able to change [insert your undesirable behavior here].
Let’s say you have a behavior you want to change:
- You want to manage your time better.
- Eat better.
- Stop using social media.
- Communicate more directly.
- Avoid being lazy.
- Be more fit.
- Procrastinate less.
- Love more wholeheartedly.
- Be kinder and more patient.
- Improve your finances.
You genuinely want to change your behavior, but you can’t figure out how to it make it happen.
“Motivation” is the word we often use here, right?
- I should be better.
- I really should change that …
While these thoughts are terrific at producing guilt, they’re useless when it becomes to breaking bad habits and changing your behavior.
As we’ve seen above, the science of willpower shows that we have a limited reservoir of mental strength.
And so if you’re already using your available mental energy each day, where is the source of this motivation supposed to come?
This ego depletion combined with our repetitive conditioning of certain bad behaviors partly explains why change can be elusive.
How to Break Bad Habits
So here’s one of the most practical strategies behavioral science has to offer:
Instead of using willpower to restrict yourself, use your available self-discipline to identify your impulse control triggers in advance.
Basically, set up your environment to support your Future Self.
Psychologists call this situational self-control, and it works far better than willpower.3Duckworth, A. L., Gendler, T. S., & Gross, J. J. (2016). Situational Strategies for Self-Control. Perspectives on Psychological Science, 11(1), 35–55.
How do you use situational self-control to break bad habits?
- Want to stop binge snacking in the evening? Don’t keep junk food in your house.
- Want to watch less television? Put the remote control in a drawer in the other room (instead of next to the couch).
- Want to eat less? Use smaller plates.4Stephen S. Holden, Natalina Zlatevska, and Chris Dubelaar. (2016) Whether Smaller Plates Reduce Consumption Depends on Who’s Serving and Who’s Looking: A Meta-Analysis. Journal of the Association for Consumer Research 1, no. 1 January: 134-146. (Also, see this guide on how to eat less and why.)
Notice how all of these actions make it slightly more difficult to succumb to your impulses.
Putting the remote control in a drawer doesn’t make it so you can’t watch TV, but it makes you pause long enough to have more choices.
How to Start Good Habits
But it doesn’t stop there. You can also use situational self-control strategies to promote good habits. How?
- Want to work out more often? Keep a set of dumbbells next to your desk.
- Want to focus on a writing project? Shut off all notifications on your computer and put your cell phone on airplane mode.
- Want to run in the morning? Put your clothes and running shoes by your bedside in the evening.
Your environment shapes your thoughts, behaviors, habits, and actions.
Change your setting and you will gradually break bad habits, install new ones, and begin to transform your lifestyle.
Remember, your environment trumps willpower.
How to Build Willpower
But just because willpower has limitations, doesn’t mean we should neglect it entirely.
Research shows that willpower is like a muscle that can be developed by anyone over time. How?
Interestingly, mindfulness meditation is one of the primary ways to build willpower because it helps develop parts of the brain associated with will and counteracts the depletion of self-control.5Friese, M., Messner, C. & Schaffner, Y. (2012) Mindfulness meditation counteracts self-control depletion. Consciousness and Cognition, 21(2), 1016-1022.
This form of meditation can provide you with more time between your impulses (stimuli) and your need to respond to them (actions).
For further guidance and instructions see:
- The Definitive “Underground” Meditation Guide
- How to Breathe Like a Jedi to Increase Mental Energy
- The Definitive Guide to Cultivating Energy with Standing Meditation
All of these guides provide detailed practices that can help you restore your mental energy, and therefore, build willpower and increase impulse control.
Moving Beyond Willpower and Impulse Control
All of the methods current research suggests are helpful. But ultimately, the struggle between our animal impulses and our Future Self remains.
And this battle taxes our mental strength every day, hindering our potential in ways difficult to imagine.
Is there anything else we can do about our limitations with impulse control or when bad habits persist?
Instead of outsmarting our impulses, what if there was a way to reduce the intensity of these base desires?
If successful, it would significantly improve all of the useful methods offered by the psychology of willpower.
The answer seems to lie not in the exercise of willpower, but the application of free will.
What do I mean?
The Power of Free Will
Willpower is a force we exert over our impulses. Like any force, it has a limited supply of energy, and so it depletes as we use it.
Free will, in contrast, is the exercise of choice. When we select an option, we decide. Decide, from Latin decidere “to decide, determine,” literally “to cut off.”
When we decide, we cut off other options.
To decide, however, isn’t always straightforward. We’ve all seemingly made decisions that support our better nature only later to go against them.
The key is to have your cognitive mind that makes decisions (also called your executive function) team up with your emotional brain and your Future Self. Together, you have formidable allies.
What does this look like in practice?
Let’s first take a quick look at the role emotions have in facilitating change.
The Challenge with Inspiring Positive Change
We often try to change our behavior by appealing to reason and logic. We provide a sound argument about why a particular change is beneficial.
Does it work?
Try telling a friend that if he doesn’t change his behavior and get his aggression under control that he’ll lose his job.
Even if he wants to stop his poor behavior, this argument isn’t likely to lead to positive change. Why not?
All physicians know being overweight is bad for their health. Yet, aren’t there many overweight physicians?
The Secret to Creating Positive Change
Rational arguments and logic appeal to our prefrontal cortex, our thinking brains.
But before logic and reason can influence us, the limbic system—our emotional brain—must first engage.
The overweight physician knows being overweight is harmful to his health. His thinking brain has all the information he needs to make a rational decision to change.
But where’s the emotional hook?
If he’s able to associate being overweight with not being alive to see his granddaughter grow up, for example, he may become sad or angry. These emotions might help motivate him to change his behavior.
Your friend likely knows of the damaging effects of his poor anger management. His thinking brain knows there’s a problem.
The key is to trigger an emotional response associated with the desired change.
Change is possible when we evoke our emotional center first.
We change when change is meaningful. In this context, we derive meaning from feelings, not thoughts.
Three Steps to Changing Your Behaviors
So how do you change your behavior, stop bad habits, and install good habits?
In the case of your fictitious friend, you paint a picture that highlights the cost of his continued behavior in his performance, his work relationships, and his uncertain financial future.
In short, you agitate him. Agitation can lead to action.
(By the way, this is what clever advertisers and marketers do every day to get us to buy their products and services.)
You can also inspire him to a new view of his potential:
- How would it feel to have better control over his emotional reactions?
- When he triumphs over this behavioral problem, what will it give him?
- How much more energy and enjoyment will he discover in his work and personal life?
Having awoken his emotions, you can now give his thinking brain-specific instructions.
Finally, how can he alter his environment to help make the change stick?
For example, he can commit to a 2-minute breathing exercise each morning and before going into every meeting.
To recap, if you want to inspire behavioral change:
Step 1: Tap into your emotions. Find a way to feel the cost of staying the same and the benefits of changing.
Step 2: Outline specific actions you can take on the path to positive change.
Step 3: Set up the conditions in the environment necessary to support the change.
Remember: feelings come first; reasons come second.
Two More Essential Inner Tools for Lasting Change
Okay, so we’ve already highlighted two powerful strategies for changing behavior, regulating impulse control, and breaking bad habits:
- Change your environment to support positive change.
- Tap into your emotions to create meaning for the desired change.
But if you genuinely want to set yourself up for successful, lasting change and leverage free will, there are still a few more ingredients.
In truth, many issues around impulse control and bad habits are a sign that you’re living in discord with your values. These bad habits are merely symptoms.
So instead of focusing on the symptoms, set your sights on where you want to go.
And when it comes to your behavior, there are at least two key areas:
- A personal vision for your Future Self that guides you forward, and
- A clear set of personal core values that highlight your ideal behaviors.
With your vision and values clear at hand, it’s easier to make behavioral course corrections and move in a positive direction because you now have a personal North Star.
The power of vision and values is only known by those who have them and live them each day.
Even in business, companies like Netflix, Zappos, Amazon, and Southwest Airlines succeed and differentiate themselves with the power of company values.
Mastering the Inner Game of Positive Change
From my observation, most individuals approach changing their behavior in ineffective ways (as I have done too). Our attempts often fail because our strategies don’t work and our mindsets are misaligned.
Here are five lessons from current research and my experience on changing behavior:
Lesson 1: Restricting yourself doesn’t work.
Restricting yourself always backfire in the end.
For example, trying to think positive thoughts and avoid negativity?
Studies show that suppressing negative thoughts increases the chances that you’ll become depressed.6Wegner, D. M., Erber, R., & Zanakos, S. (1993). Ironic processes in the mental control of mood and mood-related thought. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 65(6), 1093-1104.,7Wegner, D. M. and Zanakos, S. (1994), Chronic Thought Suppression. Journal of Personality, 62: 615-640.
Going on a diet to lose weight?
Not only does dieting not work,8Mann, T, Tomiyama, AJ, et al. (2007) Medicare’s search for effective obesity treatments: diets are not the answer. American Psychologist. 62(3):220-33. but studies also show that restricting yourself increases your cravings.9Hill, AJ. (2007) The psychology of food craving. Proceedings of the Nutrition Society. 66(2):277-85.
This dynamic is a known insight from depth psychology too: what you repress grows stronger.
Lesson 2: Guilt reinforces bad habits.
Anyone struggling with impulse control is likely intimate with guilt. This emotion is used as a tool by most organized religions as well as parents to manipulate children to behave well.
Guilt is so ingrained in many of us that, oftentimes, we don’t even know that we’re expressing guilt or feeling it. (See this guide on how to work with repressed emotions.)
The problem is that guilt doesn’t inspire change; it makes you feel bad. And when you feel bad, your brain seeks a dopamine kick to feel better, which triggers your bad habits and impulse control issues.
Guilt often leads to self-criticism which reinforces poor behavior.
Self-compassion, in contrast, fuels healthy development. But if this is so, why don’t we take it easier on ourselves?
Psychologist Kristin Neff explains:
“The biggest reason people aren’t more self-compassionate is that they are afraid they’ll become self-indulgent. They believe self-criticism is what keeps them in line. Most people have gotten it wrong because our culture says being hard on yourself is the way to be.”
Self-compassion, not self-criticism, inspires positive growth.
Studies show that self-compassion is a powerful ally in improving self-regulation and impulse control—especially for health-related behaviors.10Horan, Kristin, H and Taylor, M. (2018) Mindfulness and self-compassion as tools in health behavior change. Journal of Contextual Behavioral Science. Vol 8, April 8-16.,11Biber, D. D., & Ellis, R. (2017). The effect of self-compassion on the self-regulation of health behaviors: A systematic review. Journal of Health Psychology.
Lesson 3: Focusing on a bad behavior reinforces it.
When it comes to impulse control and bad behaviors, it’s easy to fixate on what you’re doing wrong.
Not only might this trigger shame and guilt, but it also keeps your mind on to how it is right now. Perhaps you’ve heard the say, “What you hold in mind tends to manifest.”
These essential tools can magnetically pull you toward positive change as you take the other steps to cultivate willpower and leverage your environment.
Lesson 4: Change your fixed mindset first.
Another reason that it’s difficult for most people to change their behavior is they fundamentally don’t believe change is possible—and sometimes, they don’t even know they have this mindset!
Psychologist Carol Dweck’s research on Mindset reveals that those with a fixed mindset believe that “they are the way they are.” And with this fixed mindset deeply rooted, it’s nearly impossible to change.
Here’s my guide based on Dweck’s work on how to change your fixed mindset into a growth mindset.
Lesson 5: Cultivate your mental energy.
If you’re running on reserves of mental energy, as many of us do on an all-too-consistent basis, you’ve already lost the impulse control war.
The key to consistency in your habits and regulating your impulses is learning to manage your mental energy.
First, it’s helpful to become conscious of what depletes your energy. These factors include:
- Decisions you make including what to wear, eat or do next.
- Emotions you repress or express (especially desires and rage).
- Distractions that take you out of flow (including every push notification on your cell phone).
- And all the things you do that you don’t want to do (e.g. filing your taxes).
Next, learn to rest and recover. Take more breaks. Nap, if you can. Find ways of rejuvenating yourself when you feel fatigued or wired.
Improving your sleep patterns is vital if you want to restore your mental energy and enhance self-regulation.
I have derived significant benefits from a traditional standing practice from the internal martial arts called Zhan Zhuang.
Find whatever works for you and restore your energy often.
See also: My Centering Activation Methods too.
So Let’s Recap Our Lessons on Changing Behavior
Here are the steps we highlighted above to manage impulse control better, break bad habits, and make positive changes in our behavior:
- Decide what positive behavior you want to embody
- Connect with the emotional reasons why you want to change
- Create a concise action plan for change
- Set up your environment to make change easier
- Clarify the vision for your Future Self
- Discover your personal values and related desired behaviors
- Practice methods like meditation that restore your mental energy
- Establish a growth mindset
- Use self-compassion and self-acceptance instead of guilt and self-criticism
Okay, time to put these insights into practice.
Here’s something you can do right now:
- Select a habit you want to change.
- Determine one thing you can do to your environment to promote the change you seek.
Then, go set it up from right now!
The End of the Story?
We covered a lot of ground in this guide, but in reality, we just scratched the surface.
Even though behavioral science is insightful and instructive, it fails to adequately explain why we wrestle with issues like impulse control and bad behaviors in the first place.
It’s only here that we can begin to make sense of our behavior and understand why change is often elusive.
But I’ll leave this topic for a different day…
Here are four excellent books on creating new habits and making positive change: