The most difficult person of all: A guide to shaking your own bad habits

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Dealing with difficult people is hard enough, but what if the most difficult person to deal with is you?

If ever you’ve failed to realise your full potential, follow through on goals that were once important, or break a bad habit, then it’s time to rethink your approach.

You’ve been doing it wrong

There are three common mistakes we make when trying to change our own behaviour.

The first is relying on willpower and motivation. Willpower depletes too easily, and motivation is unstable. Instead, you are better to focus on making your preferred behaviour easy to do.

The second is assuming you are in charge. You kind of are, but not really. We flip between two types of thinking throughout the course of the day: system one which is fast, intuitive, emotional thinking, and system two, our slow, rational, fact-based thinking.

System two thinks it’s in charge, but system one actually makes most of the decisions. That means you might know what to do and why you should, but find yourself doing something else instead. I know I should eat healthily but I reach for the chocolate, for example. We, therefore, need to stop planning for system two and focus on system one instead.

The third is the hot-cold empathy gap, where we mistakenly believe how we feel right now will be how we feel in the moment of truth.

Tips for wrangling your own behaviour

Cold state preparation

When you are in your ‘cold’ or unaroused state, lay the groundwork for the hot state to come.

Here are three top tips.

  1. Make implementation intentions. Implementation intentions help you to pre-empt the hot state by noting what may arise and what you will do if it does. Simply write ‘if/then’ statements so you have a pre-defined path to follow. For example, if my friends invite me to drinks I will take my favourite sparkling water to drink instead.
  2. Structure your environment. Make good behaviours easy to do and bad behaviours more difficult. For example, if you know the mornings are rushed and you may not feel like exercising, put your exercise clothes on the floor next to your bed to eliminate the pain of having to choose what to wear. If you snack on food that isn’t good for you, don’t have it in the house, or store it out of sight and in a difficult to access spot.
  3. Identify your triggers. Triggers are what reminds you to do something. If you want to stop a behaviour, remove the trigger (for example, turn off phone alerts) or, if that’s not possible, remove yourself from the trigger (for example, not going to the café that serves those yummy biscuits). If you want to start a new behaviour, make sure you have a trigger in place otherwise you are likely to forget (for example, brushing teeth is a trigger to flossing).

Hot-state reaction

In the moment of truth, adrenaline floods your system and blood pumps to your muscles, making you feel warmer and more energised. Unfortunately, the blood flows away from your brain leaving you exposed to more impulsive decision-making. Indeed a 2006 study by Ariely and Loewenstein found college students were more likely to engage in risky sexual activity when in a hot rather than cold state.

Aside from your cold-state preparation, here are two tips for managing your hot state.

  1. Recall your identity. Research has found reciting ‘I don’t… (do something)’ rather than ‘I can’t…’ eliminates overwhelm. This ’empowered refusal’ makes your decision much more clear-cut. Since becoming vegan, for instance, I have found it much easier to refuse ice cream because I just don’t eat dairy.
  2. Answer for a friend. Creating psychological distance between you and the issue confronting you can help you do the right thing. Pretend you are making the decision for someone you care about because this will take you out of yourself and see the situation with a fresh, more objective perspective.

Learning to manage our own behaviour is the cornerstone of a productive and healthy life. You are the most difficult person you will ever need to influence, so the more you can learn about your behavioural patterns, the greater the odds you’ll have success shaping those same patterns in others.

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