Have you ever gotten totally pumped about changing some behavior, got started with a lot of enthusiasm and then pffffffffft… the whole thing just quietly fizzled out?
Maybe it was a health/fitness goal.
Maybe it was a career objective.
Maybe it was the way you want to parent.
Whatever it was, it started with a bang, but like a balloon that is not knotted up tight enough, it slowly lost wind and went limp.
Well, you’re not alone. As it turns out, there’s a scientifically proven reason for why we give up. By becoming aware of it, we can trick ourselves into changing any behavior rather effortlessly.
But First, a Little Bit of the Back Story…
About 5 weeks back we started the Discipline Without Drama community challenge on this blog. It started with a bang. So many of you enthusiastically dived into it that my whole month’s video bandwidth was blown away in just 1 day and I had to scramble to keep streaming the videos uninterrupted!
As we progressed through the challenge though, I noticed the ‘balloon losing wind’ effect.
It gave me an eerie feeling of New Years Day in June… research shows that 88% of the New Year’s Resolutions end in failure.
I started digging into psychology studies to understand what causes us to give up even though we really want to change something. Why do we dive into something with so much enthusiasm, only to abandon it in a few days? (I have a few other reasons to be so interested in this question, but that’s a whole other blog post… 😉 )
What I found out is very intriguing. At the core of all failed attempts to change behavior is one simple misconception. Understanding this can not only help us trick ourselves to be successful with our behavior change goal next time, but armed with this knowledge, we can give our kids a leg up in changing some of their behavior as well.
Imagine a child who is very shy in social settings and you want to help him get more socially comfortable. Imagine a child who loves to boss everyone around and you want to help her tone it down without crushing the wonderful leadership traits. Imagine a child who is easily distracted and you want to help him focus without quelching the incredible curiosity streak.
Understanding why we give up, and ways to trick our brains to successfully change behavior can shed light on how we can handle these situations and much more. Now, that’s the kind of stuff that gets me excited!
So, let’s dive in.
It’s the Willpower, Stupid. (But, NOT for the Reasons You Think.)
As most of us would expect, at the heart of any bunked effort to change, there’s the willpower to blame.
But, it’s not for the reasons you might expect.
What we are dealing with here is NOT a case of us being weak or lacking self-control.
It just so happens that there’s just not enough will power to go around, and most of our change effort are doomed to fail even before we start!
Studies have consistently shown that willpower is a depletable resource. As a matter of fact, in the wonderful book The Willpower Instinct author Kelly McGonigal writes –
Welcome to one of the most robust, if troubling, findings from the science of self-control: People who use their willpower seem to run out of it. Smokers who go without a cigarette for twenty-four hours are more likely to binge on ice cream. Drinkers who resist their favorite cocktail become physically weaker on a test of endurance. Perhaps most disturbingly, people who are on a diet are more likely to cheat on their spouse. It’s as if there’s only so much willpower to go around. Once exhausted, you are left defenseless against temptation—or at least disadvantaged.
Studies in the field of neuroscience have identified that the part of the brain called the prefrontal cortex is in charge of willpower. This is the same part of the brain that is charge of other executive functions such as focus, short-term memory, planning and cognition as well. So, as we pile on more and more of these “smart” tasks on our brain, it can’t keep up any more and soon our self control starts to give.
There have been several psychology experiments to show this.
My favorite one is the one I mentioned an earlier article –
In a study reported in the Wall Street Journal, one group of students was given a simple 2-digit number to memorize as they walked down a hallway, whereas the second group was given a 7-digit number. When they reached the end of the hallway, they were offered a snack – either a slice of chocolate cake or a bowl of fruit salad.
Well, as you may have guessed by now – the students who were asked to memorize the 7-digit number were nearly twice as likely to choose chocolate cake compared to the students who were asked to memorize the 2-digit number! The researchers hypothesize that the 5 extra digits of the random number being held in their brain resulted in a “cognitive load” making it much harder for them to resist the chocolate cake.
Now as modern parents, you know how many things we hold in our poor brains, every minute, every day. Imagine adding a major change effort to that and relying entirely on willpower to get us through.
Does it remind anyone else of the story of the straws on the camel’s back?
It’s the same with our kids — they are “the children of the information age”. They have a whole lot more on their brains than any of us did at their age. Trying to cram in a change effort is one too many for their little brains to handle.
So, how do we fix this?
Simple. Take willpower out of the equation.
Here are 3 simple ways to trick your brain into changing behavior without overloading it with having to exercise willpower –
#1 Strip the Glorious Aspirations and Turn it into Something Mundane
Not something you’d expect, right? But it works.
Let’s say for example we want to start exercising everyday.
Compare that to taking a bath. You take a bath every morning (or night) right? Now, some days you have too many things to do and too little time. On those days, do you skip the bath or do you just take a quick one? Even if you skip it, how many days in a row do you go without taking a bath?
When you look at things from a purely health perspective, your body needs exercise as much, if not more than it needs hygiene.
Yet, we somehow always find the time to squeeze in a bath, but never find the time to exercise.
Because taking a bath is a mundane habit we’ve been doing forever. Our brain doesn’t get involved in the decision of whether to have a bath… we just do it.
Exercising on the other hand is a glorious “fitness goal”. It relies heavily on our willpower to get us though. Every day, our brain has to put up a fight to get our ass up on the exercise machine. Our brain has better things to do. It gives up.
What if we got into the habit of hopping on the treadmill, squatting on the floor for some yoga, or doing a few jumping jacks as soon as we wake up instead? What if we drove straight from work to gym and then home at the end of each workday? What if we made going on a long walk a part of our lunch break?
Forget about your fitness goals. Forget about how many calories you burn. Forget about how much you can bench press.
Just create a mundane habit.
Don’t you think it might work? From my personal experience… it very much does.
A year or so before I quit my job, a friend at work and I got into the habit of going on a long walk every afternoon – chatting and gossipping all the way through. It was fun and relaxing. The habit stuck.
It was probably the fittest year of my life.
Ever since I’ve quit my job, I’ve tried many different ways to get back to “exercising regularly” but somehow nothing’s clicked. My friend on the other hand continues to go on those walks to this day.
If there is some change you really want to make… plan ahead and completely eliminate the need for using willpower. Your best chance of success lies in turning it into just another mundane habit.
Now, for everyone who started the Discipline Without Drama challenge but did not complete it:
Forget about stress-free discipline. Forget about not screaming at your kids. Forget about better parenting.
Instead get into one simple habit.
Read/skim through a few good parenting articles each week. That’s it.
You don’t even have to try to implement everything you learn. What you read, or even skim through, will stick in your head and come back to serve you when you least expect it. For now, just create the simple habit of reading/skimming.
Here are a few awesome sites I recommend. Sign up for 2-3 right away –
- Aha Parenting
- Positive Parenting Connection
- Money Saving Mom (Subscribe to the lite feed to skip “deals” posts)
- Positive Parents
- Power of Moms
- Game of Diapers
- Korinthias Quiet Corner
- Pragmatic Mom
- Parent Hacks
And of course, if you’ve not already done so, sign up hereto get on the email list of this site — A Fine Parent. Who else will get you to your goals by telling you to forget about your goals? 😉
#2 Put Your Favorite Guilty Pleasure on a Layaway Plan
You have a guilty pleasure. (It’s OK, we all do.)
You’re going to do it anyway, inspite of knowing better. (Again, it’s OK, we all do.)
Instead of wasting your limited willpower resources on resisting it and feeling guilty about it, put it on a layaway plan and leverage it to get something else done.
So, for instance,
You’re going to indulge in a bowl of ice cream anyway — in spite of stocking your pantry with a ton of healthy snacks. Go ahead, indulge without guilt. As long as you’ve clocked 3 gym visits since your last indulgence.
You’re going to watch that mindless show on TV anyway — in spite of knowing your time is better spent doing something else. Go ahead, watch it without guilt. As long as you’ve taken your kids to the park at least 3 times since the last episode.
You’re going to eat Popeye’s Fried Chicken for lunch anyway — in spite of having everything you need to put together a fine salad. Go ahead, eat without guilt. As long as you’ve written at least 3 new article since the last time. (What, you don’t do that? Seriously?)
The idea is simple. If you’re going to do something anyway…
- Lose the resistance. Lose the guilt. Conserve the willpower. Enjoy what you’re doing.
- Leverage it to get something else that would have otherwise sucked up your limited willpower resource done.
And, for everyone who started the Discipline Without Drama challenge but did not complete it:
Before you indulge in your next guilty pleasure, watch 3 DWD challenge videos. It’ll just take a few minutes, and gives you license to do whatever it is without guilt. Go ahead, give it a shot!
#3 Give Yourself a Get-Out-of-Jail-Free Card
Have you heard of the What the Hell Effect?
I’m not making it up. There is an actual known psychological phenomenon called the “What the Hell Effect” where researches observed that people are likely to blow their resolve if they feel ashamed or guilty of something. And those who have already blown their resolve are much more likely to blow it further.
In the book The Willpower Instinct author Kelly McGonigal writes –
For example, one study compared the appeal of chocolate cake to participants before and after they were made to feel bad about themselves by thinking about their personal failures. Feeling bad made the cake look better to everyone, but even people who had said they did not like chocolate cake at all suddenly expected that the cake would make them happy.
The author explains the reasons for this as –
Neuroscientists have shown that stress—including negative emotions like anger, sadness, self-doubt, and anxiety—shifts the brain into a reward-seeking state. You end up craving whatever substance or activity your brain associates with the promise of reward, and you become convinced that the “reward” is the only way to feel better.
If you’ve ever played poker, lost a big hand and then very irrationally gone all-in on a weak hand and lost it all, you know exactly what I mean.
We tend to do the same thing in real life as well. And it’s cumulative.
It’s time now to break out of the “what the hell” loop. Self-compassion, not shame or hard-headed discipline is the way to make behavioral changes happen.
So free yourself of your past failings. Wipe the slate clean and start fresh.
And we need to remember this when we deal with our children’s little failings as well.
Be kind. Try to understand. Nurture.
For everyone who started the Discipline Without Drama challenge but did not complete it:
I’m not a stats junkie, but I keep a finger on the pulse of this blog.
I know that discipline in general, and becoming scream-free in particular is a topic that resonates with a lot of you.
Still, many of were not successful in following through. That time around.
But today, you’ve showed up again. You’re here, reading this. In my eyes, that makes you an extremely committed, fine parent!
In your eyes, does it?
Are you willing to forget about the past, not just this challenge but all the other perceived misgivings and little setbacks as well, and move on to becoming the great person, and parent you so wish to be?
The 2-Minute Action Plan for Fine Parents
It’s time to wrap up. Here are a few quick questions to answer to make sure you get something for the time you spent reading this article –
- What is the one change you’d like to see in your own life or that of your kids?
- Which one of the simple tricks above (or what combination of them) do you think will help you get there fast?
As always, I’d love to connect with you! Let me know your answers in the comments below.
The Ongoing Action Plan for Fine Parents
Over the course of the next week, start putting the tricks you identified above in action so that you have a good chance of making that one change you so wish to see, happen! Good luck!