Hacker News new | past | comments | ask | show | jobs | submit login
Top Mistakes in Behavior Change (slideshare.net)
186 points by benreyes on Jan 15, 2011 | hide | past | favorite | 27 comments

The slides in text form:

1. Relying on willpower for long-term change

- Imagine willpower doesn't exist.

2. Attempting big leaps instead of baby steps

- Seek tiny successes, one after another

3. Ignoring how environment shapes behaviors

- Change your life and change your context

4. Trying to stop old behaviors instead of creating new ones

- Focus on action, not avoidance

5. Blaming failures of lack of motivation

- Make the behavior easier to do

6. Underestimating the power of triggers

- No behavior happens without a trigger

7. Believing information leads to action

- We humans aren't so rational

8. Focusing on abstract goals more than concrete behaviors

- Abstract: Get in shape. Concrete: Walk 15 min. today

9. Seeking to changea behavior forever, not for a short time

- A fixed period works better than "forever"

10. Assuming that behavior change is difficult.

- Behavior change is not so hard when you have the right process

Can anyone expand on what they mean by 3 and 6?

My 2 cents:

3. Habits are often formed because of/to adapt the environment. (evolution?) Hang out with smoker friends all the time, higher chance of becoming a smoker. Or if you have a door that doesn't shut/lock properly. It could lead you to form a habit of double checking the door every time you close it. Fixing the door would probably cause you to lose that habit.

6. A lot of behaviors are set off by certain triggers. It could be different for everyone. Smoker trying to quit should probably avoid being at places where everyone is smoking. AA member probably should avoid going to bars. Recognizing triggers allow you to avoid things that lead to undesired compulsive behaviors. At the same time they can be used to create desirable ones. Perhaps listening to motivational music or phrases will trigger someone to study and seek self improvement.

Triggers are very powerful indeed. I'm pretty happy to see this list - since I nailed probably 6-7 out of them while hacking the smoking habit out of myself last year.

Coincidentally I've written this up earlier today for one of my friends who's just 3 days into the journey - and thought to share here as well. If it helps anyone at all - I'd be happy.


I have heard of triggers used in stories about focus in blogs that reached the frontpage here.

The examples were things like, "I only use my computer for fun or to surf if I'm in my easy-chair. If I'm at my desk, I only use it for work"

Personally, it makes me think of how some people arrange their whole living room to be focused on the TV... chairs & couches arranged to point at it, etc. My parents had theirs arranged to point towards the center of the room, encouraging people to talk or read, as you had to situate yourself oddly to face the TV.

And, if anyone wants the list above formatted in positive terms (maybe to put in your evernote inspiration folder or w/e):

1. Willpower alone isn't sufficient motivation for long term change.

- Imagine willpower doesn't exist.

2. Attempt Baby Steps, not Big Leaps

- Seek tiny successes, one after another

3. Notice how the environment shapes your behavior

- Change your context to change your life

4. Focus on creating new behaviors, not stopping old ones.

- Focus on action, not avoidance

5. Failures don't necessarily indicate a lack of motivation

- More like a failure of planning. Find a way to make the behavior easier to do

6. Recognize and understand the power of triggers.

- No behavior happens without a trigger

7. Information alone doesn't lead to action

- Our environment needs to be set up in a way that helps us capitalize on that information

8. Focusing on concrete behaviors rather than abstract goals

- Abstract: Get in shape. Concrete: Walk 15 min. today

9. Try to change a behavior for a short time, rather than forever

- A fixed period works better than "forever"

10. Remember, behavior change need not be difficult.

- Behavior change can be relatively easy when you take many steps to increase the probability that your desired behavior will occur.

3: A great illustration for this is the infamous Stanford prison experiment: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Stanford_prison_experiment

6: You don't just start behaving in any way for no reason -- you do it because something happened. There's always a push, initiating your actions.

A great example of using it for your benefit is described in The Creative Habit by Twyla Tharp, where she says that having daily rituals helps in shaping new habits. In her example every morning she goes outside and hails a taxi; then she goes to the gym where she exercises for an hour. The point is she's not going to the gym every morning (that's hard, I tried it); instead she's just hailing a taxi (sounds much easier, doesn't it?). This puts her in motion. Waking up is a trigger to have a shower and dress, this leads to putting your shoes on and getting outside; once you're outside you just call the taxi, and once you're in the taxi there's no going back. You've tricked yourself into going to the gym. Again!

  > 3: A great illustration for this is the infamous Stanford prison experiment:
  > http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Stanford_prison_experiment
It is infamous largely for having no controls and rapidly deteriorating scientific conditions. Please do not draw conclusions from Zimbardo's failure; there's a whole body of better social psychology on this topic.

I would love to see some links to more reading on this if you have some.

Re: 6

It much easier to change behaviour that you initiate, than it is to change reactive behaviour. As an example, I tend to use 'yeah, but ...' a lot: I tend to pose questions as challenges. This does not work well with everyone and I would like to interact with those people differently. However, the 'Yeah, but ...' is so ingrained in my way of discussing proposals that it has proven quite hard to change it. Even though I really, really want to, because some people near to me don't respond well to that way of discussing something obviously unfinished.


I was bedridden for about 3.5 months and then was mostly housebound for a long time. During that time, I spent a lot of time on the internet. Getting a job, at a large company no less, after so much physical isolation and mostly interacting online was really bizarre. It is very clear to me that it is a lot harder to not be reactive in person. I think it has to do with things like pheromones. I have found that putting a little more physical distance between myself and others can help reduce that effect. And some people do more "broadcasting" than others, so some individuals are just harder to not be reactive with. I guess developing better habits with other folks (who are easier to deal with) would be a good place to start so that those new habits have some hope of overriding your old habits.

It also helps to not be on any medication (even OTC cold meds and such), not hopped up on caffeine, not suffering blood sugar spikes or lows, etc.

pg's essay on Cities and Ambition describes an instance of 3, namely, the way cities can shape personal behaviour, sometimes in subtle ways: http://www.paulgraham.com/cities.html


Seems an awful lot like what happens in AA (not the mistakes part, but the way to handle or avoid those mistakes).

#5 and #6 seems to be contrary. Sometimes motivation is the bigger trigger to make things happen.

I would add:

#11: Not realizing you can't imagine your future accurately.

Some changes you make are so significant it's like you are playing a whole new game. If you don't realize this, then you will not be a good judge of whether to make the change.

For example, let's say you enjoy playing basketball. Someone comes up holding a football and invites you to play football. You don't realize that he's talking about a new game with new rules and a new environment. You look at his oddly-shaped ball and imagine yourself trying to dribble that ball down the court. You conclude that you wouldn't enjoy football.

I've made numerous significant life changes, among them becoming vegan and going car-free. Both of those decisions are game-changing and so it's really hard to imagine yourself making those changes; you really have to just try it for a while before making up your mind.

For veganism, I often hear people say "I could never give up X" or "What do you eat?". They imagine themselves no longer eating their favorite foods, not realizing that after adjusting to veganism their palate will change and they'll have different favorite foods. And they also don't realize the abundance of vegan foods out there because they've never had an incentive to look, so they just assume they'd be eating salads all the time.

Ditching my car was another game-changer. I wouldn't recommend doing this unless you are in a well-designed city. I moved from Norfolk, Virginia to Boston, Massachusetts and ditched my car in the process. If I had imagined myself in the environment of Norfolk without a car, I would have never been tempted to do so. But I had visited Boston and also had lived for a while in Germany without a car and so I knew what it was like to live in a well-designed city without a car. Even so, I was pleasantly surprised by the amount of cost and inconvenience I was getting rid of by not having a car: no more gas-filling eating away my time and money, no more large key fobs filling up my pockets, no more having to ask my friends if they know a good mechanic, no more driving around forever looking for a parking space, etc. etc. All the inconveniences of owning a car were somewhat invisible beforehand and they didn't become quite so apparent until after actually ditching the car.

tl;dr: if you're making a significant life change, you can't accurately imagine what your new situation will be like by extrapolating from your past experiences.

Thank you. Nothing annoys me more than people who blame everything on lack of willpower and motivation.

People who fault themselves for their own failures annoy you? Gee.

"I want to do that, but I just don't have the willpower" used as an excuse not to try would get annoying quickly. You don't really want to do it; you just want to signal like you do.

Faulting yourself is useful iff you subsequently attempt to fix yourself. Otherwise it's probably counterproductive.

Well, generally they tend to fault themselves and others. Really, it's more the faulting of others that annoys me the most.


Oh, is the grandparent in this case referring to blaming OTHER people and saying they had insufficient drive/motivation? Yeah, that'd be annoying.

Self-critics though? You have to be a real downer to get annoying if you're a self-critic.

I think "#2 Attempting big leaps instead of baby steps" should be changed. Attempting big leaps can be very educational and motivational if you're realistic about the fact that you're going to backslide. Making a big change for a week or two while you're highly motivated feels great and establishes some new habits and memories that will be useful to you later when you're having a hard time. It's also a great opportunity to try out new behaviors that are unknown and scary to you. When your motivation and interest are not so high, you will not be able to keep up the changes, but you will benefit from having removed the uncertainty and the first-time inhibition from your new behaviors and activities, and your idea of what _you_ can accomplish will be forever broadened.

It's like a highly condensed version of Switch (http://heathbrothers.com/switch/, highly recommended)

Bought for kindle. Resonates so far, but doesn't seem to have any intention of telling me how to apply it's wisdom to my actual problems.

After I read most of it, I took some problems I was having and tried to come up with mappings and methods of approach for fixing them.

Then I showed them to my mentor, and he shot them all down. But practice makes perfect, fail fast and iterate, or something.


The first chapter there is very insightful - http://heathbrothers.com/switch/chapterone.php

I looked through the site and found this: http://www.behaviorwizard.org/wp/behavior-grid/

It really makes you think about behavior change in a much clearer way.

RE: halo's text summary -- the slides themselves are just text. There are no inspirational pics or anything. You can skip the presentation once you've read his post.

But I think this list leaves out the important detail of understanding/addressing root causes.

Paraphrased: try something new. If it doesn't work, no biggie.

Sound advice.

Guidelines | FAQ | Lists | API | Security | Legal | Apply to YC | Contact