No willpower needed
The great drama of the modern era is the doing stupid sh*t we are doing to ourselves.
We smoke. We eat bad food. We doom scroll social media. We buy too much stuff that we don’t need with money we don’t have. We poison the environment in which we live. We get addicted to drugs. We worry about things we cannot control.
The tragedy of modern life is our failure to change these self-harmful behaviours.
We fail at change mostly because we rely on willpower. This does not work. We have little power to brute-force ourselves into different behaviours. The difference between the life you wish you had and the one you are living is sufficient proof. If we could decide behaviour through will, then we would all be living our dream lives.
If we cannot change how we decide, then how can we change? Think of your brain as collection of algorithms that make decisions. I call this the Paleo Robot*. You cannot change these algorithms. But you can change the inputs. Different inputs result in different behaviours which result in different outcomes.
There are two directions to change the inputs to your Paleo Robot: physical environment and information inputs. No willpower needed.
1. Physical environment
You can change your environment so that your Paleo Robot makes different decisions.
A proven way to quit snacking is to not buy snacks when in the grocery store. Then you will not have snacks at hand at home.
The impulse to snack will still come. But because the reward is not easily availably, your Paleo Robot will decide not to snack. The change in environment prompts a change in behaviour.
The Paleo Robot is lazy. If you make a behaviour more difficult, then you are less likely to do it.
In short: eliminate the enablers and triggers of the behaviour you want to stop, add enablers and triggers for the behaviour you want to adopt.
2. Information inputs
By changing the information inputs, you can also modify the Paleo Robot’s decision. No willpower needed.
If you hang out with friends who smoke, you are more likely to smoke. If you go to an office where people celebrate every little thing with sweets, you are more likely to eat a lot of sugar. Most relevant information for us comes from social signals, rather than book learning.
We learn by watching what other people do. We learn much less by analyzing data and reading theories about a topic. This is just human nature. If you want to quit smoking, it’s much more likely if you spend more time with non-smokers than if you read research on the long-term health effects of smoking.
If you want to make a change, spend time with people who embody your desired behaviour. You want to quit smoking, you should hang out with non-smokers. You want to start investing money, you spend time with people who have been investing.
Not every change needs you to abandon your friends however. Instead you can commit to the change to them and ask for their support. This creates social pressure for them towards the change. It’s still difficult. If you are the only non-smoker in a smoker group for example, then you are more likely to smoke than a non-smoker.
Social learning does not happen only offline. It happens more and more in the digital environment.
This is relatively easy to adjust. If you are trying to quit sugar, then connect with people who refuse to eat sugar, read books and articles about it and watch videos about life without sugar. The idea is to see so many people living this way that it creates the illusion everyone lives this way.
You use conformity to improve your life
Our Paleo Robot brains evolved to imitate what everybody else does. If everyone wears panties on their head, you will eventually do it too. This is not a bug, it’s a feature.
In the Paleolithic humans who did things differently than the rest of the tribe had much higher chances of dying. The behaviours of the tribe were almost always safer because they were the result of many generations of learning. Also those humans risked social rejection for being different. This was a deadly risk when you depend on the group to remain alive.
In short: your Paleo Robot brain has strong programming to identify and imitate the behaviour of the majority. By choosing the people you see, you change their observed behaviour which then changes your unconscious .
How I used this strategy to effortlessly stop smoking
I used to smoke over two packs of cigarettes per day. One day I read Allen Carr’s brilliant book and I quit.
The first thing I did after the last cigarette was change my physical environment: I threw out all cigarettes and lighter in the house. The next action I did was tell everyone about the change. At work I still went out with people who took cigarette breaks. But I had communicated publicly that I was not smoking anymore. So it would have destroyed my reputation to ask for a cigarette.
Unconsciously I changed my social environment as well. In my personal life I found myself drifting more towards non-smoker friends. It was not a willful decision as I did not know the learnings from this article. I had developed a dislike of everything smoking so I unconsciously avoided it.
I quit smoking six years ago. Since then I have had no slips or desire to re-start smoking. It presents no temptation to me whatsoever. It’s a good example how easy it can be to change, if you apply the right strategy.
Change your behaviour by crafting a physical and information environment where the change makes sense for your Paleolithic-optimized algorithms.
*An in-depth explanation of the Paleo Robot is in the works. Coming soon.