How come that some people seem to be able to do certain things effortlessly, while it takes the biggest act of willpower for others?
Are some people just more inclined to study long hours, work out regularly or pick a healthy salad over a fatty burger for lunch?
That would be a sad, but somewhat comforting answer. Whenever we fail to do something that we know we should be doing, we can tell ourselves: "Well, I didn't get dealt the right cards. I am just not the kind of person who does that."
For a long time, I assumed that who we are is indeed sort of fixed. We like certain things and are good at them. And have little capability or patience for other things.
It was a pleasant view, because if something was outside my comfort zone, I could simply decline trying it - after all, I knew already how it would end: it just wasn't me.
Or did I?
Two books I've read proposed a very different (and powerful) story. In Atomic Habits and Personality isn't Permanent, the authors argue that who we are isn't so much a fixed, pre-determined fate. It's a culmination of what we've done in the past and how we see our future.
This is a positive, empowering and slightly daunting view - if it's up to me to determine who I want to be, then choices are all of the sudden far more meaningful (and excuses a lot less... freeing).
And after figuring out what I want to do, the question quickly becomes: now, how do I actually get there?
(this is one article of a three part series on how to start doing the things you want to do)
First, our actions shape our stories
You are a lot more likely to do something that's in line with how you see yourself.
If that sounds a bit too meta, here's a quick breakdown:
Your brain is a story-telling machine. Every experience you have, each action you take and each reaction you receive is taken and carefully woven into a coherent narrative. This is part of how we make sense of the world and make sure that we don't lose our mind in a very complex world.
This tendency, however useful to survive a rather chaotic world, comes with a few drawbacks. You've probably heard of the confirmation bias, our tendency to fixate on facts that support our existing beliefs and disregard anything that would challenge them.
Then, our stories shape our actions
Once our brain has developed a certain narrative based on our behaviour, it's very keen to protect it. It doesn't like change and uncertainty and tries to keep us save from that by encouraging us to "stay within our story".
And if you decide to do something that doesn't aline with your story, it creates resistance.
If you are a couch potato and haven't done much sport so far, convincing yourself to start working out isn't easy. You might rationally know that's it's the right thing to do - but it just isn't really who you are.
Unfortunately, the rational insight that these stories exist and are a strong influence on our actions isn't enough to magically overcome them. The only way to change your story is to give your brain sufficient evidence of a new story.
Each time you do something new, your brain considers: is this now part of who we are? And after a point, your internal story will change.
I'm sure you spotted the problem: if my past behaviour drives my existing story and my existing story makes it very hard to do something new, but doing something is the only way to change that story - how do I ever change that story?!
Small, consistent steps.
Your brain will create stronger resistance, the bigger the perceived threat to your identity is.
Never worked out the past two years? Trying to go for a 45 minute run every second day is a huge challenge to your current story and there will be a ton of resistance.
But 5 minutes of daily running? Anyone can run for five minutes. Little resistance.
And while 5 minutes of daily exercise won't be enough to create a healthy lifestyle, they sure are enough to change your internal story.
From someone who lays on the couch all day to someone who runs daily.
And for someone who runs daily, the step to "running daily, but a bit longer" is much, much easier.
Here's how it works
- Identify self-limiting beliefs that might be holding you back. Be aware of absolute statements about yourself. Typical examples are "I am just not good at ..." or "I am not the kind of person who ...". Replace "I can't / am not" statements with "I am still learning to / I am not yet". It's a subtle change, but it's the first step to switch to a growth mindset.
- Look behind the new behaviour you'd love to adopt. Who is the kind of person who would do something like that? What would you need to do to become that person?
- Start small and be consistent. A tiny behaviour change done everyday is more likely to bring about meaningful change than committing to turning your life around once a week.
Here's why it works
- We make some decisions through our day fully consciously - but many more are done in the background on autopilot. Make sure that your autopilot points in the right direction.
- At first, our actions form our beliefs and stories - and after a while, our beliefs and stories form our actions. Changing your behaviour requires you to change your story.
- Our brains want to keep us save and change is not something they like. Step only a little bit outside your comfort zone and you'll get much less resistance than when you overhaul your whole identity at once.