4 min read

Why Behavior Change is so Difficult

Why Behavior Change is so Difficult

There are these behavioral loops which are easy to get trapped in.

Here's an example.

There are many many examples of "bad" loops, but also many examples of "good" loops.

some good loops

Because of the way humans work, the more you follow the arrows between states/actions, the stronger the path gets. 1

As each path gets stronger the entire loop gains a sort of gravitational pull. 

"Every hour we spend on that planet will be ... 7 years back on Earth"

And just like a planet with stronger gravity requires more rocket fuel to leave, a strongly reinforced loop requires more energy to leave.

So how do we make our way from a bad loop to a good loop?

If you look up advice on how to exercise more you'll see a variety of solutions. 

Maybe you watch a hype motivational video, and build up the energy to exercise.

Maybe you join a fitness class, utilizing social energy to move you.

These options can work! And they work for some people, some of the time. That's why so many people recommend them. But some of the time they don’t work.

Maybe the willpower runs out, and you get pulled back into your old loop. You didn't hit escape velocity. Maybe your fitness instructor is sick one day, and you find yourself skipping class even after classes resume.

An especially dangerous pattern: if you regress to an old pattern, you might further reinforce your "bad" loop with an extra helping of self shame.

In reality these loops are much more complicated. Here's a map that matches my experience. It's more complete than the exercise & energy example, but still not a perfect fit for reality.

Drawing a map like this of your own behavior patterns is extremely powerful. An amorphous blob in your head becomes a slightly more tractable blob on paper–a blob with affordances to grab onto. Having a map makes it easier to recognize when you're in the loop, or about to get pulled in! A map can help you understand why a particular intervention didn't work. Or it can give you the encouragement to try again. 

This explains why tools like journaling or meditation or therapy are so powerful. They help you observe and map out your behavior patterns, even if not explicitly. For me, sketching out these patterns made it easier to understand what was going on in my head.

A few thoughts to explore:

  • Pathways reinforce themselves with repetition. Maybe the Third time actually is the charm
  • Often there’s a step in the process that's a little “weaker”—try breaking out from there
  • Try altering your environment in ways that push you towards a different path

Sometimes developing multiple pathways increases the probability of success. Sometimes doubling or tripling or 100x-ing down on a path gets you out. Change may require many iterations.

More on Do 100 Thing

I’ve been using an example about exercise, but thinking about your behaviors in this way does generalize. The act of mapping out your behaviors is a skill. The act of moving from one loop to another is another skill. You can get better at these skills, and start to develop fingerspitzengefühl (fingertips feel) for it. That means you can apply these moves elsewhere in your life!

  • Social anxiety
  • Learning blockers
  • Addictions

I find these maps helpful, and hope you will too. Try drawing one!

thank you to Tasshin for improving this post

1: Your brain is constantly making predictions based on your current context, past experiences, energy availability, and sensory input. If you repeat a pattern in a particular context, your brain will predict that same pattern and will start to get the body ready to take that predicted action. This reinforces behavioral loops. For more see How Emotions Are Made by Dr. Lisa Feldman Barrett.