building a life
August 22, 2008 6:51 AM   Subscribe

I'm looking for ways to change my behavior. It's important for various reasons that I start reinforcing some behaviors and stopping others. I'm a procrastinator for one, and tend to start projects and not finish them for another. Is there a research backed methodology for doing so?

I'm really needing to change my behavior patterns that will get me on a better track towards success. I tend to avoid things that will take effort and just stay on the easy, habitual routine. Ultimately this is working to my detriment in the short and long term.

I studied a program by a company called Sybervision that theoretically had discovered a research-based way to reinforce positive behavior that underlie success. It was based on cueing parts of the brain in order to create powerful images, sounds, and feelings of success plus one would imagine a hero figure associated with a positive behavior doing battle with a negative figure associated with a negative trait. The hero would win and you would associate yourself with the hero figure.

Ultimately I didn't see any major changes using this program for the period I was using it. There's all sorts of stuff out there like NLP, subliminals, hypnosis, affirmations and what have you that I don't think does a heck of a lot.

Given how important it is for people to change their behavior successfully or to reinforce positive traits and actions, you'd think there'd be more research around it. Perhaps there is and I don't know of it.

So, are there any new techniques of building and reinforcing behavior that are based on research?
posted by diode to Science & Nature (11 answers total) 54 users marked this as a favorite
It was based on cueing parts of the brain in order to create powerful images, sounds, and feelings of success plus one would imagine a hero figure associated with a positive behavior doing battle with a negative figure associated with a negative trait. The hero would win and you would associate yourself with the hero figure.

That's basically hypnosis, and it works just fine if you have the will to bring the hero back with you into the real world. If you expect to not have to do any work beyond visualization to change the habitual patterns in your brain you're not going to get much in the way of results. All of the systems you mentioned only give you a glimpse that you can change and a scaffold to build upon. It's up to you to follow through and become closer to what you want to be.
posted by bunnytricks at 7:10 AM on August 22, 2008

Procrastination and Blocking by Robert Boice
This book is long and windy and occasionally goes into strange territory, but I found reading it to be transformational.

Don't Shoot the Dog! by Karen Pryor
This book isn't just about dog training! It's about using sound behavioral principles to change, well, behavior.

Low Performers' Manual [pdf] by Siegfried Engelmann [intro]
This is about changing the behavior of severely deficient individuals, but, because it addresses the lowest common denominator, it's extremely telling.

One Small Step Can Change Your Life: The Kaizen Way by Robert Maurer
This book is about changing behavior in infinitesimally small steps. Good ideas, but leaves a lot to the reader. (This is the only thing on the list that I don't know much about the research background, if there's any at all.)

More sound behavioral principles:
Joe's Goals
Don't Break the Chain
posted by zeek321 at 7:25 AM on August 22, 2008 [4 favorites]

You need to get leverage on yourself. That means that you need to create a means of rewarding yourself for doing the right thing, or punishing yourself for doing the wrong thing. The tricky part is that you need to make sure that the reward or punishment are beyond your control (e.g., giving someone a large amount of money on the condition that they give it back to you if and only if you do the right thing).
posted by mpls2 at 7:39 AM on August 22, 2008

Cognitive behavioural therapy is designed for this sort of thing. Therapists are available. Essentially though, it's about:

1. Recognising when you're falling into the pattern of behaviour you want to change.

2. Understanding why you find it difficult to replace your current behaviour with the behaviour you want, the kind of feelings that make you want to stick with the old way and make you avoid the new way.

3. Dealing with those feelings.

4. Replacing the old behaviour with the new behaviour.

Like they say, there is no royal road to getting stuff done. You want to change? Well then... just change. You can make it easier, but no matter what you do there's always going to come a point where you have to make the decision. In fact, you have to decide to go with the new behaviour again and again until it sticks.

It's that moment that's the difficult part. I'm pretty sure you know pretty much all the stuff in these books. You know how to make lists of goals and to-do lists. You probably look at the getting-things-done porn on Lifehacker. Setting up rewards for yourself is simple. You already know what kind of stuff you enjoy. If you want to reward yourself do some of that. But it's that moment where you have to make the decision and have nothing to make you choose right except your own desire to do so.

So do whatever you can to get to the point where it's a conscious choice. Do what you can to get rid of everything that makes the choice difficult. And then... just change.
posted by xchmp at 7:55 AM on August 22, 2008 [2 favorites]

Best answer: Fuck up.

No, seriously. Really fuck something up, come within inches of jeopardising something you hold dear. I have had long standing issues with procrastination and inertia, and they finally have started to resolve because they led directly to me really letting people down, both in my personal life and work.

For years and years and years and years, starting at school, I had been able to get away with goofing off or pushing work back and back and back, then doing an imperfect, but still pretty good job of something at the last minute. But there comes a time when you don't do a good job. For me I flaked out on something badly because of a combination of procrastination, lack of motivation and illness that left me not thinking straight. Simultaneously I got the law laid down in my personal life for also flaking out there.

In the larger picture, this has led to me deeply rethinking what I want to do with my life, because the procrastination isn't a given - when I'm deeply into something and have limited opportunities to goof off, I simply get on with it (and usually immensely enjoy myself). So now I have a goal of going and getting a specific qualification, saving a stack of money and then changing career completely.

With that new goal in mind (and a series of both achievable and enjoyable things I have to do to hit it), the things I've always procrastinated about have become necessary underpinnings of my progress (i.e. the day job I need to do to get where I'm going), rather than simply unenjoyable blocks my psyche is convinced I can creep around, if only I spend enough time browsing MeFi. If you have no overarching thing you want to do, but you know the work you have in front of you now isn't it, then why would you be motivated to do it?

Right now, I measure everything in my life against this over-riding priority. Does reading 60+ RSS feeds a day help me to get where I want to go? No, not really when you figure it both takes an hour or so to read them, and presents an almost irressistable temptation to goof off during the day when I hit a hard patch of work. So I got rid of them.

Will my dream job of the future require lifestyle changes? Almost certainly I'll need to get up earlier. So now I have an actual motivation to practice (and yes, it does take practice) getting an early-riser habit rather than just a vague sense of self-improvement. And ever since my initial fuckup, I've been out of bed at 6am on the dot, for the first time in my life.

Will I need to develop any skills? Heck yes, and I'll need to get fit too. Now I've got courses booked and a reason to get fit, other than the slight melancholy that comes from regarding the extra chin where you didn't have one before.

Life in the West can often seem like a hamster wheel. You get up, you work, you go to sleep. If you're me six months ago, you surf the web, play videogames for hours and crawl out of bed, groggy and feeling like shit. You eat badly. You surf Lifehacker and you favourite every post about beating procrastination on AskMefi. You look for the magic bullet method that will work for you.

I've got a magic bullet. It's called having a purpose. Seriously. The fuck up is just to jolt you a bit. The purpose is what makes it. And it has to be a concrete purpose, a thing you can point to and say 'in five years, I'm going to have made my first oak cabinet', or whatever. Maybe it's a job or a country you'd love to go and live in or a qualification you want to get. Whatever, pick a target that fascinates you.

Then use it as your guide and measuring stick for getting rid of what doesn't satisfy you in your life.

You know the beauty of it? It doesn't matter if the target changes - it takes 90 days to make or break a habit. Trust me, once you've experienced what it's to get something in your life under control (getting up early, web surfing and videogaming are three that I've very recently mastered), the buzz will sustain the change. If your ultimate goal changes halfway there, just apply your new habits, skills and motivation to that target instead.

Make a mistake. Then find a target, make a plan and go for it.
posted by Happy Dave at 7:59 AM on August 22, 2008 [33 favorites]

I highly recommend a new-ish book called The Skill. Les Woller has been a personal coach and consultant for years, and this book outlines some killer methodology he uses with his clients, which has seen fantastic results for both personal and professional behaviors that need changing. Check it out, it's a really swift read, and the principles are sound.
posted by Milkman Dan at 8:39 AM on August 22, 2008 [2 favorites]

I know this might sound demeaningly obvious, but the key is to just start being the person you want to be. You don't need books, and you don't need elaborate plans.

Your description of yourself is a lot like me. I'm a notorious procrastinator, and leave lots of projects unfinished. So periodically I work on setting myself up with elaborate plans. Days of research and planning, and I have the perfect plan.

But the problem I run into is that, at least for me, a "plan" is something for tomorrow. And tomorrow, a plan will be something for "tomorrow." So soon my superb plans just get added to the mental file of things I failed at. Of course, plans are important for giving yourself a vision. But it sounds to me as if you have that vision already. Write it down and keep it near where you work so it stays on your mind.

But here's the key. Start now. Not just today, but right now. Instead of waiting until you've got a perfect plan, and are able to perfectly pull it off in one fell swoop (hint: no one, ever, is able to), start now. Don't be afraid to start small; what really matters here is that you start at all. Outline your list of things you want to improve, and then just take a stab at trying. If you're anything like me, you're not going to get terribly far at first. My "I'm going to stop procrastinating and use today to catch up on all my work" got me a list of all my outstanding tasks and just a couple minor ones knocked down. It really wasn't an impressive effort. My, "I'm going to eat healthy, starting today" just meant that I skipped gorging on cookies, but I ended up having ice cream after dinner. My exercise plan had me tired by the time I'd cleaned all the junk off of the treadmill.

But the key is that you started, and made a little dent in the work. Tomorrow, you're going to feel good: you've already committed and you've already started. So you don't have to work hard to top your progress. (Err, I'm not advocating setting low goals so that you can 'easily' top them, just saying that you shouldn't be afraid of a "pathetic start," because the most important thing is just starting at all.)

Yeah, books might help motivate you, and expensive programs might help you create mental imagery of a "hero" who's exactly the person you want to be. But it sounds to me as if you're already feeling motivated, and like you already have a good idea of what that 'hero you' would look like. So just go for it. Now.
posted by fogster at 8:57 AM on August 22, 2008 [4 favorites]

Response by poster: Thanks for all the suggestions. This is a useful thread for me. I particularly like the Kaizen book suggestion, as well as don't break the chain. Setting a purpose and then measuring everything around that is also a useful suggestion.

Since the brain is plastic, it makes sense to simply build habits that continue to grow and develop rather than try to force things. The Sybervision program appealed to me because it seemed to offer a way to neurologically implant behavior you want to encourage and delete those you don't. Doesn't seem like they have changed or updated their system in 20 years so it doesn't seem like it gets a lot of airplay for being effective.

The Skill sounds good also.

The target I need to address initially is something like this: cycle of inertia/procrastination leads to negative results, leads to fear of future, leads to more inertia/procrastination. I need to replace this with a success cycle. I can see that using some combination of the tools above and perhaps reinforcing my self-image with the hero technique could be really useful.

They say that people about to take a test do better if they visualize a professor. If they think of a criminal they do worse. Imagining the hero has got to have some internal impact on your well-being I think and associating with positive imagery is a way to make that happen by choice. It's also a way to overcome the default setting: feeling depressed because of some imagined failure or lack in behavior.
posted by diode at 11:23 AM on August 22, 2008

Procrastination can be solved by putting yourself in a situation where you are accountable to your peers every day for contributing to the success of the group. For example, in the Scrum software development methodology, there is a daily stand-up meeting where members of a development team say what tasks they worked on since the last meeting, how much work they have to do on these tasks, and what they plan to work before the next meeting. They also disclose any problems or obstacles they're encountering.

You simply can't go to a meeting and say "I didn't get anything done yesterday" for more than a day or two -- it is tantamount to admitting that you're not pulling your weight on the team. Your peers will not only hold you accountable, they will jump in to offer assistance if you're struggling because the team's success depends on you completing your task. (This creates an obligation in you to do the same for other team members later.)

You might look at ways you can put such a strategy into practice in whatever areas of your life you're having trouble with. It doesn't necessarily need to be daily, though that works best, but it probably shouldn't be less frequently than weekly. It should be with people whose goals are aligned with yours and who are willing to hold you accountable and offer assistance when you need it, in exchange for the same from you. (If you can't find even one such person, then you have to wonder if what you're procrastinating about actually matters.)

This works really well for continuous accomplishment so long as you have broken down your goals to reasonably-sized chunks of work (1-2 days). For an informal process, I'd say you shouldn't have to break down everything in detail in advance, so long as have a general idea where you're headed and can figure out what the next step is.
posted by kindall at 11:32 AM on August 22, 2008 [3 favorites]

For anyone still reading this - there's another similar thread over here, and I've expanded on my 'Get a purpose' rant above.
posted by Happy Dave at 6:07 AM on August 27, 2008

Response by poster: Well, I don't know that there is a 'resolution' to this question. The mind is plastic as neuroscientists are fond of saying nowadays, so the habits of persistence and working at things you need to do need to be reinforced by doing them.

The Kaizen book is a sound principle. I've come to think of going from still to action as having a transition zone where you can do small things to ramp up your energy. So I'm looking at the smaller steps I can take that move me towards a result rather than focusing on the gap between here and there which can seem immense and unbridgeable.
posted by diode at 9:46 PM on February 23, 2009

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