Personal change has two parts, but we only pay attention to one
Originally published on my personal blog as Why people fail at making big life changes.
Behavior vs Evaluation
Let’s say you want to change something about yourself. You want to lose some weight, get better at chess, or be less anxious in social situations. All personal changes break down to one of two types: changing what you do (behavior) or changing how you feel (evaluation).
Changing what you do means changing what behaviors you engage in on a regular basis. Despite what you may think, this is actually the easier area to change and one that is well documented. The science of behavioral analysis has amazing efficacy around doing just that. And it has nothing to do with motivation or discipline.
Changing how you feel is more complicated. Every time we encounter some stimulus — you see a loved one, you get cut off in traffic, you open the refrigerator, you contemplate a decision — every time any of these stimulus run through your brain your brain quickly processes what the event itself means, what the options related to it mean, and what feelings to attach to those. This is called a value judgement. And value judgements are flexible.
An event is only bad if you think it’s bad. But if you think it’s bad, your brain will oblige you by bringing up a negative emotion to match your evaluation.
To make real, lifelong changes, you need to adjust both your behavior. and your evaluation. If you just modify behavior then the habit will only last as long as you continue to focus on it. If you change your evaluation but continue behaviors that are contrary to it, your brain won’t actually let you keep that new mindset long term.
Results are not changes
There seems to be a lot of confusion around what is a change (like a behavioral change) and what is not. I think of this as “goal syndrome”.
We’re all taught to set goals as though the act of imaging a thing that we want actually gets us closer to the thing itself. But goals are usually focused only on results and not on actual changes that you can make.