When trying to advance personal change, people often face a myriad of challenges. To start, the old and familiar behaviours are easier to execute because of low cognitive burden. People also tend to keep doing whatever has ‘worked’ for them, even though it’s been proven to not work very well at all. In the end, there is no change .

Why behaviour change is important?

The old tricks focused only on rethinking and convincing ourselves that the old behaviours seem more difficult, more frustrating, and are no longer attractive. However, when we start trying out a new behaviour, it becomes difficult and frustrating due to unfamiliarity.

It may even be seen as ‘risky’. Then, people tend to revert to old habits when pressure rises. So, in the end, there is no change—again.

Wouldn’t it be great if when advancing personal change, we not only focus on convincing ourselves that the old behaviours are bad but also focus on these five step-by-step tricks to effectively change behaviour?

Step 1: Create tiny, achievable skills-shaping ‘starters’ for new behaviour

Often, when we want to change our behaviour, we tend to go big or go home. We get very excited and create lots of difficult goals. We then question ourselves when there are too many failures and the process seems very punishing.

We call this a ‘Crash and Burn’ solution because it appears to violate the very need it was created to protect.

Unfortunately, the common alternative also violates an important need: If we try to plan to increase the frequency of the behaviour, without contingency, we find that when the pressure rises, we naturally revert to our old behaviour patterns because we feel comfortable, and we’re getting things done. Thus, there is no compulsion to change behaviour.

By creating small and achievable skills-shaping ‘starters’, we can then develop the skill, before raising the stakes. Skills could be trying to improve your writing by personal journaling or improving the ability to code by learning and practicing, as opposed to the behaviour of publishing an article on your blog a day for a year or building five websites by the end of the year.

Build these skills first before pursuing a radical change in your behaviour. This will ensure early wins and successes as opposed to running into failures and feeling punished for wanting to change.

Step 2: Understand and accept the reason for the new behaviour

an artist's view of behaviour effects on personality

To help you further understand why you need to change, get very clear about two things: the ‘behaviour’ (complex set) you think you are targeting; and what exactly you want more of (behaviours) as well as what you want less of, to get the outcomes you want.

This could be: “I want to publish an article a day on my blog for a year to increase pageviews.” You may add: “I don’t want to be lazy, unmotivated or encounter writer’s block,” but as you can see, the real trap is knowing what you don’t want, but not what you do want!

So, make sure ‘more of’ outweighs ‘less of’ on your two lists of behaviours. A good practice is to apply the ‘dead man test’: if a dead man can do it, it’s not a behaviour. For example, ‘leave things on the bench’ is not a behaviour as written.

Step 3: Chunk the behaviour down into micro-behaviours

Once you’ve selected a new behaviour you’d like to change, chunk it down into micro-behaviours, lasting seconds or less. A micro-behaviour is so quick, you can record 20 per minute: Smiling, walking, talking, typing.

To be fluent in this skill, you must accept that all complex behaviour is the sum of micro-behaviours, and although micro-behaviours seem trivial, they are always the constraint to change. You must train yourself to detect such constraining micro-behaviours.

A simple way to train yourself in understanding the importance of micro-behaviours is to sit in a café, and attempt to record 20 micro-behaviours in one minute, for a staff member or customer. Then consider, if the person changed one behaviour, could outcomes be materially altered?

Step 4: Journal your progress

visual behaviour depiction

While these micro-behaviours are easy to notice and potentially easy to change, they do seem trivial and too simple. It is uncomfortable to focus on such trivialities and from what we’ve seen, the changing pressure always seems to get broadened to a more ‘reasonable’ target. Thus, the behaviour is not changing in the way we want.

Therefore, to make sure you are compelled to take step 3 seriously, you must add a task that is a little more ‘challenging’ and worth some attention.

A common way to overcome triviality is to journal your progress, making it your focus. Basically, do anything that is tangible so that you or others can see that it has been clearly done. Only then can the change be targeted.

Step 5: List the positive consequences (contingencies) for you

If you need that extra, ‘reinforcing’ kick to stick to something, create contingencies. Contingency management is based on the principle that behaviour is a function of its consequences.

Essentially, the things you like are dependent on the behaviours you want. Therefore, once you’ve created your list of micro-behaviours you’d like to improve, you can also list the simple things you like to do.

So, after you’ve accomplished a behaviour, you can ‘reward’ yourself with doing something you like to do, such as drinking coffee or watching Netflix. Now you are working towards something, reinforcing the journey, which provides more motivation and a more rewarding feeling once you do achieve it.

Conclusion:

An important factor for effective reinforcement is that it must be relatively small and immediate. Such behavioural principles of positive reinforcement are widely applied in everyday settings and make you more likely to repeat your action so when the situation gets tough, you won’t give up.

In contrast, if action is followed by a negative consequence for you, then you are likely to never repeat the action. Negative consequences may be no response, for example, the person’s action is ignored or punishing responses, for example, loss of money.

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