Creatures of Habit

Effective advice for lasting habit change

When Self-Change Is so Simple It Seems Impossibe!

Can self-change be too easy?

I know of two techniques that can substantially improve your life right now. The first, forming what I call mini-plans, I have written about before. The second, called self-affirmation, I will write about soon. But, for now, let's take it as read that self-affirmation is a powerful way to dramatically improve your life.

So, why isn't simply everybody forming a mini-plan? And why isn't everybody doing some self-affirmation?

There are two answers to this question.

First, I believe that people probably are forming mini-plans and self-affirming. They might not be doing it in exactly the way that the experts suggest, but I suspect that a lot of self-change happens because people have stumbled across these techniques themselves.

Second, and more important, I suspect that mini-plans and self-affirmations are underused because, quite frankly, they look far too simple to be so effective. Humans tend to associate big effects with big causes (see this post on mental shortcuts) and mini-plans and self-affirmations aren't "big." Telling yourself "When I get aggravated with my colleague, I will speak calmly," or writing about what you value highly, are simple acts. They don't involve a lot of time, effort, or money. The research may tell us, as it does, that such behaviors are powerful, but they don't look powerful. They look like small causes. They are. They're small causes with big effects.

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So, the next time you're contemplating forming a mini-plan or doing some self-affirming, remind yourself that your skepticism is grounded in your use of a mental shortcut that just doesn't apply. You can also remind yourself of other "small" causes that result in "big" effects. Germs are small but they can fell an elephant, and one second gazing into your future mate's eyes can change the rest of your life.

This is a great time to be a psychologist. We've been banging away for some time now, and it looks like some of us have found the small psychological levers that can move big pieces of the psyche and substantially change behavior. So, put aside your skepticism, form a mini-plan, self-affirm (or maybe form a mini-plan to self-affirm!) and enjoy the benefits!

Ian Newby-Clark is a psychologist at the University of Guelph who gives research-based advice for lasting habit change.

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