What Makes Someone Eventually Change?

How to gain powerful insights from self-observation.

Posted Apr 23, 2019

Source: Unsplash

When you know what works for you for changing your behavior, you can use this self-knowledge to continuously improve. I thought I'd share a (very tame) personal example of a change it took me a long time to make to show how self-understanding can develop. In brief, you can gain powerful self-knowledge by observing yourself and recognizing how your observations relate to basic psychological principles. 

Here's the story, as succinctly as I can tell it:

I have over 100,000 emails in my Gmail. I never delete or archive anything. I seemed to be signed up to the email lists of every company whose service or product I've ever tried, even once, even 10 years ago. Eventually a few weeks ago I started unsubscribing from some of those lists.  Here's what it took to get there.

1. Over a year ago I started using RescueTime (the free version) to track how many hours a week I spend on email, and set a goal of spending less than one hour per day. However to reduce email time I've mostly focused on my anxiety-related habit of overthinking when writing emails, and them becoming long-winded. 

2. A few months ago I read an article about how the time adds up even when you're only taking a quick glance at the subject line of many dozens of emails. The article has some objective data in it. I know I virtually never feel compelled to make a change until I'm presented with hard data as to why I should (In Gretchen Rubin's "Four Tendencies" framework, I have elements of the Questioner and Rebel types, although overall I came out "Rebel" on the quiz).

3. A few weeks ago, I listened to a podcast episode in which one host told the other host about her process of unsubscribing to email lists. The conversation was very down to earth and mentioned a few snags e.g. when companies have more than one email list so unsubscribing to just one doesn't completely remove you. Two things were critical about hearing this conversation. Firstly, the people having it weren't superhuman productivity expert types. Secondly, they discussed the obstacles encountered and how these weren't insurmountable. My default thinking style tends to be to think about obstacles and things that could go wrong, therefore I like hearing these discussed in a candid and upfront way. This tends to be much more compelling to me than conversations that omit or gloss over obstacles because my brain is going to think about those.

4. The week after listening to the podcast, I spent about 30 minutes, twice, unsubscribing to emails. For the rest of the week, I unsubscribed to a few more as they came in. I'm not unsubscribed to everything but my situation is considerably better.  To get myself to take this approach, I had to get around some perfectionistic thinking. Specifically, I had to challenge the thought "Something is only worth doing if you do it perfectly."  So that required a bit of self-CBT.

What can be learned? 

This seemingly simple behavior change required quite a few things to fall into place for it to actually happen: I had an objective goal about spending less time on email and that goal was being automatically tracked (via RescueTime); I had data about how scanning email subject lines is a time suck and disrupts concentration; I heard an approachable example from someone who had recently made the same change; and I recognized and challenged perfectionistic thinking. Even from one example, I can glean four general principles about what helps me with behavior change.

It took quite a few nudges over a period of time to get to the point of actually making the change.  People who are prone to anxiety and overthinking decisions (like I am), often display this type of pattern.

My Challenge To You:

Reflect on one specific behavior change you've made: 

  • What and when were the nudges that led to it?
  • Why was each nudge impactful?
  • How long was the process from contemplating to making the change?
  • What changes are you currently percolating? What types of nudges would move you forward in your trajectory from contemplating to getting it done, even if they wouldn't move you all the way?

Thinking broadly about changes you've made:

  • Do you have personal examples of when a behavior change has brewed for a long time (perhaps with some false starts)? 
  • Do you have some examples when you've made a change without a long contemplation period? What were the characteristics in that case?
  • Have you had changes that have succeeded in part because of some type of environmental change or role shift? For instance, you broke a habit of nail biting when you broke your arm, you started a habit of going to yoga when you moved next door to a yoga studio. or you became much more organized when you became a parent.
  • Bonus question: If you're in a relationship, think about how you nudge each other's behavior. My spouse and I tend to inspire each other to cook and exercise more when either of us gets into a good phase with those. Similarly, when one of us starts tackling long-avoided jobs around our home, the other person typically does too. How does social contagion work in your relationship?