If you think you can give yourself confidence by mouthing affirmations in the mirror, think again. Studies have found that at a subconscious level, the way we form beliefs about ourselves isn’t about what we say or even what we think, but what we see ourselves doing. If we want to change our beliefs, we first have to change the behavior we observe.
Being a human is hard. We know the sorts of choices we ought to make, and we earnestly intend to make them, but when the time comes, we don’t. We want to lose weight, but we eat a sundae. We want to get in shape, but we sit on the couch. We want to save money, but we buy a plane ticket to Italy.
Funnily enough, scientists can’t agree why this is.
The dominant idea in psychology and popular culture alike is that we have a part of our brain that is rational and knows what’s good for us, and another part that’s impulsive and wants bad things. They struggle on and on and eventually the rational part gets tired and gives in. Game over. It’s a depressing picture.
What you might not have heard, though, is that in recent years a competing model has emerged from the field of addiction studies. In this conception, the human brain doesn’t have two warring parts, but one unitary system that prioritizes immediately rewarding options over those that pay off later.
The struggle, then, isn’t really between good and bad, but between the future and the present. And what’s exciting about this way of looking at things is that not only does this explain why some people can, and do, win the battle against temptation, but it also gives the rest of us a strategy for how we can do the same.
Suppose you want to become a novelist, so you decide to start getting up every day at 5 a.m. to write. How wonderful it will be to summon the muse tomorrow, you tell yourself as you set the alarm clock and slip into bed. Next thing you know, the alarm is going off, it’s pitch black, and you find yourself smacking the alarm’s off button, thinking, Ugh, no way, and sliding back into the pillow’s sweet embrace.
When I’m trying to get myself out of bed to work on my novel, I succeed by adding up all the future benefits of my writing career. But I’ll only accrue those benefits if I keep getting up early. If I don’t really believe that I’ll be able to keep resisting temptation, if I think that I might just wind up flaking out and hitting the snooze button tomorrow and the day after that, then I can’t add up those future rewards, because they’ll never arrive.
Conversely, people who are absolutely certain about their future behavior face no willpower struggles. Bundling is easy because there’s no doubt that the stream of future rewards will arrive.
To conquer temptation and achieve change, then, you need to dispel the fog of self-doubt and develop confidence in your own future behavior.
But how can you do that?
1st: Choose a simple rule for yourself, one so simple and clear that you can’t possibly fail.
2nd: Make sure you follow step one.
The point is not to build a habit, but to establish a pattern of evidence for your own brain to observe. Find a very doable piece of behavior to adopt, then focus on doing it, no matter what. A person who wants to get up early might say, “I’m going to set my alarm five minutes early.” A person who wants to stop being a slob might say, “I’m going to make my bed before I leave the bedroom each morning.” A person who wants to learn French might say, “I’m going to do ten vocabulary flash cards on the train ride to work.”
The goals are so small they seem almost useless. But keep at them. As you establish credibility, you can use your new bundling power to set more ambitious goals — to do 20 flashcards, then 50. To start reading French websites. To become a French novelist. In time, the project becomes part of your identity, and your investment so enormous, that you dare not let it slip away. Not only is continuing effortless, it actually becomes hard to stop.
This new way of looking at self-control is a bit more complicated and less intuitive than the standard angel-on-one-shoulder-devil-on-the-other view. But it’s worth the effort, because unlike the standard view, it allows us to hope — to imagine a state of being in which we can live life the way we want to without struggle. To change for the better, for good.