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Wednesday, February 3, 2010

The Hardest Thing You'll Ever Do

The hardest thing you'll ever do is try to change your own behavior.

We are trapped in our own preferences, whether we originally got them voluntarily or because a parent, teacher, boss or role model installed them. We may think we hate our smoking habit, or our weight, or our shyness, or our tendency to alienate people by our thoughtless conversation. But we don't hate those behaviors. We hate the fact that we love them.

How's that for a love-hate relationship? We do them because they provide the comfort of familiarity, and because it's easier to punish ourselves on occasion than it is to undertake the perceived burden of changing what we do. And we don't know how to do it.

So reluctance rules. Well, here is a way to make headway, with relative ease, against even the most ingrained of personal habits. It's called "constructive substitution."

Constructive substitution is based on a conviction that each of us has a limited amount of will power, and we must learn to be judicious in where we invest it.

If we decide to make a frontal assault seeking reversal of a major personal habit, we may use up all the will power available to us at that time. We will have none left to move us on other, lesser, matters, and we in fact will lose ground with behaviors that previously were not a problem. For example, if all your will power goes into improving your golf score, you may take your family life for granted and slip into losing touch. And we're all familiar with the agonies of people trying to quit smoking or lose weight. Everybody around them gets to share the pain.

Very often, the effort results in the New Year's Resolution Syndrome, when a gargantuan effort exhausts the finite store of will power. The person falls back, disappointed, disillusioned and disempowered, into the pit.

So, in constructive substitution, you use a minor amount of will power to focus on something you already do a little of, or could easily start doing. I once used regular exercise to elbow aside an inordinate love of beer and cigarettes. Picture the start of this process: Working out in the bedroom with a can of Bud on the bedside table. However, in a relatively short period of time, the good feeling from modest exertion and the afterglow pushed back the undesirable behaviors.

The will power is directed first to getting yourself to take seriously a commitment to change, then in planning low-impact substitute activities and continually finding new motivations to get yourself to do them. Action follows from emotion, although it may originate in intellect. You have to first encourage your desire to achieve the outcome and your willingness to take the actions. Then you keep finding new proof that this is wonderful for you.

Constructive substitution. Don't look it up, because you won't find it anywhere but here. Do try it out, though, and let us all know how it worked out.


  1. Would your proof of concept lie in the fact that you lived to tell about starting physical exertion, whilst still carrying on an affair with those anti-exercise scamps, beer & cigarettes? Being trapped in my old ways feels somehow reassuring. I mean, where's the fun in no longer having January 2nd to look forward to. Resolutions kept longer than 24 hours are the hobgoblins of self-deception.

  2. I felt nestling in the garbage was a big breakthrough in overcoming the temptation of victimhood. You haven't been beaten until you say so -- no matter how deep into it you've sunk.