In it he writes, “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. 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.
The solution is to stop worrying about the behavior and focus on your self-trust. The way to do this is via a process I call ‘the algorithm.’ If you follow it assiduously, you will replace the downward spiral of self-fulfilling self-doubt with an upward spiral of self-trust. Here’s how it works.
“Step one: Choose a simple rule for yourself, one so simple and clear that you can’t possibly fail.
“Step two: 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 10 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. Not only is continuing effortless, it actually becomes hard to stop.
“The intriguing thing about the algorithm is that although the science underpinning it is new, the technique itself has been around for years. Take Alcoholics Anonymous. The program is all about tackling an enormous problem by setting modest goals — going to meetings, staying sober “one day at a time” — and continually verifying that you’re on track. Likewise with Weight Watchers: The idea is to impose a clear set of rules on the otherwise messy business of eating, and to keep checking in to ensure compliance.
“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.”
Read the full essay here.