Habits

Why Do We Change Our Behavior? The 3 keys to why we humans behave the way we do

You likely have some habits you would like to start or stop doing. (And many things you wished others would start and stop doing too 😉). 

But why do we sometimes change our behavior without any struggle? While other times we strain with all our might – yet can’t seem to get ourselves or others to change?

I’ve found 3 factors that explain why we humans behave the way we do. We are most likely to do things that are:

  • Absorbing
  • Rewarding
  • Effortless

Together, they form the word: ARE. This acronym hold the three keys to how we can change anyone’s behavior – including our own.  

Absorbing

Absorbing means how much of one’s attention the action occupies. The harder the action is to ignore, the more absorbing it is. (Eg your smartphone vibrating loudly with an incoming call). 

Rewarding

Rewarding means how attractive the reward of doing the action is. The more tempting the reward – and the fewer negatives that come with it – the more rewarding it is. 

Effortless

Effortless is about how much energy one must expend to get the reward. The less energy it takes to gain the reward, the more effortless the action is. 

Any action we have taken, we did it because it absorbed our attention, and the reward seemed attractive enough to be worth the effort

To influence someone’s behavior, we just need to examine how absorbing, rewarding, and effortless the action is and then tweak each of these factors. Let’s look a case study. 

Case study: Getting a 6-year-old to clean their room every week

Absorbing
Cleaning the room is likely going to be the last thing on a child’s mind. Some possible tweaks to make it more attention-absorbing are:

  • Agree that the room will be cleaned every Thursday at 16:00. Then set a speaker to auto play The Clean up Song on Spotify at this time. 
  • Schedule a weekly “pre-cleaning snack” at 15:30 every Thursday (combining a reminder and with some parent-child quality time!)

Rewarding
It’s always a good feeling when things are clean. But this won’t likely be a strong enough reward for a 6-year-old. Some suggestions to make it more attractive are:

  • Make cleaning into a game – eg throwing the stuffed animals into their holders and counting score – to make it more fun.
  • Act as a role model. Clean every week yourself to 

Effortless
Cleaning might be one of the most dreaded activities there are – especially for kids. Two possible tweaks to make it more effortless are:

  • Only require them to clean their desk the first 3 weeks. Once this has become a habit, add one new cleaning task at a time, until they are cleaning the entire room themselves. 
  • Help them with the first cleaning task to make it less daunting to start. 

 

Whenever you struggle to change influence someone’s behavior, see how you can make the activity more ARE: Absorbing, Rewarding, and Effortless. 

When an activity that scores high on all three, it’s nearly impossible not to do it! 

Living Happily through Less Emotion To feel more good about your life – stop taking that which gets you emotional so seriously

We all have areas in our lives where our emotions control us more than we want. Maybe we have a complex relationship with food – obsessively counting calories or always eating too much. Maybe it’s exercise – either dreading to work out or compulsively going to the gym every day. Or maybe it’s money – pinching every penny we can or always spending more than we can afford.

In every area, there is a healthy middle in between the two extremes. But why do we struggle so much to find it?

Because we take those things too seriously. 

We fear being unhealthy, so we feel we “have to” deprive ourselves of eating anything sugary. Or maybe we fear that we are eating too little if we ever feel even the slightest hunger, so we over-eat at every meal. 

It’s our emotions that get us to fall towards the extremes. But if we got into this mess by being too caught up in our emotions, we can also get out of it by taking some of the emotions out. And the way to take emotions out is to simply say: 

“Why be so serious? It’s just [food/exercise/my appearance…] after all” 

This simple sentence takes the emotional power out of whatever you insert into it. And it works just as well if you are either the low or the high extreme. You just need to add an extra sentence at the end. For example, if your problem is fretting constantly about what you eat and depriving yourself of anything sugary, you might say:

“It’s just food after all. I don’t need to obsessively count calories.” 

If your problem instead is that you constantly need something to nibble on for fear being hungry, you might instead say:

“It’s just food after all. I’m not going to die if I skip a meal.”

Similarly, you can take the emotion out of exercise, money, or whichever area your emotions control you – regardless of whether you are at the low or the high extreme. 

Take emotions out of:

exercising more: “It’s just exercise after all. My muscles won’t break if I work them a little.”
exercising less: “It’s just exercise after all. I don’t need to work out every day or push myself so hard.”

spending more: It’s just money, after all. I don’t have to deprive myself and pinch every penny.”
spending less: “It’s just money, after all. I don’t need to spend lavishly to impress others just because I can.”

taking more free time: “It’s just free time. Things are not going to fall apart if I take a few days off work.”
taking less free time: “It’s just free time. I don’t need this much personal time to have a healthy work-life balance.”

The key when using the phrase “It’s only X after all” is to combine it with rational moderation. To say:

“It’s only wine. Five glasses isn’t going to kill me.”

is not exactly being rational about consuming a moderate amount. The phrase “It’s only X after all” is only meant to soften the emotions that are keeping you at the unhealthy extreme. Not to justify you being there. 

That is why we need rational moderation – to realize where on the spectrum we currently are. Only by being aware of whether our actions are at the extreme high, the extreme low, or already in the healthy middle can we realize what to do. Changing our lives to a healthier middle just requires us to ask these four questions?

  1. Where in my life do my emotions make me act compulsively? 
  2. Am I currently in the extreme high, the extreme low, or am I already in the middle?
  3. What emotions am I experiencing here? Worry? Guilt? Fear? 
  4. How can I start using “It’s only X after all” to take some of these emotions out? 

Which areas in your life can you develop a healthier relationship to?