Productivity

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! 

Ultimately, the Journey Is All That Matters If you want to be successfully happy – choose the journey you would be most willing to fail at

Most of us have experienced a sentence that has made a lasting impact on how we think about the world. My such sentence came from the author Napolean Hill and is just three words short: 

“Ultimately, nothing matters.”

This phrase shook me so much because I have always been obsessed about accomplishing things in my life. In school, I obsessed about great grades. In my hobby with chess, I obsessed about becoming better and winning more games. When founding my non-profit math academy Eureka, I obsessed about how many students I could impact. 

Like most people, I put myself on a treadmill towards always striving for more. Hill’s three words that “Ultimately, nothing matters” turned my world so upside-down because I realized that he was right! In the grand scheme of things, what did it matter how good my grades were? What did it matter if I won every chess game I played? What did it matter how many students I helped become better at maths?

Things only matter because we humans decide they matter. But in the grand scheme of things, we humans are so insignificant that we wouldn’t even qualify for a temporary pleck of dust on the universe’s windshield. But if we humans are but a microscopic whisp of smoke, does it matter what we think matters?

Of course not!

If you live a completely boring and uninteresting life, will it matter to anyone a hundred years from now? 

Of course not!

Now, what if you build the next Microsoft, discover a permanent cure for cancer, or solve world hunger? That would certainly matter…

to a tiny portion of the human population…
during an extremely small period of the human race’s history…
which will exist for but a micro portion of the universe’s lifetime…
on just one of its 700 quintillion planets. 

No matter how irrelevant or grandiose your accomplishment, ultimately nothing matters. Even the greatest of achievements are soon forgotten and relegated to the dustbin of history as if they had never happened. And even if you do make an extraordinary lasting impact on the world, someone else would have done the same thing, only a few years later. If Steve Jobs hadn’t built Apple someone else would have done so, only a few years later. If Thomas Edison hadn’t invented the light bulb someone else would have done so, only a few years later. If Beyoncé had never released her best-selling songs someone else would have done so, only a few years later.

Ultimately, nothing you accomplish will matter. So don’t waste your precious life obsessing over the outcome of your efforts. Because that outcome, ultimately, won’t matter. So how are we to find meaning in this world if it won’t matter what we accomplish? What are we to live for? I believe the answer lies in  asking ourselves this question: 

“How would I want to live my life if I knew I would always fail at whatever I did?”

If Steve Jobs had failed at building Apple, would he still have loved technology and great design?
If Thomas Edison had never gotten any of his inventions to work, would he still have loved inventing?
If Beyoncé had never made a single hit, would she still have loved being a musician?

I believe the answer to all of the above is “Yes!”. We should not waste our lives pursuing a certain outcome and regarding ourselves as failures if we don’t “make it”. Instead, we should find something – a mission, a passion, a cause – that is so compelling that even if we knew we would fail at it, there is nothing else we would rather spend our lives pursuing. 

For me, my answer to the above question is to be an entrepreneur. I am so in love with the idea of finding overlooked opportunities and building beautifully engineered businesses to fulfill those needs, that I would still pursue this path even if I knew I would never succeed. I just can’t imagine myself doing anything else. If I can live my life as an entrepreneur, my life would have been fulfilled. 

While, ultimately, nothing matters, how you choose to live your life matters immensely to one person: 

YOU!

So if nothing you accomplish will matter, make sure that you choose a pursuit where the journey itself is its greatest reward to you. That regardless if you ever reach your destination, your life will have been fulfilled by the journey of just trying to reach it. 

If you knew that you’d fail at whatever you decided to do, what would you be most willing to fail at? Seriously, if you had to choose your failure, what would it be? Would you most want to fail at discovering a vaccine for malaria? Would you prefer to fail at starting a movement for racial injustice? Or would you most want to fail at overturning our outdated education system? 

Whatever you would be most willing to fail at, that is ironically the path you are most likely to succeed at! Because you will be so in love with that idea that you will persist against any setbacks. While, ultimately, nothing matters, there is actually one thing that does matter

How happy you will be during the journey you choose to pursue. 

What would you spend your one life doing if you were free to not “have to” accomplish anything?
If you knew you would fail at whatever you did, which journey would you be most willing to fail at?

What would you spend your one life pursuing if the only thing that mattered was the journey on the way towards your goal?