Why can’t I change?

>> Friday, February 10, 2012

Every year I make many New Year’s resolutions, and some are easier to follow than others. Last year, it was to get myself to visit my poor lonely cousin in boring Clearwater, Florida. It wasn’t the most exciting vacation nor what I wanted to spend my money on, but I set a goal and timeframe, and I made myself do it. But why can’t I get myself to accomplish the New Year’s resolutions that require me to make a self improving behavioral change such as doing more writing when I get home from work versus stuffing my face with whatever I can find in the fridge and vegging out in front of the TV? Is it because I don’t have any self-discipline? Probably, but still, how can I get myself to change this awful behavior?

Most people believe that if you want to change a behavior, the key is to change your goals and intentions and your behavior change should just follow. But in fact, research on heroin addicted Vietnam veterans proves that I can essentially blame my environment for being lazy, overeating, not researching and not writing.

In the 70’s it was learned that 20% of our soldiers in Vietnam were addicted to heroin. This was shocking and horrible news because as we all know, heroin is the most addictive drug ever created and once you’re addicted it is impossible to quit. But research that President Richard Nixon funded showed us that heroin is not impossible to quit, you just need to control or change your environment.

The research was set-up to see what happened to the addicted soldiers when they returned home. There were two groups of heroin addicted soldiers. One group was treated in the U.S., and the other group was treated in Vietnam. What was discovered is that the group of soldiers that were treated in the U.S. had a 90% relapse rate, but the soldiers that were treated in Vietnam only had a 5% relapse rate.

The reason the rate of heroin relapse was so much lower for those soldiers physically treated in Vietnam, was because those soldiers returned to a place radically different from the environment where their addiction took hold of them.

When we do something in the same physical setting repeatedly it becomes second nature/automatic to us. Our environment comes to unconsciously direct our behavior. In fact, about 45 percent of what we do every day is in the same environment and is repeated. Our environmental cues become so deeply ingrained that they are very hard to resist. For example, let’s say a smoker usually smokes in front of the entrance to his office building, what happens is that the front of his office building becomes a powerful mental cue to go and perform that behavior. And so he ends up smoking whenever he goes near the entrance of his office building when he doesn’t really want to.

My 280 sq. ft Manhattan apartment is where I go to eat, watch TV, and sleep. When I try to get some writing done in there, I find myself being drawn to the fridge, cooking something up, turning on my TV and at the end of the day, no writing gets done.

So yes, creating an intention or goal and expecting your behavior to follow will work for one off resolutions like visiting your lonely cousin in Clearwater, Fl. But if you want to change a behavior that you repeatedly do, especially in the same environment, then you are going to have to change your environment. If you want to break a bad habit, then avoid the specific environment that you ordinarily entertain that habit. If you want to get yourself to do something more often, then create a new/dedicated environment for that behavior, insert yourself in that environment and go through the motions. This is exactly what I did. Instead of trying to write from home, I went to my local coffee shop with free wifi, I ordered a large latte with extra sugar, sat by a window, and wrote. Because now I know that if I want to get myself to write, it is never going to happen inside my apartment. The local coffee shop has now become a place where I will dedicate to writing, not eating, not watching TV, just writing. I’m pretty sure that this is the only reason I even finished this post, or maybe it was all the caffeine from the latte.

~Jessica Mendoza, Strategic Planner


BrittleBonesBoomer February 10, 2012 at 11:18 AM  

Thanks for sharing, Jessica.

Finding it amusing that it's a study commissioned by Nixon's administration that sheds light on changing behavior. Maybe he was less of a Tricky Dick once he changed his environment from the Oval Office.

Also appreciate hearing about your practice of writing at your local coffee shop. It's a bit like having a place for everything and everything in its place.

Keep up the good work, wherever you need to be.

Post a Comment