watercolour sketch showing chocolate bar surrounded by a flying seagull, a sun, a leaf, a tongue licking lips, a muscly arm and a slim female figure - to illustrate 'psychological chocolate' that's conflict free - builds muscle, loses weight, organic, and delicious - all to aid with self-control, motivation & willpower.

Why is changing habits so hard? (Hint: it’s not your fault!)

I love New Year’s. Because of my obsession with habits, I love asking people about their New Year’s resolutions.

But most people tell me they’ve stopped making them. Note, they don’t tell me they don’t make them. They tell me they’ve stopped making them. An important difference.

And the reason they’ve stopped making them is because they’ve given up. And they’ve given up because they never achieve their New Year’s goal or habit resolutions.

And the sad and incorrect reason they give for their New Year’s resolution failures is that they have no willpower or self-control and there’s nothing to be done about it. However, this is not the case at all.

(N.b. This article is an excerpt from my soon-to-be-published book; The 21-Day Myth: A Step by Step Guide to Rapid Habit Change – Including Procrastination! It’s going well thanks, almost finished finally! You can read more about it here. But I digress, back to the excerpt …)

I’ll show you the REAL reason New Year’s resolutions fail

 And I’ll prove this to you using psychological chocolate.

This is no ordinary chocolate. It’s special. As well as being psychological, this chocolate is delicious, organic, fat-melting and muscle-building. I’ve made this psychological chocolate guilt-free as most people say they love chocolate but are on some kind of ‘no-fun’ diet and feel guilty about even psychologically eating it.

So, everyone loves this conflict-free psychological chocolate. Even if you are one of the five people in the world who don’t like chocolate – you’ll love this stuff. Somewhere in the world, a kitten purrs every time you even imagine indulging in this psychological chocolatey goodness.

So. I’m going to reward you with psychological chocolate for reading this book.

The psychology fundamentals of motivation

Why? Because I know this content can potentially transform your life (for the better), and I want you to keep reading. I also know a behavior psychology fundamental, one that we touched on in the previous chapter: behaviors that get rewarded get repeated. If I reward you for reading thus far, it increases the probability you’ll keep reading.

So, congratulations on reading this far. Well done you! You are a glorious wonder amongst humans! Here, have some divine psychological chocolate. Take a moment to savor it …

Welcome back. I trust you enjoyed that. Now, to further motivate you to keep reading, in addition to my extravagant praise, I’m going to offer you another chocolate reward. But with a twist. I’m offering you a choice of chocolate rewards. You can have one bar of this almost-unbearably-good chocolate now or two bars now.

Which reward motivates more?

Yes, you read that right. One bar now or two bars now. Which reward do you want?

Congratulations! You are normal (that is, normal as in ‘in the middle of a bell-shaped, normally-distributed curve’). You picked the two chocolate bars – the larger reward. Most people do.

Now we’ll run through a similar reward scenario but add another twist. Again, as I still want you to keep reading and I know behaviors that get rewarded get repeated, I’m going to keep rewarding you with chocolate.

Again, you have a choice of reward. Again, the choice is either one bar of incredible chocolate or two.

But here’s the latest twist: unlike last time, where your choice was between one chocolate bar now or two chocolate bars now, this time your choice is one bar now, or two bars in a year’s time. 

Which reward motivates more … when we change the rewards?

So, which reward do you prefer – one chocolate bar now or two chocolate bars in a year?

Congratulations! You picked the one bar now. You are a normal person. Again. This simple chocolatey example illustrates two fundamental principles of motivation.

1. So far, so obvious: all other things being equal, we’ll choose the larger reward.

If we love chocolate and aren’t on some no-fun diet (and sometimes because we are on a no-fun diet), we’ll almost always choose two bars of chocolate over one.

2. But when the larger reward is far away, we usually switch preferences and go for the immediate reward, even if it’s smaller. Even if it’s much smaller.

In other words: immediate rewards (or punishments), even tiny ones, are much more motivating than distant rewards (or punishments), even huge ones. 

To rephrase, with the emphasis on motivation, we are much more motivated by immediate rewards, than distant ones.

This is why we struggle to make and break habits – including procrastination

These innate preferences have critical implications for failed habit change, including procrastination. Most of our habit change goals are really important to us – really really important – but they are distant. And there are many temptations, small but immediate, between us and our important goal.

I recently demonstrated this principle to a colleague who wanted to lose 17lbs. One barrier to their weight loss goal was delicious donuts. As much as they wanted to lose the weight, when faced with a donut, they would usually choose the immediate donut reward over their distant weight loss.

So I did the ‘psychological switcheroo’. I asked my colleague, if you had a choice of a donut now or losing 17lbs now, which would you pick? My colleague answered that they would, of course, choose the immediate 17lb weight loss over the immediate donut.

Remember, all other things being equal – if all the rewards are equally immediate or equally distant – we’ll choose the larger reward. It’s not that we don’t want the weight loss or to get fit or to quit smoking, etc. We do want these things. Often desperately.

But most of these important goals are relatively distant. Their motivational power dwindles with increasing distance (called temporal discounting) and they struggle to compete with the awesome motivational vortex of immediate donuts.

Your problems with making & breaking habits are NOT caused by you

It’s not you. It’s not your fault. You don’t have a self-control problem. It’s how we’re wired. 

I really want to emphasize that – it’s not your fault.

It. Is. Not. Your. Fault.

I see and work with so many people who are so frustrated and ashamed and confused by their apparent lack of self-control, when, not only is that not the problem at all, as we’ll see later, the stress, shame and frustration actually further erodes willpower and self-control.

If it was just a matter of motivation to change, then, as your motivation is extremely high, you wouldn’t have any problems at all. You are struggling with habit change because there are other things going on – things that are interfering with your motivation. And these are things you can change, when you understand the fundamentals of habit change. This section has just covered one of them.

The next section builds on this motivation fundamental (the disproportionate motivational power of immediate rewards) to fully explain why our habit struggles are absolutely nothing to do with us and everything to do with something else.

And how we can use this improved understanding of motivation and rewards to make habit-change easier.

Incidentally, for convenience, I normally use psychological chocolate to explain these motivation fundamentals, and that works just fine. But I have done this experiment with real-world chocolate and real-world humans with the same result.

Do try these habit-change fundamentals at home

In fact I suggest trying this on your friends and family. You don’t need ethics approval, and it’s a fun way of demonstrating some fundamentals of reward and motivation. Admittedly part of the fun is watching their agony as they succumb to the smaller but more immediate reward. But no animals are harmed. That’s important. As we’ll see in the next book excerpt; behavior psychology 101, part 2.


Sick of procrastinating? 
And like to subscribe? You can do so here. In addition to receiving … quirky newsletters with my latest news, goss and articles, you’ll receive a FREE download, How to get the mind-focusing effects of Ritalin without taking the drug – the top psychology strategy for beating procrastination.
Daryl, below, used the step by step procrastination-busting psychology strategy outlined in the free download:

“I must say I have been using [Rebecca’s procrastination-busting] technique for 2 days now and they have been my most productive in months! It has taken the focus away from what is most pressing and moved it into just getting things done.”

Want further reading?
Want to be more productive? read What would a German do? (aka how to work less and get more done).
Bring it! How I learned to be fearless – well, almost. If fear of criticism is stopping you doing … anything. Or even just slowing you down – then you may want to read this article. I discuss dealing with the bullies and the haters, and the worst hater of all.

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