Change your environment if you want to change yourself: on breaking and forming new habits

They say failure rate for New Year’s resolutions is 92%.  Let’s figure out why the failure rate is so high and what we can do to lower it.

Many think lack of discipline is the primary reason why resolutions aren’t kept.  True enough but I’m more interested in why so many of us lack the discipline, the will power to change ourselves.  As someone introducing and developing a new brand and new products to a demographic with conventional sensibilities, I have to figure out how to get people to break old and form new habits.  To that end, I’ve learned that most people are:

  • Creatures of habit.  Habits are comforting.
  • Conventional and conforming. Some will do fucked up shit to fit in with peers.
  • Scared and confused.  People respond to fear (and not to love) and leadership that promises certitude.

Think about commercials and propaganda.  Established brands such as McDonald’s tend to remind consumers that habits developed during childhood are comforting.  You-will-be-happy-after-fries-and-McNuggets. New challengers are more likely to instill fear — you-will-become-fat-if-you-eat-at-McDonald’s-and-not-at-our-establishment — or exploit people’s existing fears. They scare consumers into buying unfamiliar products (think Apple’s 1984 Super Bowl commercial that introduced the Macintosh).   Up and comers like Whole Foods today, Starbucks back in the 90s, remind(ed) conventional and conforming consumers to shop at their stores if they want to be considered (upper) middle-class.

Keeping above traits and attitudes in mind, we can improve our resolution success rate not by *solely* trying to change ourselves but also by changing our environment. Granted, it’s not that easy for people to change their environment. People choose their environment out of habit and accident.  But success will be more likely if we understand ourselves not as living in a cultural vacuum, but as individuals influenced by those we spend most of our time with and the cultural environments we observe and live in. Ultimately, it’s easier to change the environment than to change who we fundamentally are.

We’re not going to stop being creatures of habit.  Habits free up mental energy to solve random problems. We would accomplish much less if we didn’t have habits. We just need to develop good habits so we operate efficiently, productively. Most are not going to stop being conventional and conforming.  That’s fine — imagine a world where everyone is Steve Jobs and Charles Manson — as long as we’re conforming to the right conventions.  And anyone who isn’t scared and confused is either delusional or stupid.  There’s a lot to be scared of. But fear can be good.  Fear can help people break bad habits and form good ones.  Fear is why we change for the better (or give up on life).

How Our Environment Influences Us
Instead of telling yourself to “lose 20 pounds” or to “exercise regularly” or to “work harder,” ask yourself to “find friends who are thinner than me,” “…friends who exercise regularly,” “…friends who work harder than me.”  If you really want to change yourself, change your environment.

It’s been said that one’s income is roughly the average income of one’s five closest friends.  Studies have shown that one’s closest friends have a profound influence on body weight.  Peer pressure works because we’re conventional and conforming. It isn’t just peer pressure that influences our habits.  Those closest to us influence our standards and values, they define what’s normal.  We tend to be friends with those who share similar standards, values, and vocabulary.  If your five closest friends work an average of 40 hours per week and you work 60 per week, you’re more likely to feel exhausted from work.  If they work an average of 80 hours per week, you’re more likely to feel lazy when working 60 hours per week, more likely to push yourself to work more, to meet the standard, the norm.  Most of us are conventional and conforming.  That’s fine, as long as we understand that we’re responsible for which conventions we conform to.

But I Like My Friends, I Don’t Want New Friends
Fine, keep your friends.  Some people achieve impressive goals in spite of being surrounded by mediocrities.  But if you do succeed, don’t expect them to remain friends with you because you’ll no longer confirm their version of reality.  One of the main reasons you are friends with your closest friends is because you confirm their version of reality and they yours.  You have similar standards. If you decide that drinking is bad for you and all your closest friends drink, some of them will take your abstinence as public criticism of their standards. Same thing will happen if you try to improve your palate and decide to stop eating at places like Olive Garden and Red Lobster. Some of your friends will ask why you’ve become so snobby, so uppity.    That’s why you shouldn’t assume your friends want you to succeed. They don’t want  you to succeed because it means losing someone who will help maintain their sense of (un)reality.  They love you as long as you confirm their sense of self, their reality.  They’ll hate you — even if they admire you — the moment you challenge their sense of reality. The envious ones will want to destroy you.

How to Change Environment
It can be difficult to change one’s environment because it requires one to break a habit.  I’ve watched many try and fail, even after acknowledging that you can’t become a scientist if you hang out with friends who watch Jersey Shore and act like Jerry Springer guests.  The pull of the familiar is too strong, even when one dislikes one’s friends. Easiest way to change environment is to move as far away as possible and start over.  If you want to be more competitive and tougher, move to New York City.  If you want to be more physically active, move to Denver.  If you want to become a pothead, move to Seattle.  If you want to be lazy, move to Hawaii.  Free from the familiar, you’ll find it a lot easier to put yourself in circumstances and situations that will force you to replace bad habits with better ones.  Find a demanding boss if you want to work harder (that’s why people worked for Steve Jobs).  Find a studious girlfriend/boyfriend if you want to become smarter.  Hang out with brazen careerists if you want to become an executive.  Join the armed forces if you want to be more disciplined and regimented. If moving isn’t an option, then surround yourself with the right books, books that reveal the mindset and attitude of those you admire, those you want to become.  Figure out how they think, use them as inspiration.  Your friends may work 40 hours per week and goof off after work, but it’ll be a lot easier to endure the tedium and loneliness of music practice if you know that Eminem does the same for 18 hour stretches.

Habits are formed when a behavior is rewarded.  If you want to start exercising regularly to lose weight, see what happens if you tell yourself to “find friends who exercise regularly so I can lose 20 pounds and fit into my favorite dress and attract more lustful attention.”  Once these rewards are realized will the new routine become a habit and the new found discipline and will power be rewards in themselves.


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