Last week, we went into depth on the gap between knowledge and action: motivation. Let’s assume you have something you want to do, and you’ve built the motivation required to act. Now the question is, are there different ways to act, and do they have different efficacy levels?
The answer is yes. In his book, Liao Fan taught three methods of practice when trying to stop bad behavior or start good behavior:
1. Changing through action
2. Changing through reasoning
3. Changing from the heart
The list is in order of effectiveness, with the third method being the most effective.
For this post, let’s use the 21-Day No Complaint Challenge as our example for stopping a bad habit. As the name suggests, the challenge is to go 21 days without making a complaint. You have to wear a designated bracelet, and if you make a complaint, you move the bracelet to your other hand, and you start over from day 0. I think this is a relatable example to everyone because as Will Bowen said, “Complaining is like bad breath — you notice it when it comes out of someone else’s mouth, but not when it out of your own.” It’s certainly a bad habit that, if corrected, can improve our mental wellbeing.
For our example of starting a good habit, let’s use starting a gratitude journal because appreciation is the opposite of complaining.
Changing Through Action
This method requires using willpower to focus on controlling your actions. So if you were to apply this method to the 21-Day No Complaint Challenge, you would spend much of your energy monitoring your thoughts and pausing before you speak to make sure a complaint does not come out.
A helpful concept for increasing your success with this method is decision fatigue. Essentially, you can only make so many decisions throughout the day before you get tired. And when you get tired, your willpower is lower. Applying this concept, you would try to handle the more complaint-inducing situations earlier in the day when you have the most energy, and avoid complaint-inducing situations later in the day when you’re more tired.
If you wanted to start a good habit, like a gratitude journal, then you would force yourself to do the action every day. You should set a default time for these actions so that they are not affected by decision fatigue. In the case of a gratitude journal, you can force yourself to write at least 3 things before bed; otherwise, you are not allowed to sleep.
Changing Through Reasoning
This method uses contemplation and logic. It plays to the innate human desire to be reasonable and mentally competent. To prevent ourselves from complaining, we can contemplate why complaining is bad. We might realize that people who complain are essentially bad energy allocators. After all, we usually complain about things outside of our control, so we are wasting our energy fueling negativity when instead, we could be focusing our energy on solving the problem or on preventing it in the future. Changing through reasoning is what Tim Ferriss did when he did the challenge, in which he said “It all made perfect sense. Fix the words and you fix the thoughts.”
If you wanted to start a good behavior, then you can contemplate why doing it would be worth your effort. You should do this when you are calm and relaxed so that you have proper judgment. In the example of starting a gratitude journal, you could think about how you’d like to be naturally happier in life and your strong desire to be more peaceful at night before bed.
Changing Through the Heart
The Chinese word for heart actually has a second meaning: the mind. Thus, changing through the heart means changing from the root of our problems: our minds. Ultimately, this means changing our core beliefs of the paradigms through which we see the world.
If we believe, at an instinctive level, that hardship and problems are annoying, then our first thought when problems happen will be a complaint, and our first feeling will be annoyance. If we believe that people are should be as “good” as us, then we will naturally be annoyed when others do something that we do not like. To prevent the complaining thought from even arising, we need to change our beliefs. We can live by the view that hardships and problems are valuable opportunities to grow, and they are the doorway to results. We can also internalize a value for humility by recognizing that everyone has their own individual strengths and weaknesses, and everyone wants compassion and support in overcoming their weaknesses.
To make a gratitude journal more effective and likely to last, we should stop thinking that gratitude is for the weak, or it’s not in my personality. Instead, we should believe that gratitude is a muscle that strengthens with practice, and that a thankful attitude is a sign of a healthy mind. These believes will strengthen with practice after seeing that the beliefs really are true.
Changing from the heart/mind is the most effective and important method. As Dr. Alan Zimmerman says,
Source: The Power of Your Words by Dr. Alan Zimmerman
Notice how the three methods of practice go deeper and deeper into the root of the problem. A problem is like a poisonous tree. You can try to change through action without really contemplating why you should change. This is like pulling at the tree’s leaves, and it is by far the hardest method. You can persuade yourself logically without changing your deep beliefs that create the problem. This is like cutting off the tree’s branches one by one. It is more effective, but the bad habit will continue to arise. The best way is to change from the heart/mind, which uproots the poisonous tree all together.
We should start at the level of the mind first. If that doesn’t work, then move to the level of reasoning. If that still doesn’t work, then start at the level of action until you can move on to a stronger method. Sometimes, all three methods need to be used in conjunction to make a change last.