Now that I have your attention, let me explain what Tetris has to do with habit change. Or, rather, let Sean Young explain it. He shares the research he used to get his PhD in Stick With It: A Scientific Process for Changing Your Life - For Good. This book isn’t about what “should” work, and it’s not about “willpower” or “motivation.” It’s about what has actually been proven to work on actual people in real-life situations. Think of incarcerated felons, people who are addicted to drugs, and veterans with PTSD. Yeah. Those kinds of real-life situations. If this research can help people in those circumstances, then it’ll probably work on us.
The huge takeaway from this material was, for me, differentiating between three different types of habit. Is it an A, B, or C? A is for Automatic, the stuff we do without realizing it. B is for Burning, the stuff we obsess over and can’t stop thinking about. C is for Common, the ordinary stuff we do on a routine basis. In my case, if I were talking about Past Me’s eating habits, I’d say corn chips were an A, Pepsi was a B, and my baseline consumption of baked goods was a C. I had to tackle each of my bad eating habits with a different strategy. It would have been a lot easier with information from Stick With It, rather than having to figure it out on my own!
Another area of Dr. Young’s research that was new to me was his discussion of neurohacks. He says that while there is plenty of research into the science, there is very little about how to apply it to daily life, and so he’s developing it himself. He starts with the way he gets his dog to quit acting up by moving her ears to put her in her submissive posture. Whoa. My dog Spike is sure going to have an interesting week.
I’ve used behavioral techniques on myself, with sometimes surprising results. As an example, I’ve been working on my fear of public speaking for two years, and I still sometimes get that horrid burst of butterflies in the stomach. If I know I’m going to speak that day, I put a rubber band around my wrist. The moment the butterflies kick in, I snap the rubber band as hard as I can. I used to have to do it three or four times, but now once is enough. When I get up to give the speech, I end with the positive reinforcement of laughter and applause. None of this would work, though, if I didn’t have the underlying story that public speaking is a valuable skill, a challenge that is a better use of my time than anything else. Going by the lessons from Stick With It, I used the Stepladders of the Toastmasters manuals, the Community of my club, my story that speaking is Important, and the Captivating rewards of winning award ribbons and having lunch at my favorite sandwich shop. It’s also Captivating that the process is really working, and that what used to make me sick with fear is now actually fun! At this point, the habit is Engrained. I’m sure I’ll do it for life.
Stick With It is full of case studies. How do I quit drinking cola? How do I get my kid to quit snarling every time we ask her to put her iPad down? Sometimes all it takes is a valid story of someone with a similar issue for you to say, Hey, you know what? I’m tired of annoying myself and if that works, I’m going to do it, too. It helps to remember that behavior change happens by 1. Doing the action and then (quite a while later) 2. Feeling the emotions and thinking the thoughts that go with change. Also, lasting change comes from tiny little itty-bitty eensy steps, which Dr. Young calls Stepladders.
Now I’ve done one of the Neurohacks. I’ve written this book review on habit change, thereby convincing myself that I am the kind of person who knows how to do this stuff. This builds the concept into my self-image, and also tells me that I have a reputation to uphold. Tricksy, isn’t it? I recommend that you read it and then explain one of the anecdotes to someone. Then the same thing will happen to you!
PS What was the deal with Tetris? Apparently, it works as a “cognitive vaccine.” If someone plays Tetris for ten minutes within six hours of a traumatic event, they have dramatically lower rates of flashbacks afterward. I’m going to try this technique the next time I get into even a minor kerfuffle.
“Acknowledge that your plan to change the behavior may not be as easy as you believe.”
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I've been working with chronic disorganization, squalor, and hoarding for over 20 years. I'm also a marathon runner who was diagnosed with fibromyalgia and thyroid disease 17 years ago.