If the definition of crazy is doing the same thing over and over and expecting a different result, then most of us qualify as nuts. We want to change our lives for the better; we believe that we are capable of change; and yet we find ourselves perennially stuck in the same old rut. One study found that 90 percent of coronary bypass patients go back to their old, unhealthy eating habits within two years of their operation. Another found that a substantial majority of dieters regain all their weight within a year—or wind up even heavier than when they started.
We fail to change time after time because we profoundly overestimate our stores of willpower. Psychologists call this failing “restraint bias.” We confidently make resolutions to change and assume we’ll be able to bulldoze our urges because we’re bad at remembering how tempting temptation can be. When we’re full, we forget how irresistible that bacon triple cheeseburger is when we’re hungry. So we allow ourselves to walk into situations in which our willpower is going to be overwhelmed.
That’s not to say that all resolutions are necessarily doomed. People do transform their lives, every day. But for the most part they don’t do it by relying on willpower. The key, it turns out, is to simply start behaving like the person you want to become. Instead of wondering, What should I do?, imagine your future, better self and ask: What would they do?This approach works because of the rather surprising way that our brains form self-judgments. Numerous experiments have demonstrated that when it comes to forming beliefs about our own character and proclivities, we don’t peer inward, as you might expect; instead, we observe our own external behavior. If we see ourselves carrying out a particular action—whatever the actual motivation—our self-conception molds itself to explain that reality.
In one experiment, a researcher asked a group of subjects to take part in a bogus experiment and allowed them to win a sum of money. Afterward the researcher went up to the subjects and told them that he’d had to use his own paltry funds to subsidize the experiment; apologizing, he asked if they wouldn’t mind giving the money back, so he could continue his research. A second group of subjects performed the exact same bogus experiment and won the same prize money—but weren’t asked to give the money back. Finally, all of the experimental subjects were asked to subjectively rate the researcher’s likeability. It turned out that the ones who’d given back their prize money liked him a lot better. The reason: in order to explain our behavior to ourselves, we have to make assumptions about our own proclivities. I gave the guy money, the subjects subconsciously reasoned, so I must have liked him.
Likewise, the most effective way to move toward change is to act like you’ve already achieved it. Don’t worry about playing mind-games with yourself. Don’t worry about affirmations. The way to become a fit person is to act like one. I’ve always found that the hardest part of exercising—the only hard part, really—is putting on my sneakers. Once they’re on, there’s pretty much a 100 percent chance of getting some form of workout done. Why else would I have these shoes on?
Obviously, you can’t change your internal reality overnight. But act out the change you want, and day by day, the weight of evidence will become undeniable. Before long, the person you pretend to be becomes the person that you are. In one experiment, researchers recruited subjects who said they wanted to learn one new habit, and asked them perform the new behavior every day. After 60 days, most of them rated the newly learned habit as effortless to perform. What had once been a desired change was now an accepted reality.
For all my skepticism about resolutions, I must confess that I’ve tried a few over the years. On December 31, 2000, I vowed that I would give up smoking. Just before midnight, I took a long, last drag, and threw away the rest of the pack. The next day I woke up an ex-smoker—precariously. For the next few weeks, I’d eye the ember of friend’s cigarettes like a cat watching a canary. But I didn’t want to go back to person I’d been before the turn of the millennium—that smoker—and I knew that it would be a long wait for another one to come around. And so day after day I stuck it out, until eventually I realized that my new identity had become concrete. Not only did I not want a cigarette, I couldn’t imagine wanting one. This New Year’s Eve I’ll celebrate my 12th year without a smoke.
[A version of this article originally appeared in Red Bulletin magazine.]