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Behavior Change: The Problem Is a Solution

As of this week, it has been one year since I stopped drinking. As a person who has long been self-critical for my perceived lack of willpower, discipline, and “stick-to-it-iveness,” I am genuinely surprised to be able to share this accomplishment with you. This time last year I would not have predicted it.

First things first: why did I quit?

I quit drinking because of my growing recognition that alcohol is pretty bad for you. As a person who truly enjoys a glass of wine, good beer, and especially a well-crafted cocktail, my apologies if you are hearing that here first. :-) Culminating with Andrew Huberman’s illuminating podcast, “What Alcohol Does to Your Body, Brain & Health,” I realized the health impact of moderate alcohol consumption (call it 7-14 drinks per week), is far worse than I suspected.

That knowledge increased my desire to quit. Yet while new knowledge is often necessary for behavior change, it is almost never sufficient.

Thus, the more interesting question is, how did I quit?

To that question I can provide only one intellectually honest answer: I’m not exactly sure.

What I am sure of is that willpower, discipline, and stick-to-it-iveness had nothing to do with it, because they were not required. Quitting has felt relatively effortless. How is it possible that, after multiple failed attempts in the past, sometimes for a week, sometimes a month, this time it was easy?*

In truth, it only seemed effortless, in the way that actors or musicians seem to become famous overnight. In reality, their "sudden" rise to fame occurred only after years, or even decades, of sustained effort, much of which might have seemed unrelated or non-linear relative to the results.

Without the benefit of hindsight, much of the work that resulted in the “overnight” transformation might have even looked like a series of failures or dead ends.

Behavior change is complex, and this is the nature of complexity. In complex systems, cause and effect cannot be determined in advance. Yet despite the complexity, we must find ways to change and grow. Our careers can depend on it. Our relationships can depend on it. Our lives can depend on it.

So how can we get better at it?

We can start by recognizing an apparent paradox: the “problem” is actually a solution.

If we look closely at a “problem” behavior, we can see how it is actually a solution to something else. Often, as in cases of substance abuse, it is a really bad solution, but it is a solution nonetheless.

  • My evening cocktail habit most likely solved the problem of feeling tense or anxious after a busy day of work.
  • A habit of micromanaging your direct reports might be solving the problem of your fear that things will go wrong and you will get blamed if you don’t exert control over every detail.
  • A tendency to avoid difficult, but important conversations solves the problem of the emotional discomfort that can accompany such interactions.

The difficulty is not that these solutions do not work; the problem is that they do. They just come with a lot of side-effects: the negative health impact of alcohol, direct reports who can’t stand working for you, and relationships that deteriorate when issues are left festering.

By the time we decide to change a behavior, we already know the potential cost of not changing. That’s why we want to change in the first place. Knowledge alone is not sufficient because if we merely stop the cocktail habit, the micromanagement, and the avoidance of difficult conversations, we are left with the original problems they solved: the tension, fear of being blamed, and emotional discomfort.

How long we sustain the desired behavior change depends how long we can tolerate those things. Usually the answer is, not very long.

To increase our odds of success, we have to go deeper.

We need to understand why we continue with these behaviors that run counter to our stated goals. One tool that we use for that is Robert Kegan and Lisa Lahey’s Immunity to Change process. ITC provides a structured approach to identify and work through the hidden competing commitments that undermine our sincere efforts to change our behavior. You can learn all about it from Brené Brown in her recent two-part podcast with Lisa Lahey.

In the past, I really was committed to not drinking alcohol. But I was unconsciously more committed to not experiencing the tension and anxiety that an evening cocktail relieved, and thus my prior efforts to change were unsuccessful.

In truth, there were probably dozens or even hundreds of other hidden competing commitments that I addressed, one by one, in a messy, non-linear fashion over the course of years until the whole structure holding my drinking behavior in place “suddenly” collapsed, allowing the change I really wanted to occur.

While the inherent complexity of our behavior is unavoidable, recognizing that the problem is actually a solution for something else via a process like Immunity to Change can make these efforts less haphazard and much more likely to succeed.

Not only is the approach more effective, it has the enormous added benefit of releasing us from self-judgment. Does anyone like feeling tense and anxious, getting blamed when things go wrong, or experiencing emotional discomfort? Of course not. Avoiding those things doesn’t make you a bad person. It makes you human.

We were fortunate to be trained in the Immunity to Change process by Kegan and Lahey themselves years ago, and we have been using it with our clients and for ourselves ever since. If you’d like to learn more about this powerful tool, start with a free 30-minute introductory coaching session, and we’ll tell you all about it.

 

* An important caveat: behavior change of any kind is highly individual, and I am not suggesting that giving up alcohol should be easy for anyone. It is becoming increasingly clear that our genes play a large role in alcohol use and abuse, as they do with essentially all human behavior.

Thus while I can take credit for the dozens or hundreds of interconnected efforts over many years that ultimately put me in a position to simply stop drinking, I cannot take credit for my apparent genetic good fortune. I simply don’t seem to have the DNA for alcohol use disorder. Two drinks generally leaves me feeling suboptimal the next day. Three is guaranteed hangover territory. More than three results in multi-day misery. This fast and clear feedback loop makes my alcohol consumption self-limiting.

In my college days this felt like a bug. Now I consider it a feature. I know many are not so lucky.

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