Read Time: 13 Minutes
“All of our life, so far as it has definite form, is but a mass of habits.” -William James
“Whether or not you’re going to be programmed isn’t a choice. How you want to be programmed is.” -Peter Sage
I sincerely believe metaprogramming is the most important skill we can learn. At it’s core, it is the process of becoming aware of the programming we’ve unconsciously acquired, identifying the kind of programming our ideal self would have, and using every day as an opportunity to slowly reprogram ourselves closer towards that ideal.
The science of habit change is at the root of metaprogramming. All our programming is essentially a mass of habits. Understanding how we change obsesses me. We each recognize the habits we’d like to change. We want to know how to do this. We read the books, follow the programs, and find that we fail to make the change stick.
It is for this reason that I boarderline on contempt when I look at most self-help literature. Dr. Norcross, a clinical psychologist who has studied behavior change for over 30 years found that, “more than 95% of self-help books present no scientific research that they work at self-help.”
I think this is fucking irresponsible.
This post will introduce the culmination of 30 years of research, over 2,000 studies, and $80 million in research funding. The scientific community understands how change happens. This is not THE answer to behavior change, but this is the most scientifically validated model we have to date.
At the risk of sounding like the self-help books I dislike, I think this post will teach you more about how to be effective at behavior change than almost any self-help book you’ll read.
“Successful change follows a well-defined, predictable pattern…You can change virtually any voluntary behavior using this formula.” -Dr. Norcross
There is a structure all voluntary behavior change goes through. This post will explain this structure in detail and how you can use it.
This article is organized into 7 parts:
- The Science of Self-Change
- The Key Finding: Step Matching
- The True Timeline of Behavior Change
- The Filtering Technique
- Who This Is Not For
- Going Forward
The Science Of Self-Change
Dr. James Prochaska, Dr. John Norcross, and Dr. Carlo DiClemente have spent a combined 100 years studying how humans change their behavior. They have noticed that all voluntary behavior change goes through the same 5 stages.
At first they thought these stages only applied to people attempting to quit chemical addictions, smoking, or drinking. They soon realized people go through these same 5 stages when battling depression, anxiety disorders, distressing relationships, cancer, and procrastination.
The pragmatic magic produced from understanding these 5 stages is that you know what you need to do, when you need to do it. Each stage has specific techniques that need to be done only at that stage.
All voluntary behavior change goes through these 5 stages. This is information that will be true for as long as we stay biological beings.
Note: It is beyond the scope of this post to cover specific techniques. There are hundreds of books out there with techniques. This is about a system you can use to organize and use all those techniques effectively.
The Five Stages all Self-Change goes through are:
- Precontemplation – You don’t think you need to change.
- Contemplation – You want to change, but no planning or action has been attempted.
- Preparation – You know you want to change and you are actively planning.
- Action – You are in the midst of behavior change.
- Maintenance – You’ve made the new behavior a habit and are maintaining your progress.
Seeing this for the first time was like seeing a map of the earth for the first time. Within this metaphor (maps are metaphors), you can place every single habit and goal you have ever thought about or attempted to achieve. The culmination of who you want to be can be tracked on this map.
There is one study Dr. Norcross did that highlights the effectiveness of using this system for behavior change. He followed two groups of new years resolutioners. The two groups had the same goal, the same desire to change, and the same belief in their ability to change. Group A followed his change model, and Group B worked on their goals independently.
At the end of 6 months:
Group A recorded 44% success.
Group B recorded 4% success.
Group A was 11x more successful than Group B.
Note: This is likely his most significant study, but over 10,000 people have used his system and changed significant behaviors like chemical addiction and smoking without clinical intervention. It is the epitome of self-help.
Learning and using this system will change your life.
The Key Finding: Step Matching
“The most important discovery my colleagues and I have made in our 30 years of research is that the key to success resides in matching your efforts to your step. “ -Dr. Norcross
One of the most common mistakes people make when trying to change, and the oversight nearly all self-help books commit when offering techniques is that they do not match the correct techniques with the correct stage.
There are hundreds of techniques that help, and they all fall into one or more of the stages. The key to actually implementing all the advice out there (assuming we ignore all the pure bullshit), is to understand at what stage we are at, so we know which technique to use.
“Copious research continues to confirm the importance of obeying the 5 steps. A review of 87 self-help treatments revealed that honoring the stages and each of their intrinsic strategies is the key to personal improvement across dozens of behavioral goals.” –Dr. Norcross
Step matching is identifying the step you are at for a particular behavior change, and doing the techniques that match.
Since this is vital, I’ll provide a technique you can use to identify which stage you are at, but before I introduce that, we need to clear something up.
The True Timeline of Behavior Change
“We all have to ‘kill’ ourselves, often in the most gruesome manner possible, to become more than the bloke produced by the collision of History, Genetics, and Accident on the day we were born.” -Robert Anton Wilson
There are massive misconceptions about the amount of time it takes to change a behavior.
A mixture of people’s innate urge for instant gratification and the market’s response to the demand of the consumer have created a mindset around habit change that thwarts people’s success from the beginning. Any program or book offering sustainable change in under 60 to 90 days is blatantly false.
The commonly cited number of 21 days is a myth made famous by the amazing book Psycho-Cybernetics. A more credible College of London study concluded that the average time to acquire a habit is 66 days. The number of days it takes varies on the complexity of the new habit and the effort required by the individual.
But even thinking your work is done after 66 days is misleading. Yes, once a behavior is a habit it is much easier to do, but we still must perform the behavior everyday. We don’t stop wiping our ass once it is a habit. You don’t stop exercising when you hit your weight goal.
View your important habits as lifelong practices you willingly and mindfully engage in to maximize your potential.
The Timeline For Each Stage
Each of the five stages has an approximate timeline. Below are my adaptations to graphs Dr. Norcross and his colleagues have found represent each stage’s timeline.
Feel free to save and print this graph off. It is one of the most important pieces of information I have found regarding self-directed behavior change.
Now that we have an understanding of the map and and timeline for change, below is a technique that you can do right now to identify which stage you are at for your habits and goals.
The Filtering Technique
There is a simple flowchart you can use to see what stage you are at on any particular habit or goal (because achieving goals and habit change are essentially the same).
I recommend you feed enough goals and habits into this flowchart to identify one for each stage (excluding precontemplation).
Step Matching Flowchart: Downloadable Image Here
Am I seriously intending to start (insert new behavior here) in the next 90 days?
If yes, you are at the Contemplation Stage. If no;
Am I ready to start in the next 30 days?
If yes, you are in the Preparation Stage, if no;
Am I ready to start today?
If yes, you are in the Action Stage, if no;
Have I already started and made it a habit?
If yes, you are in the Maintenance Stage.
Bonus: A Technique for Precontemplators
If you can’t think of a goal or habit to filter through this flowchart, ask yourself these questions. These are habits many high-achieving people share:
- Am I seriously intending to start a daily mindfulness practice in the next 90 days?
- Am I seriously intending to start a daily movement practice in the next 90 days?
- Am I seriously intending to start a daily healthy eating practice in the next 90 days?
- Am I seriously intending to start a daily reading practice in the next 90 days?
Note: I refer to all of these as daily practices because that is how they should be approached to maintain for life. They are mandatory maintenance for excellence. They each are daily activities we bring our awareness to with the knowledge that by doing so we are enriching ourselves.
If, when filtering these through the flowchart, you answer with all no’s, one of these is a great place to begin your self-improvement journey. I’d recommend the daily mindfulness practice.
Here are habits I have at each stage:
I know I want to begin at some point but it is not a priority.
I’m playing with doing downward dog for a minute everyday. This is an example of a small habit which is one of the techniques that match with the Preparation Stage.
My livelihood depends on my writing. I know I need to make it a habit to write at least 400 words per day of publishable content. This is not a habit I have solidified yet. I am currently honing it daily.
Maintenance: Daily Meditation
After years of resistance, mindfulness meditation is finally a habit. Some days I’ll miss it when my routine changes, so I periodically have to use Maintenance techniques to recalibrate.
Who This is Not For
There are people this system will not work for:
People who want the 7-21 day result.
“More than 75% of people maintain a goal for a week but then gradually slip back in the old behavior.” –Dr. Norcorss
Some people will not be able to adopt the mindset that true habit change takes months, and maintaining the changes are lifestyles. For these people, the hamster wheel of falling for the false advertisements, achieving temporary improvements, and sliding back to baseline is the dance they prefer.
People trying to change others.
This system is for people who are attempting to change themselves. The science behind changing other people is complex and different then self-change. It is not the aim here.
People being pressured by others to change.
There are hundreds of studies that demonstrate when people attend therapy or undergo self-change due to external pressure, they do not respond positively. If you are here trying to change something about yourself due to the pressure of society, family, or friends; this system may not work for you.
Rather, seek to find internal reasons for your desired change. Once you have your own authentic reasons, this science can help you.
Who you are is a culmination of your habits. Learning how to change your habits is one of the most important skills we can learn. All habit change goes through 5 stages. The most effective way to successfully change a habit is to match the right technique to the right stage.
The Precontemplation stage is about cultivating awareness.
The Contemplation stage is about choosing the right habit.
The Preparation stage is about creating an effective plan.
The Action stage is about pursuing the goal and tracking data.
The Maintenance stage is about managing slips.
Use this system to organize all the self-help information out there and you will increase your chances of success. The difference between who you are and who you could be is a few habits.
Finding this system changed my life. I’ve been devouring habit change and self-help books for the last 3 years. I was overwhelmed by all the different tactics and techniques. Now, with this framework I’ve been able to start organizing all that I’ve read.
If you asked your friends, what would they say you’re in the precontemplation stage of?
Thank you for reading, Namasteezy, and Happy Metaprogramming.