Behavior Change Myths–Part 8, Abstract vs. Concrete

As usual, my thoughts come from this presentation by Stanford University’s Persuasive Tech Lab.

Don’t we all do this at least every now and then? I can’t tell you how many times I’ve looked at my wife and said, “I’m going to get in shape.” Or, “I’m going to eat better.”

Like it means anything….

Sure, the ideas have, at their core, the best of intentions. I actually do want to get in shape and I actually do want to eat better, but such a goal is vague enough that success is nothing more than fleeting impressions. Worse than that, failure is virtually guaranteed by the complete inability to comprehend success.


And we do it all the time because it is so easy.

I have discovered for myself that concrete goals are attainable goals. More than that, small goals are attainable goals. I already talked about setting smaller goals back in Myth 2, but the idea bears repeating: Specific goals that provide for consistent, regular success are better and more effectual in their eventual power to change us than larger goals even if the larger goals are concrete.

I was deeply impressed by something Elder Holland (or was it Nelson) said recently. In fact, I’m sure I’ve written on the quote before, but it bears repeating. To paraphrase (and adding my own thoughts):

Often in life, we are tempted to make complete changes immediately, especially when it comes to bad habits. We set goals of NEVER AGAIN! or I’M DONE WITH THAT! without allowing ourselves to be human. There certainly are people who, with the force of will, have the ability to make complete life-altering choices and never return again to their old ways. We read about them all the time in the scriptures. But for each of them, there are a thousand people who cannot do that.

So two points:

  1. Instead of beating yourself up over the occasional return to something you are trying to break free of, recognize it as what it is: A slip. A momentary relapse on the long road to freedom.
  2. Instead of setting goals that are in their very nature nearly impossible to achieve, recognize the human frailty and weakness inherent in you and set goals that allow you to achieve. Most of us are built on the idea that small successes allow us to achieve big victories, so build into your goals the ability to achieve greatness. As Elder Holland (or Nelson) said, set the goal to be X for a day. Or an hour. Or whatever time frame you can actually accomplish.
    You simply cannot determine today to be smoking immediately and forever. Most of us can’t anyway. So instead of bludgeoning yourself with guilt and shame from failing in an unachievable goal, set for yourself the success of a single day. Something that you can build on to eventually create a week, a month, a year, and a lifetime of being smoke free (or whatever it is that you are wanting to change).

At the start of the year, I once again set a goal to be healthy. To strive for real change physically. It’s been about three weeks now, but I’ve gone running at least twice a week every week since mid-January. It required making a friend join me to get really going (such a HUGE help by the way), but it also required a change in thinking and a wellness coach provided by my work who set for me a goal that I’ve long wanted to achieve (Getting back to running a sub-6-minute mile like I did in high school).

What did she do first? She broke the big goal down into three smaller goals each one with a 1-month time frame. And you know what? I’m actually succeeding at it where in the past I would have failed.

Concrete goals. Measurable goals. Small goals. It’s a nice recipe.

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One Response to Behavior Change Myths–Part 8, Abstract vs. Concrete

  1. angeladecker says:

    Holding yourself accountable and keeping track also helps me. I have an app on my phone that I use daily and I’ve added an “exercise” category to it where I mark if I’ve done none, low, medium, or high amounts. It’s a good measurement, I think. I blog about insights I have so I can look back and remember and see how my understanding of things has increased. Some things I would have forgotten if I hadn’t done that, and as was said in a recent General Conference, if you receive inspiration and don’t write it down, you’re pretty much just throwing away a gift from God. That analogy sure made me want to keep track.

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