Behavior Change Myths–Part 9, Long-term vs. Short-term

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

One of these days soon, I’ll start looking forward in that presentation and realize that I’m talking about topics that are upcoming. I guess that’s not really a huge issue, but still. Of course, since there is exactly one more of these, changing that particular behavior is probably just a touch late.

This myth deals with the mistake of making forever goals, goals that are immediate and absolute in their fulfillment.

This can only lead to failure.

One of the families I home teach currently struggles with this concept. Dad, a good friend and someone who is making incredible strides in his growth, often sets absolute goals in relation to changing his life or accomplishing specific achievements. And when he gets there and has failed, he often expresses extreme disappointment and frustration. Sometimes to the point that it actually sets him back a little.

Part of me gets that. When I’m frustrated by a behavior I’m trying to change or by a goal that is consistently just out of reach, my response is often to make a “forever” goal. I’m NEVER doing that again!!! or By XXX I will be this or I will have that!!! or From now on, I’m going to exercise three times a week!!!!

You get the idea.

The problem I see with this type of goal is that it often insists on immediate perfection in order for it to continue as a viable goal. That’s unreasonable, especially when considering the difficulty of behavior change.

A more reasonable approach is to set a specific time period to accomplish a reasonable goal. It’s not enough to simply say “I’m going to lose weight.” It’s better to say, “I’m going to lose three pounds a month for the next three months.”

Dave Ramsey’s approach to paying off debt, which is really just a financial behavior, is to provide for immediate success by inverting the usual technique of the debt snowball. The debt snowball is based on compounding principle (as opposed to interest). In the original method, you organize your debts by interest rate with the highest interest rate at the top and the smallest at the bottom. Then you pay minimum payments on everything but the top debt. On that one, you pile on as much as you possibly can and pay it off as quickly as you can. When it is done, you take the sum of that payment and go after the next highest interest rate. With each pay off, the total payment you can make is compounded like a snowball rolling down a hill.

The reason the snowball organized this way is because the person who designed it looked at the snowball mathematically. Of course it makes sense to attack the highest interest rate first because that is costing you more money than a lower interest rate. Makes sense, right?

Only mathematically, and as Dave Ramsey is fond of pointing out, if we were mathematically smart with our money, we’d never go into debt in the first place.

Dave Ramsey modifies the snowball slightly. Instead of listing debts by interest rates, he lists them by amounts with the smallest total debt at the top. The rest is the same, but instead of hitting interest rates, you hit amounts.

Why? Because Dave Ramsey understands one key principle of behavior modification: Short-term goals have more lasting power to actually change you than long-term goals. The interest-first method does not empower you with quick successes, quick goals that you accomplish almost immediately and can build on as a foundation. Dave Ramsey’s plan does.

As you seek to change behavior, don’t fool yourself into believing that a forever goal will change you immediately. Rather, rely on the short-term escalation of a repeated pattern to create new habits and new behaviors. A home is not built simply by stating, “I’m going to build a home.” It’s put together over time, each piece placed properly over time.

Why should we be any different?

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