Don't Go Changing... Instead, Change Your Situation
There’s a very simple, very clever and very effective way to increase your chances of achieving your goals. Yet few of us know about it, and hardly any of us are using it...
It’s based on seeing through a common misunderstanding: that we are rational, and make good decisions. (A quick glance around at the world might be enough to suggest otherwise – but still we persist in believing it!)
What percentage of people choose to donate their organs after their death, would you say? Would you guess as low as 15% - or as high as 90%? Funnily enough, whichever of those two answers you picked, you’d be right… depending on where people live. If they live in countries such as the US, rates are very low; in Austria and Germany, it’s over 90%.
Why is this? Are the people so very different? It turns out there’s a very simple way to get rates up to the levels Austria and Germany are achieving: have an opt-out system rather than an opt-in one.
Similarly, over a decade ago New Zealand realised it had a problem: not enough people were saving, and those that were weren’t doing so consistently or enough. So the government implemented ‘KiwiSaver,’ a retirement-saving scheme with a default contribution rate of 4% of pay. Workers had three weeks to opt out (it’s now been reduced to just a fortnight). If they didn’t do anything, they were automatically enrolled into the scheme.
Prior to its introduction, just 15% of the workforce was enrolled in a works savings scheme. By 2016, more than three-quarters of New Zealand’s 18-64-year-olds were enrolled.
So what’s happening here, and how can we use these examples in our own lives? Well, most of us want to change things about ourselves. Perhaps we want to stop smoking, or lose weight, or do more with our lives. Most of us rely on our willpower to make that change. And most of us fail.
It’s no coincidence that we use our willpower and we fail, because it means that every time we’re faced with temptation we have to make a difficult choice – a choice between what’s enjoyable right now (a second on the lips) and what is worthwhile for the future (avoiding a lifetime on the hips). You can be faced with temptation 20 times a day and be strong 19… and still you’re failing once every day.
What’s the alternative? Well, instead of trying to change yourself (just by being stronger willed, or ‘just saying no’), look at ways you can change your situation. For example…
You can’t smoke the cigarette you don’t have
You can’t eat the biscuit that’s not there
You don’t have to resist the cake that doesn’t exist.
Now of course habits aren’t so simple, and urges are strong. But as the famous poet WH Auden wisely observed, habit is a powerful friend (and an equally powerful enemy):
"A modern stoic knows that the surest way to discipline passion is to discipline time; decide what you want or ought to do during the day, then always do it at exactly the same moment every day, and passion will give you no trouble.”
It’s the same observation, put slightly differently: change your situation (set up good reliable habits) and give up trying to change your self.