There is no Nobel Prize awarded in the field of Psychology. But Psychologist Daniel Kahneman of Princeton University received the 2002 Nobel Prize … in Economics, making him the only Psychologist ever to receive a Nobel Prize. Kahneman received the Prize for integrating psychological insights into economics, especially about how people make judgments and decisions. It turns out that people often make irrational, illogical, incorrect decisions because they tend to think first with their automatic, easy-to-access thoughts, and only later use their deliberate, rational thinking. In other words, people tend to make most decisions automatically. (I highly recommend Kahneman’s full prize lecture here which details his work with the late Amos Tversky).
Think about it. We move around automatically. We eat automatically. We drive automatically. We judge first impressions automatically. Sometimes, we exercise on an exercise bike automatically while reading a book – with absolutely no deliberate thought to the biking.
Why do we do this? Because it’s easier. It is easier to not think about every infinitesimal potential decision of the day. This is why we generalize. This is why we use routines. Gary Klein, author of Sources of Power, says most behavior is automatic, unproblematic, and successful. We do most of our daily actions because they’re the simple things to do, because they don’t cause us any problems, and because everything usually turns out ok.
So we may eat cookies because we’re used to eating cookies, we may not go to the gym tomorrow because we didn’t yesterday, we may not take active steps at work to improve our productivity or happiness because what we did today “sort of worked.”
And therein lies the ONE ISSUE in creating a new habit that we set out to conquer today: automatic thoughts and actions are stronger than rational thoughts and actions!
What can we do about this if we are trying to create a new habit? Have you heard of the Jam study? Sheena Iyengar of Columbia University and Mark Lepper of Stanford University set out to learn whether customers prefer to have fewer jams options or more jam options when making a choice of which jam to taste-test and then buy (full study here). One group of potential customers was presented with 6 various jams that they could taste-test, and another group was presented with 24 various flavors. People tasted the jams (and took about as many tastes) in both cases, but people bought about 30% of the time in the 6 jam case, and only 3% in the 24 jam case. What was happening?
Barry Schwartz of Swarthmore College details this behavior in his book The Paradox of Choice. Schwartz writes that with too many choices, people can feel stress, choice paralysis, and maybe most importantly regret. With 6 jams, people may feel that they’re saying no to 5 flavors when choosing a jam, but with 24 jams, people may feel that they’re saying no to 23 flavors! Kahneman and Tversky’s prospect theory shows that people hate bad more than they love good. (For example, finding a $100 bill on the ground makes you feel good, but losing a $100 bill from your wallet makes you feel terrible and think about it long after.)
Therefore, with the jams, it was just not worth it enough to those people to think about buying when, again, the easier option was to not buy. Schwartz discusses in his book other choices and decisions that often leave people deciding not to choose – because of too many choices, the stress of choosing, some degree of paralysis, and potential regret. In fact, Schwartz himself describes that he wears jeans to work every day in order to not make a choice. Any shirt can go with a pair of jeans, so he saves himself the hassle in the morning.
What is he doing in this case? He is creating for himself a GOOD CONSTRAINT. He is limiting his choice to just jeans rather than jeans, black slacks, tan khakis, and orange sweatpants.
Here are some possible examples of good constraints:
- Brushing your teeth every morning and evening
- Dessert only on the weekends
- Going to the gym on Mon, Wed, Fri
- Organizing the desk before leaving for home in the evening
- Washing the dishes before going to bed
Notice how many of these GOOD constraints are tied to a time (morning, evening, Wed, weekend). This makes the constraint concrete, and allows those times of not adhering to the constraint. On the other hand, there are GOOD constraints which are forever constraints, which is very useful in certain cases (no alcohol for an alcoholic, no processed sugar for someone with particular health issues). In fact, William James who argued for “no exception” to the new habit and Samuel Johnson who said, “Abstinence is as easy to me as temperance would be difficult” both agree that those constraints which are firm and permanent are better. That is for you to decide.
Let’s return to automatic thoughts to summarize. Kahneman and Klein agree that automatic thoughts are stronger than deliberate, rational thoughts. Jonathan Haidt of the University of Virginia, in his book The Happiness Hypothesis, compares a large elephant with the automatic processes in a person’s head and the small rider on top of the elephant with the rational processes, “the mind has only limited control of what the elephant does.”
Automatic thoughts are stronger. But what if we use one rational, deliberate thought? What if instead of pinning all automatic thoughts against all the “I should do this” rational thoughts, what if we pin one deliberate, clear thought against those automatic thoughts?
That one thought is the GOOD Constraint. In short, if you have a GOOD constraint, then you have that one rule that you can stick to. It’s non-negotiable. “No, thank you, I don’t eat bread at restaurants.” “No, thank you, I don’t want to take that chocolate home with me.” “Nah, I’m going to run over to the gym because it’s Wednesday.”
Your GOOD Constraints allow you to respect your conscious mental energy. They are your limits and your choices. Rather than face the question every time, “Oh, do I want to have that piece of candy?,” the answer is, “I eat candy only on the weekends, so not today.”
STARTING GOOD Constraints Today
You can choose one of the above constraints or you can create one of your own. Start with one GOOD Constraint as a deliberate thought to counteract all the automatic thoughts of your day. Use one to make it simple. And after that one GOOD Constraint is underway, in a week, in a month – you’ll know when it becomes nearly automatic! – then add other GOOD Constraints to your life.
Furthermore, we know from our discussion about self-regulation, the more you implement a GOOD Constraint into your life, the more you are growing your self-regulation muscle, which will result in it being easier to achieve structure in other parts of your life.
Happy GOOD Constraining!
This article is part 2 of a series on creating new habits and behavior modification (part 1 here).
Kahneman, D. (2000). Choices, Values, and Frames. Cambridge University Press.
Klein, G. (1999). Sources of Power: How People Make Decisions. The MIT Press.
Schwartz, B. (2004). The Paradox of Choice: Why More Is Less. New York: Ecco.