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Want Better Habits? Stop Making This Very Common Mistake - (Archived)

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I’m going to present two simple scenarios, and I want you to think about how you’d respond to each.

Scenario 1:

I sit you down and present two options for how to spend your time over the next hour. One is to play a video game with some friends (in this scenario, you like video games). The other is to spend it planning a big, important trip you’ll take next month.

I give you all the pros and cons you need to decide, and I explain clearly that choosing the video game will mean having fun now and seeing your friends but will seriously jeopardize your trip. You also understand choosing to plan the trip will make you feel amazing later and you’ll regret choosing the video game.

Given this information, which choice would you make?

Scenario 2:

You own a MacBook. You’ve bought three of them so far, and your current one is about to die. We’re at the store together, and I’m helping you choose a replacement. We’re comparing the newest MacBook to another machine from Dell. The Dell has better specs across the board, and it’s also less expensive. But, there’s no information about the Dell’s battery. It could be good or it could be bad—we don’t know.

Given the better specs of the Dell, how concerned would you be about the battery? And what are the chances you’d still choose the MacBook?

I posed these same questions to myself and, of course, decided I’d take the logical choices: I’d plan for my upcoming trip, and I’d choose the Dell—if all the other specs are better, why wouldn’t the battery be better, also?

But much research shows what I think I’d do in these situations is completely different from what I’d actually do.

In fact, you and I are more than twice as likely to choose the video game, and we’d be very suspicious of the Dell’s battery. We’d choose the MacBook instead.

Basically, we’ll choose short-term rewards that reinforce bad habits rather than long-term gains that build good ones.

The good news, though, is a few simple tricks exist you can use to reverse this problem and guarantee you start spending your time and effort building the good habits that will make you a smarter and more adventurous risk-taker.

If this all sounds crazy, keep reading.

Less Information = Better Decisions

In almost any situation, you’d think more information would help you make a better decision. After all, we spend our whole lives seeking information to help us live better, everyone wants to know what’s going on in the world, and countries spend all their money spying and gathering “intelligence” on each other.

But what if I told you the reality is that less information will help you make better long-term decisions?

That’s exactly what a team of researchers at the University of Texas found, when they studied the decision-making habits of 78 otherwise intelligent people.

When the volunteers were given complete information about two choices—one with an immediate reward and one with a much bigger, long-term benefit—they chose the short-term reward more than twice as often.

But here’s what’s really interesting. The bias for smaller, short-term gains disappeared when the volunteers weren’t given complete information about their choices. When they were kept in the dark about the pros and cons, more people chose the bigger, long-term reward.

This really is better living through uncertainty.

Here’s something even crazier.

When a couple researches from Columbia and Stanford studied how you make decisions about what products to buy, they found if you already know a product (ie. you have the habit of purchasing it), you’ll happily overlook missing information about it that would tell you how good it actually is.

If you’re looking at an unfamiliar product, you’ll be highly suspicious of the same missing information!

We think our taste for quality informs our choices, but actually it’s the opposite: our choices inform our taste, and then we lie to ourselves about what we chose.

What this means for you is if you have a bad habit now, trying to fully understand that habit will only make you prefer it more and, because you’re familiar with it, you’ll overlook information that would make it less attractive.

This basically flips most of what we think we naturally know about building good habits on its head. It means ditching a bad habit and building a good one requires a different approach from what you’re probably used to.

Here’s what to do.

Here’s What Will Help Good Habits Stick

So you know what you’re up against:

  1. The more you weigh the pros and cons of good and bad decisions, the more you’ll choose the bad one.
  2. The more familiar you are with a bad habit, the more you’ll overlook information that would help you see it as harmful.

But what are you supposed to actually do with this information?

First, realize the more you search for information about poor choices, the more you’ll reinforce those bad decisions. Instead, the best option is to take your focus away from the bad choices altogether and focus on the good ones—the changes you want to make—instead.

Any parent with an ornery child knows exactly how this works. The more you focus on the temper tantrum, the more temper tantrum you get! You’ll fare better ignoring your child when he’s being a little jerk and rewarding and reinforcing his behavior when he’s eating his vegetables and playing nicely with the cat.

The same is true of your habits. If you want to stop eating junk food and start exercising, forget about stopping the junk food habit. Just focus on exercising more. As you start to see and feel the long-term benefits of working out, you won’t want to eat junk food anymore.

Once you have enough good habits, you won’t have time for bad ones!

And to help you cope with the agony of waiting for good long-term benefits to come when bad short-term relief is always just around the corner, don’t rely on willpower to overcome your desires. Instead, look for ways to create small milestones on your way to greater success that will satisfy the craving for immediate results.

Now, you can focus on short-term benefits that contribute to your long-term goals.

Do This In The Next 10 Minutes

This all sounds great and you’re excited to put your new knowledge to work. But let’s be honest; you’re more likely to go check out Facebook, text a friend, and forget all about this lesson in a few minutes.

Let’s flip that script. You’ve invested time—real time you’re not going to get back—into reading this article.

Here’s what I want you to do now to put it to work and start reinforcing good habits in your life.

  1. Grab a notebook/piece of scrap paper/napkin/whatever’s closest to you and a pen.
  2. Write down one good habit you want to work on that will make your life better. Maybe it’s riding your bike or writing or going to the gym. Doesn’t matter what it is.
  3. Write down the long-term vision. How is this habit going to make your life better. (Hint: focus on lifestyle changes)
  4. Now, create a very small milestone. Pick something really small you can do to support this new habit. It should be small enough to finish by the end of the day.
  5. Leave a comment letting us all know what you’re going to do by the end of the day. Bonus points if you come update us again when you’ve completed it.

Stop fighting your bad habits, and start focusing on your good ones instead. This is science that’s going to help you live a better life, and it gives you permission to forget about (the more difficult) half of the equation. It doesn’t get much better than that.

Additional sources for this article:
What Happens to Your Brain When You Eat Junk Food (And Why We Crave It)

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