In the last few weeks of Oprah’s show, I heard her say several times, “When you know better, you do better.”
Catchy, makes sense, yet I couldn’t help thinking,
“So what’s my problem? “Why do I keep eating these cheese balls, and watching stupid movies I’ve seen before? Why do I find myself doing things that I know are distracting … destructive even, and not doing things that I know will make a huge difference in my life?”
“Dr. Phil, what’s wrong with me?”
And clearly I’m not alone; just look at the guy with the hacking cough lighting up a cigarette, the 300 pounder eating even more candy, and Tiger Woods playing holes he shouldn’t.
We know better Oprah? Why aren’t we doing better?
Knowledge is only the first requirement
So clearly knowing better is not enough to cause change.
But knowledge is the start. It is the minimum requirement or first ingredient for change to occur, or for “doing better,” as Oprah would say.
But while knowing better must be present for change to occur it is not sufficient for change to happen. For people to do better (change) there are …
Two more requirements
After knowledge there are two things required for change to occur; at least for us to do better than we’re doing now.
(1) Immediate consequence
The first and I think most important requirement is consequence.
This is biological.
The human brain is wired to respond to pleasure and pain. We will respond immediately and appropriately to pain by moving away from it/stopping the actions that cause it, and to pleasure by moving towards it/repeating the actions that cause it.
So for any change to occur, people must make the connection of consequence (pain or pleasure) with some action/behavior they are taking. There are certain characteristics of consequence for people to make this connection.
(a) Consequence must be immediate or imminent
We must feel the consequence in the present e.g. your spouse walking out the door because of your gambling, drinking, philandering, stamp collecting etc.
Or the consequence must be imminent. We must see the danger about to happen, like how Tiger must have felt when his wife discovered those text messages. Ouch.
Unfortunately, if the pain or pleasure is not at least on the horizon i.e. if any consequence is not immediate or imminent to ourselves we may not take the appropriate action; appropriate action being action that is in our long-term best interest.
Even more unfortunate is that many actions that are bad for us actually give short-term or immediate feedback to the contrary.
They give a false or decoy consequence in the present!
Having that cigarette now, the cheeseburger with double cheese, or cheating on your spouse actually feels good in the moment.
Yet we know of the true consequence to all of these actions but they are in the distant future, and therefore don’t feel their impact now. We may even tell ourselves that they may never happen. (We all have heard of the uncle who smoked three packs a day for seventy years and died of natural causes at 97.)
This is why we don’t mobilize with any urgency around climate change/global warming. It’s too far in the future and we don’t feel the consequences personally.
Which brings up another important characteristic of consequence.
(b) Consequence must be felt personally
For consequence to be effective at having us change, it must be felt personally, emotionally.
We won’t take action unless we see how that consequence relates to us, and moves us emotionally in some way. That might sound terrible, but there’s nothing right or wrong about it.
That’s just how we are wired.
Even truly generous acts are motivated out of the higher consciousness of people who get that we are all connected and therefore they are helping themselves.
(c) Consequence must be over some threshold of pain/pleasure
For us to take action, the consequence must be over some threshold of pain or pleasure.
That threshold will vary from person to person, but if it’s below your threshold you will not change your behavior.
For some people getting fired may not be sufficiently painful to stop them from drinking, but their wife and child leaving might.
Consequence that is sudden and extreme is also much more effective at producing change than consequence that creeps up gradually over time.
This explains the phenomenon of the frog staying in gradually warming water until it dies. If the water was heated very quickly the frog would jump out, but if the water heats up very slowly the frog will stay and die.
Collectively, this could be what’s happening to us right now as we pay only lip service to climate change.
Personally, there may be a situation you’re currently in that has gradually accumulated over the years.
The second requirement is structure.
By structure I mean the people and things around you that make up your environment as well as the daily practices that you have embodied to the point that they become habit or routines.
There’s way too much in structure to talk about here, but suffice it to say that if you’re an alcoholic and your friends are too, you live in Las Vegas, and your daily routine is to stop by your favorite casino to play poker with the locals then you are unlikely to “do better” unless you change that structure in your life.
Structural changes are vital for change to “stick” and you may not be able to change structure by yourself. More often than not you will need new friends, jobs, neighborhoods, even spouses to affect the change that will give you what you say you want in life.
What can you do if you want to “…do better?”
You’ve heard the old Grouch Marx joke, Patient,
“Doctor, it hurts when I do this.”
Doctor, “Well, stop doing that.”
Silly joke, but it has a certain childlike logic that is hard to avoid. If the things you are doing in your life are causing you pain, then stop doing those things.
Which brings us back full circle to where this article began. What can “make” you do the things you know you need to do?
Cross your threshold of pain/pleasure
If there’s something that is bothering you, but you have not been able to do anything about it, it’s probably because you haven’t crossed your threshold of pain/pleasure yet.
You may be like the frog in the water that’s been slowly heating up.
But one thing is clear: until you cross that threshold you won’t do anything to change your circumstance.
So perhaps you need to engineer a crisis, something to take you over that threshold.
One way you can engineer a crisis is by telling a group of people that matter to you about your situation and your commitment to change it. Nothing motivates like public shame of failing to keep a commitment.
Crossing the threshold for pleasure, pleasure as a future consequence is much harder to do.
This also is biological. Pain is just a much better motivator for action than pleasure.
There are books related to visualization and controversial “laws” like “the Secret” that may or may not help you in this regard.
You could also reach out to a coach, therapist or join a group of people who have similar problems.
Change the structure that surrounds you
Changing the layout of your living room, kitchen, office etc. influences what you can do in those rooms and how well you do it.
Hiding the TV for example and not making it front and center of your living room will allow you to make better choices with the time you spend in that room.
Getting rid of it altogether is a structural change that will force a dramatic change in how you spend your time.
Quitting some or all of your friends and acquiring new ones who have the habits and practices that you seek to develop will be the best catalyst for positive change in your life.
Go to a personal development seminar
If you’ve ever been to a personal development seminar like one of those offered by Tony Robbins or Landmark Education you’ll know that sense of motivation and belief in the change that’s possible in your life.
That’s because all three ingredients are present, the knowledge, the consequence of not acting, and the structure i.e. the new environment, and the new people.
Because participants return home to their old structures (and don’t change it) is why most people tend to revert—almost, but not completely—to the way they were before.
Conclusion – Insanity doesn’t become you
In summary, knowing better is NOT enough for you to do better.
Taking effective action for change in your life requires a clear and emotional connection to consequence as well as new structures in your life that continually bring forth or stimulate the new behaviors that cause the new results.
There are things you can do to make consequence and structure work for you e.g. quitting your job, making public declarations, or taking a personal development seminar, but you must act.
And you can’t do it alone.
Reach out to people in your situation who have made the change you desire, ask them to coach you or help you find one. Look for teachers that can provide the knowledge as well as help you find or create structures that will help you change.
The one thing I know for sure is that if you do nothing, nothing will change.
And I know that you know better.
“Insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results.”
Albert Einstein or Rita Mae Brown