So what is behaviour change? Literally hundreds of books, television shows and self-development workshops are dedicated to this topic. Yet it is debatable how much benefit people actually get from them. Or if they do, the change is not long lasting. In this post I look at conscious and unconscious change and explain that if people wish to truly change their lives (or a certain area or behaviour) then they must change at all levels of human consciousness.
So what is the difference between conscious and unconscious change or learning? Conscious learning happens in our forebrain where we do all of our intellectual thinking. For example, if you read a book on dieting, your brain gathers information that can be used towards improving your diet. However, unconscious change doesn’t happen until you actually put into practice your new diet and start eating healthily. Experts suggest that new habits take 2-3 weeks to form. So unconscious change is about implementation of behaviours and conscious change is about gathering new knowledge. The main problem in reality is people acquire heaps of information, but spend minimal amounts of time actually putting what they learnt into practice. Why? Because it is easy to take in information but much harder (and slower) to implement it in your life. Shortly, I’ll explain how to learn a way that establishes unconscious change (in the moment) without spending the standard 2-3 weeks to form a new habit.
The dominant model of behaviour change is called the “Transtheoretical Model of Behaviour Change” (TTM). According to the model people progress through 5 stages of behaviour change before forming a new habit to making change in life.
Stage 1: Pre-Contemplation (Subconsciousness). At this stage a person is unaware that they have a problem and have no intention to change their life in any meaningful way. When weighing up the pros and cons of changing their behaviour, the cons far out weigh the pros. This decision making process is called Decisional Balance.
Stage 2: Contemplation (Consciousness). At this point an individual realises they need to make some change, but are not ready to commit to action yet.
Stage 3: Preparation (Pre-Action). A person now decides that change is needed within the next 3-4 weeks and start taking steps to plan for it e.g. joining the gym (to lose weight), booking to see a psychologist etc.
Stage 4: Action. This is when a person starts changing their behaviour, but the behaviour is not yet a long-term habit.
Stage 5: Maintenance. A person has successfully formed a new long-term habit. In terms of psychological therapy, a client will check in with their psychologist every 1-2 months to ensure they haven’t relapsed. Once they have maintained the behaviour for 6+ months, then the process is complete.
How to learn more quickly
So, is there a quicker way to create unconscious change, other than forming a habit (by changing a behaviour) over a certain period? The answer is yes! Josh Waitzkin’s book, The Art of Learning, deconstructs the learning process. He explains that the passive way that most people learn (e.g. reading a book, watching a lecture, listen to someone explaining something to you) is a very slow and ineffective way to learn anything. Instead he recommends that learning has an experiential, somatic or emotional component.
In the world of therapy or self-development we talk about experiential learning. Whereby the person teaching (counsellor/trainer) not only embodies (in themselves) what they’re teaching, but actually provides the ‘student’ with an experience of behaviour change in the session. The self development courses that had the biggest impact on me have been the ones that were taught in this way. For example, if you wish to develop assertiveness skills and if you see someone embodying assertiveness — this ‘experience’ of assertiveness gives your brain a clear reference point for when you try being more assertive in your relationships. Studies suggest that our brain is horrible at remember intellectual facts from a workshop or book (for example). But experiences and emotions stay with us for a lifetime. And therefore can be ‘referenced’ when we try and fly solo to implement the unconscious learning in our lives.
Behaviour change is about subtracting behaviours
Another way of looking at unconscious learning is becoming aware of our unconscious behaviours, usually in reaction to our environment that stops us from truly changing. Tim Ferris wrote the Four Hour Workweek and is a world leading authority on this topic. He coined the phrase Lifestyle Design as a method for consciously being aware of all of your unconscious behaviours. Examples may include: email checking behaviour, food or alcohol consumption, social media use but can include stronger behaviours like drug use and even anger or violence in relationships.
Unconscious behaviour change can be merely about subtracting unhelpful behaviours (which are usually automatic). Easier said than done. To apply this principle, try breaking your life up and focusing on your daily routines. For me I found that unconscious behaviours I’d like to change are around my email checking behaviour, media consumption, food and exercise. Making a few basic changes such as using the website blocking tool Freedom, getting my meals delivered through You Foodz, joining my local gym, and committing to reading in-depth books as opposed to on-line news content has had a huge impact and allowed me to make real change in my life. For example, I’m more focused at work, have better relationships and am fit and healthy.
So what is the point
Meaningful change is hard and most people fail to do it. This is mainly due to laziness. To change this you have 2 options. Either you start to learn in a more experiential or emotional way and/ or you try to implement knowledge. This will probably mean that you consume less content and spend more time reflecting and implementing.