Harry Smith

Decide Implement Maintain - How to make Lasting Change

The three stages to designing behavioural changes that last.

If I were to try to describe myself in a single sentence, one strong candidate may be this.

I am a student of behavioural change.

I have done a lot of things in the last decade. I got a degree. I’ve travelled. I’ve worked all over the world. When I reflect on my achievements, it is the behavioural changes that had the greatest impact. Things like:

  • Getting up before 6AM
  • Reading for many hours a day
  • Writing these essays
  • Abstaining from alcohol
  • Eating a low sugar, low carb diet
  • Regular exercise

Some of these changes are less than a year old, but some of them are much older. In some regard most have been progress in one way or another for the last ten years. Changing your behaviours is fundamental because it is hard. There are many pitfalls.

The difficulty lies in the maintaining of any behavioural change. These changes, though positive, are subject to an endless internal turmoil. Within us all lives a much darker, wilder and unregulated self. The ‘Harry Under The Bed’ wants his whiskey, he wants his biscuits and he wants to sleep in till noon.

To cage the beast, and avoid failure, you must design change with this in mind. It’s no exaggeration to ask “what can I reasonably expect myself to do everyday for the rest of my life?”. From answering this question you are able to affect real, meaningful change.

But I didn’t always know that.

My early attempts at behavioural change start in my late teenage years. When you feel your sudden lacking self confidence with potency. I was a bit of a gremlin - all night gaming sessions, poor hygiene and rarely rose before the afternoon sun. I fuelled myself with a distasteful mixture of Burger King, Dr. Pepper and Maom’s.

But things were not well. I was desperate in my restlessness. I felt a potential to do more, to create, build, learn, engage with the world around me. I knew I had become trapped in a malaise that I could not shake. I tried to implement many changes - bodyweight fitness, eating less rubbish, going to bed on time. But my new protocols were no match for the dopamine superhighway. The ‘Harry Under The Bed’ had the reigns and he wasn’t letting go.

I spent hours trying to decide what it was I needed to do, and researching how I needed to do it. This is an all too common mistake. To wallow in analysis paralysis and endless research feels great. It manages to scratch a sweet point between feeling engaged while avoiding any real work.

I have since realised that those decide and implement phases are the least important of all.

Now, I relfect on all three phases when making a change: decide, implement and maintain but not in the same way. I have developed a good framework for how to think about each of these:

Decide (10% of time and effort)

It is imperative that you move through the decide phase as fast as is possible. Do not delay action for theory and research. Getting started is the best way to learn. You can spend a long time thinking about something when you could spend five minutes trying it.

Decide on a goal that is well defined and and clear with the minimum amount of thinking necesary.

Relevant tools: SMART, OKRs, BSQ

Implement (10% of time and effort)

The implementation phase does not refer to the actual doing of any change. That all lies within the maintenance phase (albiet the first step of this phase). This phase is the gathering of resources and tools needed to make the change.

Do not make any decision about frequency, time or location. These are all better informed by our maintain phase thinking. Focus on equipment and minimum skill acquisition.

Maintain (80% of time and effort)

Think about when, where and how you will make this change over the long term. Focus on designing a change that is maintainable, consistent and effective. Use the following rules:

The One Year Minimum Think about this change as if you were implementing it for at least one year, even if you don’t plan to do so. Consider all the things that happen in a typical year and take them into account.

  • Do you travel often?
  • How would you do this on holiday?
  • What will you do when you are sick?
  • What can you commit to and maintain for a year?
  • What unexpected interruptions occour most often, and would throw you off?

With these limitations and context in mind you can make a clear decision on what is possible.

95% Adherence Protocol

To be successful 95% of the time means that 1 in 20 attempts will fail. I have found this to be a realistic minimum adherence rate for any behaviour change. If your chosen protocol fails more often, the intensity or volume is too high. If it never fails at all, it is too low. Long habit chains are satisfying but do not push you to make continous improvement. Over time a behavioural change becomes easier and failure occours less often. Increase the volume and intensity to bring you back to that magic 95% number.

Minimum Effective Dosage

Find the minimum amount of activity needed to make progress. Playing guitar for a few minutes is unlikely to make any significant progress - even over the long term. As skill rises, the MED for progress will lengthen as well. This will provide a natural progression to your goals.

Failure Responses

Expect failure on occasion, and 1 in 20 times is a reasonable expectation. When and how you fail is important. Use this information to adapt a protocol to be more suitable to your needs. Many failures in a row should be a big red flag that something is wrong. Failure that persists after many protocol changes suggests a more fundamental problem.

Simple Actions, Big Consequences

When you give small, concrete steps the time and space they need to compound, the result is huge change. The further you can stretch your long term thinking, the better your decisions will be. Most short term gains result in long term losses. Set your mind on the horizon and a whole class of problems and temptations falls away. Almost two years ago I made the small step of putting down a drink, and I’ve kept taking that small step everyday. That’s not to say it was easy - even small steps can be monumentous struggles.

That small step has become the seed which has blossomed into a new life unrecognisable from my past. I can not understate the profundity of the change. Take your own small step today - the effort is low but the payoff is phenomonal.

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