I like progressive extremism

No, I am not talking about politics.

I recently read an article by Nir Eyal on the Behavioral Scientist. Nir is a motivational speaker and talks a lot about how to form healthy habits in life. But in this article, he describes how he was challenged by an overweight lady in his audience that her problem is not forming new habits but breaking existing habits that are bad for her. Luckily, I am not obese (though I am overweight), but as I have said on Wednesday in my post on rule eight of The Virtuous Investor, I am a chocaholic. And trying to reduce my sugar consumption in life has been impossible for me.

It is the same issue that obese people have with overeating. We know it is bad for us, but we don’t know how to give it up. And no, public shaming does not work at all, as James Corden has so passionately explained in reaction to a rant by Bill Maher about fat people:

What Nir Eyal recommends in order to overcome bad habits is what he calls progressive extremism. He recommends starting with a small thing that you can easily give up in life. For example, in my case, I could give up cookies. While I love chocolate, cutting out cookies won’t be too difficult for me because they are not very close to the top of my list of chocolatey things to eat. Then, he suggests, writing down your decision to cut out cookies from your diet for good in order to provide some subtle pressure on you to stick to this commitment. This sounds like great advice because writing something down is also a way to create discipline in your investment process as I have described in rule seven of The Virtuous Investor

Then comes the hard part (at least, I think this is going to be the hard part for me). Be patient. Try to stick to this rule for several weeks and review your commitment regularly (Eyal recommends every six weeks). I am a naturally impatient person so sticking to some rule, even if it is a simple rule that is easy to follow for weeks on end without seeing any changes is going to be hard for me. I am likely tempted to avoid cookies for a week, then think I have mastered this step and move on to the next thing to cut out of my diet. 

The problem is, if you move too fast, you tend to overwhelm yourself with too many things to avoid and it becomes frustrating. I think the trick with Eyal’s progressive extremism lies in doing it one small step at a time and not escalating too quickly. Once you have lived for several weeks without the old habit (e.g. eating cookies), you can pat yourself on the shoulder and move on to the next habit you want to overcome.

It is arguably a slow process, but I will give it a try because it seems like it is much easier to master this technique than to go cold turkey with bad habits as I have done so often in the past – and failed. But before I do so, I will probably buy Eyal’s book to get some more insights into his technique.

Progressive extremism

Source: Based on Nir Eyal.