Part 4 How to Change Behaviours & Bad Habits

Updated: May 17

Fourth Law: Make it satisfying (reward)

To understand this last law, let’s go back to the basics of behaviourism. Behaviour that is reinforced – rewarded – is likely to be repeated, and behavioural responses that are not rewarded, abate over time. Moreover, behaviour tends to be governed by what happens right after it, rather than later on (e.g., the cake tastes great now, but remorse for the failed diet comes later). We work assiduously for several weeks for a single pay cheque. We save for years for our own home. We work out hard for months in the gym to attain a future vision of a lean body. Yet we are still wired in the same way as our hunter gatherer paleolithic ancestors, who needed immediate returns, meaning that our brains prioritise the present moment over later rewards!

The immediate results of our behaviour are often the opposite of the desired long-term results. We have fun staying up late watching videos now, but eventually get sleep disorders. We splurge on the designer shoes now and don’t meet our savings deadline for the cherished summer holiday. As French economist Frederic Bastiat observed, “The sweeter the first fruit of a habit, the bitterer are its later fruits” (Oklahoma Council of Public Affairs (OCPA), 2010). So the question at the Fourth Law of Behaviour Change is this: being aware of the brain’s tendency to prioritise the present moment, how can we make new habits satisfying, knowing that behaviour that is immediately rewarded is repeated, but behaviour that is immediately punished is avoided?

The answer is to turn immediate gratification to our advantage. Here are some techniques for how to do that.

1. Find a way to feel successful right away

Let’s say you’re saving for a new car. You walk by that camera you have been coveting and don’t buy it; maybe it cost $700. Now you have $700 that you can put toward the car. Transfer it right away to the “new car savings account” to feel successful immediately by making the reward visible, and thus more satisfying.

You can also create identity-based habits.

2. Change your identity, not your desired outcome

Let’s say a woman goes to the gym to become lean and fit. In essence, she is saying that she would like to have a new identity: one as a fit, slender person. The gym workout is aligned with the long-term goal to become that person. But let’s say she comes home from the workout and gorges on chips. Brain wiring being what it is, she succumbs to the temptation to have an instant reward: the chips after the workout. Chips would not necessarily be a poor reward for all behaviours, but in this case, they run counter to her new desired identity: that of a fit, slender person. How successful can it be, long-term, to install a habit where part of the habit loop has an identity conflict with the other part?

Many people start with the outcome they want to achieve, figure out what processes they need, and hope to thereby arrive at a new identity.

Outcome-based habits

The problem is that many will never arrive at that layer of identity (the layer closest to the self), so Clear (2018) advises starting with identity. Achieving identity-based habits starts in the opposite direction: with a focus on who we wish to become, followed by the seeking of processes to assist that, and ending with an outcome which has a chance to “stick”. It looks like Figure 5.

Identity-based habits

Habit expert Nir Eyal observes that we can think of this shift as “don’t” versus “can’t”. Aligning with a certain identify (i.e., “I don’t drink) makes it easier to stay on track than relying on willpower (i.e., “I can’t drink alcohol; I’m trying to give it up”). Our choices become what we do because of who we are.

3. Keep habits on track by tracking them

While a good habit is quietly becoming “installed” in our brain’s hardware, we can rely on extrinsic rewards to make it satisfying and obvious. One way to do that is by tracking or measuring the days on which we have performed the new habit. Do you suffer from a sleep disorder and you’re seriously trying to get to bed earlier? After affirming your new identity as a good sleeper, start marking on the calendar every day that you manage to get lights out by 10:00, or whatever your sleep start goal is. (New technology can help tremendously here. Some tracking devices, with all that they can measure, track progress for you as you gradually improve your sleep hygiene and capacity to sleep early, sufficiently, and well.)

4. Find an accountability partner, sign a habit contract

As we invert the Fourth Law of Behaviour Change – make it satisfying – we get the injunction to make unwanted behaviours unsatisfying. Note that, given our mental wiring to prioritise immediate effects of an action over later ones, we should make the behaviour immediately unsatisfying. Remembering that we repeat bad habits because they serve us in some way, we can ask how we make them unsatisfying.

Want to be well thought of and approved by many, if not most, who know you? Then you will be loath to go back on a habit contract you made to an accountability partner. It is a promise you made – even if you made it about actions that you will take (such as exercising every day) which affect only you. The bottom line is that, if someone is watching, you don’t want to be seen as a person who is not reliable and does not keep their promises (even to themselves), so you are more likely to put up with the pain of the newly-forming habit (e.g., the effort and sweat of exercise, the food restrictions of a diet) than if you were left to your own devices.

An accountability partner could be an intimate partner, a friend, a mentor, a fellow exerciser, or just about anybody. The critical factor is that the person does, indeed, hold you accountable. Perhaps you promise to donate X dollars to their favourite charity if you light up after deciding to quit. Maybe you agree to clean the person’s toilets or wash their car if you abandon your new good intentions more than twice in a fortnight. There are endless variations here; they just need to make it instantly painful for you to not go ahead with your chosen habit.

The bottom line on applying the Fourth Law is that we need to make (or help clients make) good habits as satisfying and rewarding as possible, while rendering the old, bad habits unrewarding.


“We first make our habits; then our habits make us” (Dryden, 2017).

These four laws (see Part 1, Part 2, Part 3), form an excellent framework for looking at habit formation and elimination in general.

An accountability partner, mentor, friend, or therapist can really help with progress towards changing habits and creating new desirable behavioural and new healthy patterns.


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