How to Trick Your Brain to Like Doing Hard Things
How to Trick Your Brain to Like Doing Hard Things I’d like to start with the story, and the story is about Team Sky, which is Great Britain’s professional cycling team. Sometime in the mid-2000s, around 2010, they hired a man named Dave Brailsford. And at the time, Team Sky had a very middle-of-the-road record when it came to performance on the world stage. They had won about one gold medal in the last years from 1988 to 2008. They had never won a Tour de France, the premier event in cycling.
And when they hired Dave Brailsford, they said, we would like to changes. We’d like to improve our performance. We’d like to reach a higher level of performance. What’s your plan to help us do that? And when they hire Brailsford, he said, I have this strategy called the aggregation of marginal gains. And the way that he described it was the one percent improvement in nearly everything that you do. And so, they started by looking at a lot of things you would expect a cycling team to look at. They improved their bike tires, made them slightly lighter. They put a more ergonomic seat on the bike. They had their riders wear biofeedback sensors.
They could see how each person responded to the training and practice that they did each day. They have their outdoor riders wear indoor racing suits because they were lighter and more aerodynamic.
But then they did a variety of things that you wouldn’t expect a cycling team to do. They split, tested different types of massage gels to see which one led to the best form of recovery. They taught their riders how to wash their hands to reduce the risk of infection, keep them healthy. They even figured out what kind of pillow led to the best night’s sleep for each rider and then brought that on the road with them to hotels.
So Brailsford said if we can execute on this strategy, if we can aggregate all these small changes, these little one percent improvements, then I think we can win the Tour de France in about five years. He ended up being wrong. They won the Tour de France in three years and then they repeated the fourth year with a different rider. And then just last year, they won for the third time in four years. And Brelsford’s strategy came to fruition at the Olympics in London in 2012 when they won 70 percent of the gold medals available.
And so, what I’d like to start us off with is the idea that small improvements actually can add up to a very significant change in a relatively short period. And this is just basic math. All right. If you get one percent better each day over three hundred and sixty-five days, you end up thirty-seven times better at the end of the year. If you get one percent worse, you take yourself almost down to zero.
Now you might say, OK, well one percent improvements are nice, but no one is going to get one percent better every single day. So, is that ever enough to accumulate anything, considering that we’re not going to be perfect all the time? And I would argue, yes, in fact, you can get ten times better if you get one percent better. Five days a week. Forty-six weeks a year. So that’s about two hundred and thirty days in total.
That gives you six weeks off for holidays, illness, laziness, and just generally not getting things done. But you’re still ten times better at the end of the year. And what I would like to propose is that the way to do this is not by setting better goals for ourselves or our organizations, but by building better systems and obtaining better habits. You could say that the goal would never change.
They wanted to win the Tour de France each year. They wanted to win Olympic gold medals. It wasn’t a goal that made the difference. Instead, it was their system, the way that they applied those improvements on a one percent basis day after day. There was a study done at Yale University on the psychology of aging, and it was a 23-year study. They talked to people and they went into it. One or two cohorts. The first cohort had positive views of aging.
So, when they asked them how they felt about aging or what their expectations were for old age, they had relatively good things to say. You know, I would be moving into the prime of my life or I’ll be smarter than I’ve ever been before. They were very positive about it. The second group was very negative about it. My body is going to wear down. I don’t have much to look forward to. Everybody gets sick, will die at some point, that type of thing.
What they found was that of the 660 adults in the study, the ones with positive views of aging lived on average seven-point six years longer. And that is a very significant number. Things like exercise and diet don’t account for seven point six years in life expectancy. So why, if your view is positive, the reason is that you’ll take healthy actions as a result. And if your view is negative, you’ll assume that deterioration of your health is inevitable.
If you have a positive view of aging, you’ll say something like, well, I should continue to eat healthily and work out because I feel good about moving into old age. I still have a lot to live for, whereas if you have a negative view of aging, you’ll say something like, what’s the point in me exercising? I’m going to get sick anyway, I’m expecting to get old and so on.
The point here is that there’s a deeper level of behavior change and habit formation than what we often discuss in the way that I would describe it is this the outer layer of behavior change?
Are the results that we get, the outcome, the goal. So that’s the outside layer. Often, we say we need better goals, we need better outcomes, we need better results. We need to hit new sales numbers. And so, to do that, we take one step in on behavior change. When we talk about our actions now, the actions and the results are usually where we stop.
When it comes to habits and behavior change, we say, how can we build better habits? How can we take action on this particular goal? How can we take an action to get a result? But I would argue and that the Yale study would prove this, that there’s a deeper level of behavior change as well. And that level is identity or belief or mindset.
You can take your pick of what you’d like to term it, but the identity that we hold drives the actions that we take and the results that we get. So, in the Yale study, people have a positive identity when it comes to aging. They believe that they should take positive actions and thus they get better results in the long run. We’ll take a common example when it comes to personal habits, weight loss. So, losing twenty pounds or ten kilos over the next six months, that’ll be the outer layer.
That’ll be the result that you’re going for. To lose those 10 kilos, you need to move into the actions that you take. And so that would be something like working out three times a week or eating healthy. But most people stop there. So, for example, in this case, the identity might be I want to become the type of person who doesn’t miss workouts. And my argument is if we focus just on identity, do you become the type of person who doesn’t miss workouts?
If you become the type of person who exercises consistently and only focuses on the core of behavior change, it ripples out to the other layers anyway. So, the key idea here is that a shift in mindset leads to a shift in daily choices and a shift in daily choices leads to significantly better results in the long run. The word priority came into the English language in the 14 hundred, it was singular. It meant the first or very prior thing, and it stayed singular for the next 500 years, only in the nineteen hundred.
Did we pluralize the term and start talking about priorities illogically? We reason that by changing the word, we could bend reality, and somehow, we would now have multiple first things. You hear about this a lot in organizations, they’ll talk about priority one priority to priority three priority for everything is a priority. Everything is urgent, even though we can’t focus on more than one thing at a time. You could also be called ruthless elimination. And when it comes to building better habits and changing behavior in organizations and our personal lives, we have to be ruthless about the things that we focus on.
We have some good data on this. There was a study of parole board judges and there were about a thousand of them, a thousand cases that they looked at in this particular research study. And the parole board judges would have criminals come out, they would sit before the parole board, and then they would vote on whether or not they would be released from prison or have to go back in. You would think what you would hope is that for a criminal to get released from prison, it should be based on the time they serve the type of crime that they did, whether or not they had good behavior, all sorts of things built into the criminal justice system.
What they found, the single biggest factor on whether or not someone was released on parole or whether they had to go back into prison was the time of day that they were seen. So, this is a map of the judge’s decisions throughout the day. You can see that at the beginning of the day it starts around 60 percent likelihood that a criminal would be released on parole. As the morning goes on, the judges get fatigued, their willpower depletes and the odds of you getting a favorable hearing decrease.
That first dotted line is lunch. So, they take a break. The judge’s decision-making spikes right back up to where it was before, then go back down. They take another break in the afternoon and then pretty soon just fall off the cliff in the day ends. Now, this idea is a psychological concept called decision fatigue or ego depletion. And the point here is that the more decisions that we make for the day, the more our willpower and focus get fatigued.
It’s kind of like a muscle, right? If I were to pick up that weight and do curls for a little while, I can do them for a minute or two. But if you catch me 30 minutes from now, I’m not going to have much left. And that’s how our willpower works as well. So, the key idea here is your brain only has so much capacity to provide your willpower like a muscle and similar to muscles that get fatigued.