If you’ve ever tried to make a big change to your life— to accomplish more at work or in school, to get in shape for a marathon, to build a nest egg for retirement— then you know there’s a lot of advice out there about how to succeed. In fact, you’ve probably tried acting on some of it. Maybe you’ve tracked your steps with a Fitbit or set calendar reminders on your phone to practice deep- breathing exercises on your lunch break. Perhaps you’ve cut out your afternoon coffee habit, putting the money you would have spent at the café into a savings account. You know your goals should be specific and measurable. You know the power of positive thinking and incremental progress. You know it’s helpful to have a support group.
Thanks to a booming popular interest in behavioral science, the last two decades have seen an explosion of new research and information about practical tools that can help you change your behavior and encourage others to do the same.
But, as you’ve likely noticed, widely touted techniques don’t always help you, or others, change. You forget to take your medication again, in spite of downloading that goal-setting app to help. You procrastinate on that big quarterly report for your boss in spite of setting daily reminders to work on it.
Why is it that these tools and techniques designed to spur change so often fail? One answer is that change is hard. But a more useful answer is that you haven’t found the right strategy. Just as Andre Agassi spent years falling short of his potential by playing tennis with the wrong approach, we often fail by applying the wrong tactics in our attempts at change.
Like Agassi, we search for solutions that will deliver the quick knockout victory and tend to ignore the specific nature of our adversary. But to give yourself the best chance at success, it’s critical to size up your opponent and develop a strategy tailored to overcome the particular challenges you face. The surest path to success is not one-size-fits-all. Instead, you must match your approach to your opponent. In tennis, there’s a generic playbook that works well: hit hard serves; run your opponent side to side; get to the net whenever you can. It’s not a bad strategy. But if you’re a good tactician, you’ll take advantage of the fact that specific opponents have specific weaknesses. Maybe the player you’re facing can’t handle a low slice to the backhand side. You can torture them with that shot again and again and winning will be far easier.
Behavior change is similar. You can use an all-purpose strategy that works well on average. Set tough goals and break them down into component steps. Visualize success. Work to create habits—tiny ones, atomic ones, keystone ones—following the advice laid out in self-help bestsellers. But you’ll get further faster if you customize your strategy: isolate the weakness preventing progress, and then pounce.
Excerpted from How to Change—The Science of Getting from Where You Are to Where You Want to Be with permission from Penguin Random House.