Creating Behavior Change

This is archived from Nir&Far.

Amateur Behavior Change

An amateur is a person who has an automatic, internal trigger to do a pleasurable behavior requiring relatively little willpower. Amateur habits include many of the behaviors most people do regularly as part of their daily routines. Brushing your teeth, going on a morning walk, or taking your vitamins are just some of the habits that can fill a morning. These behaviors require little willpower or self-control to create daily rituals.

Creation of new amateur behaviors follows a familiar pattern. First, an external trigger reminds the person of the desired behavior. The external trigger may include an alarm, reminder, or can even be an object, like strategically placed dental floss.  Then, if the person has sufficient motivation and the ability to carry out the behavior, he does so. The behavior is repeated multiple times until the external trigger is no longer needed and a new habit is formed.
Methods that work to create an amateur behaviorial change include:

What methods are good for:

  • Creating small, easy to do healthful routines like exercising regularly.
  • Building a small degree of skill like using a new web site or mobile app.
  • Behaviors, which require decisions to be made once or twice a day, like flossing your teeth before bed.

What doesn’t work:

  • Strict goals
  • Competition
  • Guilt or punishment


Expert Behavior Change

An expert is a person who develops an automatic response—sometimes referred to as muscle memory or pattern recognition—that requires a high degree of self-control. Tennis professionals, chess champs, topnotch computer engineers, and highly-trained surgeons exhibit these kinds of automatic behaviors. Becoming an expert requires diligent practice over long periods of time, constantly pushing the body and mind to react instantly in precisely the same way each time. Strict goals and objectives lead to the acquisition of the skill needed to perform at an expert level.

Methods that work to create an expert behaviorial change include:

  • Deliberate practice – example: A musician that focuses on a particularly difficult segment of music, repeatedly playing it until it’s perfect before moving on to learn the next section.
  • Coaching – example: Gymnastics coaches who watch and help improve the gymnast’s form during her routine.
  • Focusing on failures – example: The professional golfer understanding the incorrect hitch in his swing, and focusing on correcting it.
  • Grit and persistence – example: A computer engineer learning to recognize common programing patterns through years of practice.
  • Competition – example:  A chess player who studies competitors’ past games in order to perfect his strategy for an upcoming competition.

What methods are good for:

  • Creating automatic responses during physically or mentally intense sessions.
  • Building a high degree of skill through pattern recognition and “muscle memory”.
  • Improvement of a skill one already possesses at an amateur level.

What doesn’t work:


Habitué Behavior Change

Like the addict, the habitué is a person with an automatic response intended to alleviate pain. In both cases, the addict and the habitué wish to relieve the painful stress of desire. However, unlike the addict, the habitué requires relatively little willpower to resist the automatic behavior. For example, most of us can resist a craving for chocolate cake, though it may be difficult. However, for a heroin addict, resisting the craving for a hit can be nearly impossible.

When breaking habitué behaviors, we need techniques that will improve the strength of our willpower to find peace, despite the discomfort that comes from not fulfilling a desire. Behavior engineers should apply methods proven to improve pain tolerance.

Methods that work to create a habitue behaviorial change include:

What methods are good for:

  • Coping with temptation requiring a small amount of willpower, for example when resisting an unhealthy food
  • Expanding the ability to delay gratification

What doesn’t work:

  • Keeping score
  • Operant conditioning
  • Punishment


Addict Behavior Change

An addict will go to great lengths to satiate a nearly uncontrollable desire. Addicts often display self-destructive behaviors in pursuit of their urges. Addiction is characterized by a dopamine response, which requires a tremendous amount of willpower to decouple from the stimulus. Studies have shown that addiction induces a severe stress response when the brain perceives the presence of the object of desire. Partaking in the unhealthy behavior becomes a compulsion to temporarily free oneself from the painful stress associated with craving.
Methods for breaking the addict’s automatic behaviors include:

  • Abstinence / “detox”
  • Involved social support and coaching
  • Replacement therapy
  • Strict tasks and guidelines around the addictive behaviors

What the methods are good for:

  • Stopping a self-destructive, nearly uncontrollable urge such as a chemical dependency

What doesn’t work:

  • Baby steps
  • Punishment
  • Continued access to or reminders of the addictive substance or behavior


  • 12-Step programs such as Alcoholics Anonymous
  • Rehabilitation centers
  • Addiction specialists and therapist

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