A Two-Step Plan for Changing Your Bad Habits

I was on my cell talking with someone about something — I can’t remember who or what anymore — as I ushered my three children toward our minivan, parked across the street from our apartment.

I held the phone in my right hand and several bags in my left as I struggled to keep the kids from running into the street. Daniel, my two year old, was holding onto my pant leg as Sophia and Isabelle — four and eight — saw the van across the street and started to run to it.

“Wait!” I screamed before they launched themselves off the sidewalk. They stopped just in time to avoid a car that sped by. My adrenaline shot up as I realized the close call. I should have gotten off the phone at that point — it’s obvious now — but I didn’t. I thought I had averted the disaster.

It’s amazing what it takes to change a person’s behavior.

I continued to talk on the phone as I led the kids across the street and into our car. I got into the driver’s seat, turned the ignition and put the car in reverse, twisting around to look behind me, still on the phone. “Get your seat belts on,” I whispered, trying not to interrupt my call as I slowly moved the car back.

That’s when the car’s sensor system began beeping, signaling there was something behind me. I looked out the back window, but didn’t see anything. So, in my rush, still on the phone, gesturing to the kids to put on their seat belts, and moving the car slowly in reverse, I ignored the signal. Even as the beeps got closer together.

Suddenly the car jolted and I heard a crash. I slammed on the brakes and finally got off the phone. I walked around to the back of the car and saw two mangled motorcycles.

I could have noticed them when I got in the car or seen them on the rear view picture that appears on my GPS screen or stopped when the beeps sounded. But I was too distracted.

The thing that really freaks me out is that those motorcycles could have had riders on them. Or they could have been children playing. I got off easy. No one was hurt. But, thankfully, I was shaken.

Driving while talking on a cell phone is the equivalent of drunk driving. And texting is worse: people who text behind the wheel are 23 times more likely to get into an accident because, a recent study shows, a driver sending or receiving a text message spends 4.6 of every six seconds with his eyes off the road.

Those seconds of distraction — the glance at the phone, the almost imperceptible moment of inattention — are the difference between avoiding an accident and creating one.

Here’s what’s interesting: you already know this. We all do.

And yet we still do it. We do all sorts of things that we know are destructive in the long run. Like arguing to prove we’re right when it doesn’t matter. Or answering email while on a conference call.

Why don’t we stop? What’s so hard about not talking on a cell phone while driving? Or stopping an argument before it’s too late?

Amazingly, we think we can get away with it. Because — and I’m not excluding myself here — we lack imagination.

Sure, we think, other people get into accidents while on their cell phones. But it hasn’t happened to me yet. And given my experience of driving and calling without crashing, it’s hard to really imagine that it will. So we keep on talking and driving.

If lack of imagination is the problem, amplifying our imagination and experiencing it in the present could be the solution.

There’s an ongoing argument in the world of behavior change about what works better: fear or incentive? Some argue you need both at the same time. My experience is that you need both, but not at the same time. If you want to change your behavior, start by creating a bit of fear, then experience the reward.

Fear is a great catalyst. It’s the booster rocket, the initial push that moves us through the atmosphere of inertia. Recently I — and over 3.5 million other people — watched a four-minute video dramatizing an accident caused by a teenage girl who was texting while driving. The video shows the gory details of the crash and its aftermath.

I watched the girl, blood covering her face, as she stared in anguish at the friends she had killed. I felt her pain, regret, and devastation.

After seeing that video I stopped using my cell phone in the car. Watching it had given me an experience of my potential future self. I could imagine what it might be like if it had been me driving that car.

What’s so useful about fear is that it’s a current experience of a future possibility. Even if what we fear is in the future, we feel the fear now. And since our decision-making favors current experience, we’re willing to change our behavior to reduce the fear.

But it doesn’t last. I hate to admit it, but within a few days of mangling the motorcycles, and a few days after watching the video, I was back to talking on my cell while driving.

Fear is unsustainable. It’s exhausting and stressful and destructive over time. Its purpose is short-term change. For long-term change, the experience of fear needs to be followed by the experience of a better life.

That’s the second step. The reward. The fulfilled promise of a better present. The nourishment that keeps us going for the long term.

When I realized that, I watched the video again (a booster shot of fear) right before a long drive with my family. Then I paid attention to how it felt to drive without distraction. I got into a groove. I settled in. I enjoyed the driving itself. I had a great conversation with Eleanor, my wife. It turned out to be the nicest drive I had experienced in a long time.

Start by creating a bit of useful fear, and then notice the positive impact of your choice.

In the middle of the argument — the one in which you insist on being right when it doesn’t matter — pause for just a moment to imagine people wanting to avoid future conversations with you. Picture them making an excuse and walking away. Call to mind your performance review with their comments on it. Really see it in the moment. That fear will help you stop.

Then let go of those fear-inducing images and make sure to pay attention to the changing quality of your conversations, the pleasure of other people’s company, and your own reduced stress. That — like the calm, cell-phone-free drive — is the reward that will sustain the change you’ve made.