Slice of Sunshine: Switch or Dial?

Our brains do not like uncertainty.

For safety, we are “wired” to look for predictability and when that is not available, we may find ourselves trying to create it. One way this can manifest itself is by adopting what we could call a “switch mindset”: something is either ON or it is OFF.

I either practice yoga every day for an hour or I am not practicing at all.

I am “off sugar” (or carbs, or alcohol) or I am eating and drinking all the things.

I am serious about writing my book or I am not writing.

While this switch mindset may create a form of certainty, it can force us into black-or-white thinking that doesn’t allow for grey. In my experience, there’s actually a heckuvalot of grey.

So maybe it will help to consider a dial instead of a switch.

Picture of a black and silver dial that goes from zero to one hundred, and a toggle switch with on and off clearly labeled.
Look how many increments there are on that dial!

Incremental change may lead to better results for a few reasons: it can override the resistance that can arise with the integration of any new behavior (the “But I don’t want to” voice); it can reduce the deprivation mindset that can kick in with an all-or-nothing approach (which often results in a boomerang effect of the behavior); and it can alleviate the feeling of being a failure when our behavior change doesn’t hit the mark (on or off can be a pretty high bar).

Of course, sometimes just shutting something off—or turning it on—is the way to go. The switch approach is often most successful when we are truly at our wits end or when incremental change is too painful or confusing. That doesn’t mean it should be our default.

(And when we do flip a switch to one position, it is helpful to remember that it can usually be flipped back!)

Both approaches have their merits, but when one isn’t working it may be worth considering: Should I think of this as a switch? Or as a dial?

Try it!

One Click on the Dial

It can seem easier to issue a “NO MORE” or “DO THIS” edict but an incremental approach may be worth a try. Some examples of the one-click approach:

  • Instead of “only drink water” try “only water with lunch” or “soda on Thursdays”
  • Instead of “no social media” try “only one platform per day”
  • Instead of “I need a week-long vacation” try “I will use some vacation time to take three half-days per month”
  • Instead of “go to bed by 11pm” try “go to bed twenty minutes earlier than normal, twice a week”

Using the one-click approach takes practice and remember you can continue to dial it up or down depending on your results or switch to a switch. It can be particularly fruitful when paired with other mindset or habit-changing behaviors we have talked about before. Have fun getting dialed in!

(other) Smart People

“Change is mostly slow. In my life, there had been transformative events, and I’d had a few sudden illuminations and crises, crossed a rubicon or two, but mostly I’d had the incremental.”—Rebecca Solnit


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Try it!