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Three Levels of Change

Updated: Feb 10, 2021

Is there anything you want to improve about yourself? Have you ever tried to change yourself without much success?

We’ve just finished January, so new year’s resolutions and habit change are two topics that have been on my mind a lot. Why is it that so many people fail to change themselves after their short burst of January motivation is over?

Contemporary advice talks about things like

  1. Convenience: make the good habits convenient and bad habits inconvenient

  2. Scheduling: make sure you schedule in what you want to do

  3. Accountability: report to someone or an app on your progress

  4. Cue-Response Rules: When X happens, I will respond by doing Y. (Example: Whenever I wash my hands, I will first do 1 or more push-ups)

All this advice makes sense, but it seems to all focus on willpower. Convenience is about reducing the willpower needed to do something, while the other three all require willpower and discipline.

Is there a better approach to change?

“If you want new ideas, read old books.”

–Ivan Petrovich Pavlov.

I experienced the truth of this quote when I read the book Liao Fan’s Four Lessons, which was written nearly 500 years ago! In his book, Liao Fan explains that change can happen at three levels:

  1. Action

  2. Reasoning

  3. Heart

Contemporary advice focuses on the action level. Make the action convenient. Schedule in the action. Have someone check that you did the action. Ancient advice focuses on changing through reasoning and from the heart.

Think of your habits like a tree. The leaves represent your actions, the trunk represents your thoughts and rationale, and the roots represent your heart (deep essence).

Let’s say you have a bad habit of complaining about others and the world, and you want to change that bad habit. This is actually a bad habit I have, and I’ve taken the 21-Day No Complaint challenge before to try to improve it. Anyway, let’s go through the three levels of change for this example.

Changing Through Action

Changing through action would be using all the contemporary advice.

  • Cue-Response: If I get annoyed, I will stop and try to think of something positive about the situation or person.

  • Accountability: I will journal my results every day and post them publicly

When I revisited my notes, I found it was a lot of “this annoying thing happened, but I forced myself to not complain and instead think positively about it.

Changing Through Reasoning

Changing through reasoning requires contemplation and reflection. You can find a quiet time to just sit and reflect or journal. Consider that everyone has different strengths and weakness. I wouldn’t want others to only focus on my weaknesses and judge me for them, so I shouldn’t do that to others. If someone does that to me, then that is their problem, and it has nothing to do with me. If I get complain about them, I’m committing the same offense as them. One who thinks he/she is always right is deluded, while one who focuses on learning and humility is truly wise. Therefore, there’s no reason for me to complain about them, and there’s actually great reasons to not complain.

Changing From the Heart

Changing from the heart gets at the root of the problem. Your “heart” in this case means your deeply seated values and beliefs. It is your character. Our character determines our thoughts, and our thoughts determine our actions. Changing from the heart means to change the essence of who we are, such that our thoughts naturally align with the new person we want to be.

Since I have a bad habit of complaining about others and the world, then my character is rooted in vices such as arrogance and entitlement. Deep down, I believe I am better than others and I deserve things. To change that, I need to work on being humble instead of arrogant, giving instead of entitlement.

To become more humble, I can read books from smart people to help you realize how little I know in the world. To become less entitled, I can go volunteer at a homeless shelter or a hospital to realize how fortunate I am. These things change the essence of who I am. They change the root of my thoughts. The next time I encounter some small thing that I’d usually complain about, that thought of complaining doesn’t even come up anymore because I pulled out the roots.

Which Method Should We Use?

Most people try to change through action. Changing through action relies on your willpower to make the new action a habit. It requires the least amount of preparation and is the hardest to sustain. My 21-Day No Complaint challenge didn't get rid of my habit, it just helped me suppress it. Later, my complaining habit came back. Changing through action is like pulling off leaves from a poisonous tree. More leaves will grow back.

Liao Fan explains that the best way is to change through the heart and through reasoning together. That is like pulling out the poisonous tree from the roots.

Sometimes, we need all three methods to change. Perhaps you can’t see a strong enough reason to change yet, so you can start by changing through action. After a while, you see benefits, and that gives you reason to change further.

My Personal Example

To finish my personal example of trying to complain less, I would say I’ve gotten much better, and it’s because I changed through reasoning and from the heart.

To change through reasoning, I went deep into the importance of and logic for humility.

  • I read Ray Dalio’s book Principles, where he talks about how radical open-mindedness is the key to his success.

  • I also got really into personality tests, like Myers-Briggs and Four Tendencies, to learn about the different strengths and weaknesses of people.

  • I read the 7 Habits of Highly Effective People, and how the first habit is to be proactive. We can’t change the outside, but we can always decide how we respond.

To change from the heart, I need to change my arrogance and impatience. I noticed that I usually complain about people doing inconsiderate things or about things taking extra time than I expected.

To change arrogance, I cultivate compassion: my goal in social interactions is to give them a positive emotional experience. Harmony is king. I want to be a compassionate person. With this kind of heart, complaints naturally fade away.

To change impatience, I focus on doing things slow and carefully. Whereas before, I’d spend every available minute doing something, I now schedule large blocks of time to do things so that I can do them calmly and properly. With a calm heart, I don’t get annoyed or flustered if unexpected interruptions come up.

Indeed, I’ve experienced that when we change through reasoning and from the heart, then the change is much more natural and permanent.

A Friend's Example

I have a high school friend who smoked for many years, and he tried many times to quit. He tried forcing himself to not smoke, using nicotine patches, and vaping. None of these things had lasting results. These were all attempts to change through action.

He also knew the logic for not smoking. He knew that smoking damages the lungs and increases the risk for cancer. He knew that smokers die earlier. It still wasn't enough for him to change.

One time, after we hadn't talked for a while, I asked him how things were going. He told me that he and his dad (who is also a smoker) have been cigarette free for 1 year and 2 months. I was amazed since I knew he tried to quit many times before. I asked him how they were able to quit.

He told me,

"Well you see my dad had a heart aneurysm and had to have heart surgery and I had a panic attack seeing all the dying people in the ICU when he was immediately post-surgery and so we both quit smoking."

That is changing from the heart. From that experience, he really came to deeply value his health and his life more than the temporary pleasure of a cigarette.

Concluding Thoughts

What is something you wish to change about yourself? How can you change through reasoning and from the heart?

On a related note, do you wish to change someone else? The three levels of change also apply to helping others change, and this article talks about it further.


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