How to Build the Confidence Habit (HINT: It’s Binary)
Today we have a guest post from Stephen Guise talking about building the confidence habit. Stephen is the international bestselling author of “Mini Habits" and “How to Be an Imperfectionist." In today's article, he talks about how you build more confidence through the power of daily habits.
Habits and confidence both impact our comfort level in various activities. For example, if you go bowling every day but you’re unconfident doing it, you’ll be more comfortable with that activity because you do it often (habit) but less comfortable because you aren’t yet confident in your ability to do it.
Confidence and habits are similar in that they both impact your comfort level, but confidence itself is also a habit, which is confusing. Confidence is one of those “invisible" habitual ways of thinking and behaving in a particular context.
Habits are why confident people are most comfortable being confident and unconfident people are most comfortable being unconfident. Does that make sense? Unconfident people are unconfident because they continually and habitually practice living that way.
The Comfort of Habits
Studies have shown that we cling to our habits more when we're stressed. That's because we like to be comforted when stressed, and habits are comforting. If you have a habit of eating ice cream when you're upset, you're comforting yourself on two levels. The first level of comfort is the pleasant taste and reward from eating ice cream, and the second level is from engaging in a familiar behavior.
Several years ago after I graduated college, I moved back in with my parents to build my current career as an author and entrepreneur. As I did so, I decided not to pursue women (and really, relationships in general) for that time. When I was finally able to support myself financially and move out a few years later, I realized the harsh truth of how those years affected me. I was only truly comfortable when I was alone; I had social anxiety.
In less than a year, I transformed into an outgoing person. I'm quite comfortable now.
As a single man, if I don't pursue women of interest, I'm likely to stay this way. Women don't just show up at my door, except for that one time when I ordered pizza. Before I tell you how I changed, let me tell you a quick story that demonstrates the significance of my change.
Just recently at the gym, I saw a woman I'd call "supercute." She was beyond cute. And I found the idea of not asking her out uncomfortable. Let me repeat that: I found the idea of not asking her out to be the most uncomfortable choice. I don't think I could have not inquired, and it’s because my habits have changed. (If you must know, she said she had a boyfriend.)
It's not that I've asked out so many women that it's an "automatic" process now, it's that I've talked to, asked out, and been on dates with enough women now that my brain is reasonably comfortable with the process and the possibility of rejection. And as my brain has gotten more comfortable with this, my desire to find a woman to spend my life with has become a powerful spark for action; it was once smothered under my shyness, insecurity, and lack of confidence.
When you feel uncomfortable, it's distracting and difficult to focus or stay calm. This made talking to women of interest practically impossible for me. And by the way, it's not "wimpy" to feel this way about any pursuit; it's not "sad" to be unable to do things like this confidently (or at all): it's simply neurological. It's easy for confident people to say "just relax" or "just talk to her" because they've already trained themselves to be relatively comfortable doing those things. For people who aren't there yet, it's not so simple (actually, it is really simple, but a brute force "just do it" solution isn't the best way).
I know the best way, because I've done the research and I'm living proof that it works. My improvement has been two-fold: I've been able to do “brave" things, and I've been able to do them more confidently. But how did I make this change? How did a guy who lived as a complete hermit for about 3.5 years become outgoing in the next year? I'll tell you how: confidence is a habit and I know how to change my habits! A confidence habit can be changed just as easily as a smoking habit.
Mini Habits & the Confidence Habit
Back in 2013, I wrote a book, Mini Habits, that's become an international bestseller. It's my first book and it's being translated into more than a dozen languages right now. I'm not drawing your attention to my success, but to the absurdity of my success.
I self-published this book. I didn't have a huge following at the time. I had no marketing budget early on. The book got popular because the method worked in people's lives and they told others about it. It also worked in my life and still does.
The basic concept of a mini habit is to do a too-small-to-fail behavior every day until it becomes a habit. My notable example was one push-up a day, and now I go to the gym several days per week.
Now, this had already transformed my habits in fitness, reading, and writing. But what about socializing? What about talking to women? That wasn't something I'd always be in position to practice every day. It just wasn't a good fit, so I had to think about why mini habits worked so well with the brain and I translated that concept into what I call the binary mindset, which we’ll get to soon.
Experience Is the Path to Comfort and Confidence
We've been talking about comfort and confidence, and a big component of these is experience. I just recently tried archery for the first time. In my first few shots, the string smacked my forearm and the arrow looked like a drunken goose flying through the air. Later on, I had some shots that didn't bruise my arm, went fairly straight, and I even got a couple of bulls-eye shots! Over the session, I gained comfort and confidence in my ability to shoot. I was most nervous for my first shot, I tried to do it perfectly, and the instructor told me I needed to relax.
When we lack experience in an area, we're likely to become perfectionist in our approach. Just as my lack of experience made me over-analyze my form in the archery example, my lack of experience made me a perfectionist when it came to socializing. I didn't have enough experience. This brings up an interesting question: why do we raise our standards when we lack experience?
A lack of experience creates the opposite feeling of comfort and confidence—doubt and uncertainty. These lead to fear, and fear is the precursor to perfectionism. For example, I was afraid that I would say something wrong or be rejected by women. I felt I had to be careful, and so I always came up with reasons excuses not to talk to women: she's busy, she's with a friend, she's probably not my type, she's on her way out, I'm too tired, I didn't shave today, I need a haircut, etc.
I realized that my standard to have a simple conversation with a woman of interest was nearly impossible and I would be forever alone if I stayed that way, so I changed the rules. The following section is an excerpt from my just-released book, How to Be an Imperfectionist. It includes the true story of the turning point that marked the transformation of my social confidence habit.
The Magic of the Binary Mindset
Binary is the language of computers, and it consists of only two characters—0 and 1. The digital technology that dominates today is based in binary language.
TVs receive digital or analog signals (newer TVs and broadcasts are all digital now). A digital TV signal is essentially binary data that is transformed into an image. If a digital signal is weak, but the data still gets through, it’s a perfect picture. But if an analog signal is weak, the picture quality is too.
Digital/binary information is finite and defined information, while analog runs along a spectrum of practically infinite possibilities.
How does this relate to our behavior?
One problem people have with stopping perfectionism is that they like the idea of perfection. Perfection is extremely desirable, which is why perfectionists are going to love the binary mindset. This mindset will enable us to use our desire for perfection to beat this subset of perfectionism (not wanting to make mistakes). If we were to turn digital and analog TV signals into a metaphor for tasks, here’s what we’d get: Analog tasks can’t be done perfectly. Binary tasks and concepts can be done perfectly. For analog to be perfect, the signal must be perfect as well, but binary can be perfect even with a weak signal. Let me give you an example of each.
Common binary task
Imagine your task is to flip a switch to turn the light on in your room. If you do it, it’s done. It’s perfect. Even if you trip and hit your knee and fall, but still hit the switch, you succeeded in your objective of turning the light on, and there’s no middle ground. The switch is either on or off. In true binary form, the up position is “one" and the down position is “zero." Notice that the focus here is on if you’ve done the task, not how well you’ve done it.
Common analog task
If your task is to deliver a speech, it will not be done either flawlessly or 100% terribly, but somewhere in between those extremes. You might say the wrong word, perform one awkward gesture, and pause too long in any moment. You could stutter while saying something profound, or smoothly deliver a painful cliché. The speech may go well or not overall, but, whatever happens, it’s going to be a mixed, analog result. Notice that the focus here is the opposite of the switch example: you’re concerned with how well you’re doing it, not if you’re doing it.
Those examples are the “stereotypes" of each type of task. But watch what happens when we flip them around. This is important because it shows the way we perceive tasks is a choice (and that’s a good thing, as you’ll see!).
Typically binary example turned analog
Imagine your task is to flip a switch, but you have to do it in a certain way to consider it successful. You decide your finger must be perfectly parallel with the switch, and the precise moment that you flip the switch, you must be airborne doing a split while saying the word “pasta" in the 7th octave (please send me the video). Now you’ve made this typically binary task into an analog task. Even a successful flick of the switch can be marred—slightly or majorly—by performance mistakes. And think about this: in trying to meet all of these fancy requirements, you might actually fail to flip the switch!
Typically analog example turned binary
Imagine your task is to deliver a speech in front of 5,000 people. Most people would be thinking in analog terms here, because the speech could go from well to poorly or anything in between. But what if you decided that getting up on the stage and talking qualified as success? That’s it. If you get on stage and say words, you succeed. Now, the only way to fail is to not say anything. Even if your speech is full of mistakes, you achieved the one and not the zero. A perfect success!
Which perspective do you think is the one of the perfectionist?
Perfectionists are fully in the analog camp, because they want the details to be perfect. But the wonderful thing about binary tasks is that they can be accomplished perfectly. To become an imperfectionist in the area of not worrying about mistakes, create binary tasks for yourself, because they can easily be done “perfectly."
One day, I was in a grocery store, and I saw a woman who took my breath away. This is the type of woman I wouldn’t dare speak to, because the stakes were too high and I assumed I’d mess up in some way. But I had been thinking about this binary concept for some time, and I knew I needed to test it out. I created a binary objective that I could meet:
If I say “Hi" to her = 1.
If I don’t do it = 0.
This was fascinating to me, because not only was the task easy (forcing myself to say one word), but also, for the first time in my life, I had no pressure to be Dr. Smooth with a follow-up conversation thread. I could get my win and literally run out of the store if I wanted to. So I forced myself to walk over to her, made eye contact, and squeaked out a “Hi." She seemed a little bit surprised and said “Hi" back. I did not say anything else and kept walking. Was it strange? You bet! Was she confused? Of course! Did I still succeed? I did.
I knew it wasn’t technically perfect, but it didn’t matter. I won. Like a weak digital signal that still results in a perfect image, my weak “Hi" was a perfect success.
As I smiled inside at this small victory, I pretended to look at the bulk foods. Interestingly enough, she came within a few feet of me shortly after. I think my one-word conversation piqued her interest, so I asked her how she was doing and we had a pleasant but short conversation. I didn’t ask for her number, and I was definitely nervous, but the whole conversation itself was a bonus. Today, I am significantly better at talking to women and asking for numbers, and I have the binary mindset to thank for that.
I owe a lot to this simple strategy. That single “Hi" was the start of a massive shift in how I feel and act in social situations. And right now, I’m socially confident without trying to be; it’s a habit.
The binary mindset enables us to create new habitual ways of behaving in areas that aren’t easy to practice daily. If you’re interested to learn more about the binary mindset and more creative and simple techniques to gain the confidence habit and accept imperfection in your life, you’d enjoy reading my new book, How to Be an Imperfectionist.
Think about an area that you lack confidence in. How you can change the rules and make it into a binary task?
Stephen Guise is the international bestselling author of "Mini Habits" and "How to Be an Imperfectionist." His blog, Deep Existence is one of the world's most popular resources online for focusing and habit-building strategies. If you sign up for updates at Deep Existence, you’ll receive 40 custom desktop focus wallpapers, Stephen’s book on stress-management, 30 subscriber-exclusive articles, and practical life tips every Tuesday morning.
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