Jim Rohn, a motivational speaker and businessman, is popularly quoted with saying that “you are the average of the five people you spend the most time with.”
The number doesn’t have to be five, and Rohn probably didn’t conduct any scientific studies of his own to reach this conclusion. Instead, it can be traced back to earlier research by Harvard psychologist David McClelland.
McClelland studied achievement-motivated individuals over 25 years and identified the most important factor in determining success as the person’s reference group. Socialize with positive influences, and you inevitably imbibe some of their attitudes and aspirations.
But what if negative influences surround you? What if you can’t so easily disengage from them because those people are your family? Can you still strive to improve when your reference group threatens to drag you down constantly?
The principles of habit change
When you detox, you need to eliminate all traces of a bad habit, influence, or substance. But that’s just the first step. Someone who’s been addicted to drugs, alcohol, or even video games, for instance, will inevitably experience withdrawal symptoms.
This is why rehab facilities offer support, whether psychological or in the form of additional medical prescriptions. In fact, one of the oldest models for this intervention is also a case study in habit change.
A habit is formed through a characteristic pattern. You encounter a cue, which triggers a craving in your mind. Acting on this craving, in turn, leads to a reward. This four-step model applies to both good and bad habits.
Decades ago, the founders of Alcoholic Anonymous (AA) figured out that you could replace bad habits with good ones by hacking the habit pattern. Keep the cue and reward intact, but hijack the craving by replacing the response.
If you had a bad day (cue), your craving would be to drink, leading to the reward of emotional catharsis. AA’s intervention was to replace drinking with a meeting where you’d talk things out and end up with the same reward.
Flipping the perspective
The gravity of a problem like addiction certainly warrants this sort of intervention and professional support. But the problem with families is that they can pull you down in ways you don’t even notice because you grew up surrounded by that sort of thinking.
Take healthy living as an example. Studies have shown that family lifestyle is a persistent and significant influence in outcomes related to childhood obesity. It’s no wonder that modern public health interventions and guidance focus on improving the whole family lifestyle.
Yet if you wanted to start living healthy, how would you begin to initiate this change?
Although it’s definitely possible, it can be hard enough to change your own habits. Living with members of your family means you’re surrounded by people who are likely entrenched in the same negative patterns you’re trying to escape. And unlike you, they may not have the same level of motivation or commitment to improving.
Some people would recommend the simple solution: leave or otherwise distance yourself from these relationships. But most of us wouldn’t find this advice to be practical in the family context.
We need to start by flipping our perspective. Families are not an obstruction to your self-improvement. Instead, they are a means to reinforce it and your best collaborators and supporters towards that goal.
The minority rule
You can begin this transformation by applying what author Nassim Taleb calls ‘the dictatorship of the small minority.’
The theory is that an unwavering, intransigent minority can get the majority to submit to their preferences. In his book Skin in the Game, Taleb’s example is of a hypothetical family of four whose daughter absolutely refuses to eat GM food. Because of her conviction, 75% of the family eats non-GM to make life easier and satisfy 25% of the family.
Tying that to habit theory, you can make one small change in your life and absolutely stick to it, especially when it clashes with other family members’ preferences.
It could be exercise: insist that you are going for a 30-minute walk every day, at a time when you’d usually go out together. For you, that’s a small change. For them, it’s an inconvenience. They might make fun of you, but eventually, they get used to it and maybe give in to your invitation to tag along.
You can do the same with cooking in a slightly modified version of Taleb’s example. And this doesn’t have to be limited to health.
Whatever change you want to implement, make it small so that you can use the principles of habit formation and make it stick. Then work with the minority rule and gradually wear down your family’s resistance. Once they’re on board, you’ll start reinforcing that change in each other’s lifestyle.