Imagine that a change you want to make is a thousand-pound boulder you’ve got to move.
You push with all your weight against it, and it doesn’t budge. Not an inch.
So you take a break, and try again.
It still doesn’t move. Try again; same result.
Eventually, you realize the boulder is not going to move, and you give up, feeling defeated and powerless.
Until you remember what Archimedes said: “Give me a lever long enough and a fulcrum on which to place it, and I shall move the world.”
It turns out that focusing on the lever, not the boulder, makes all the difference when it comes to making a real change in your life. But how exactly do you make this shift?
The Borrowed Business Concept that Helps with Habit Change
Boulders and levers sound more interesting than lag and lead measures, but really, that’s what we’re talking about here.
Managers in business understand the distinction between two types of performance indicators: a lag measure is something that you really want to change but that’s hard to influence, like the boulder in our story. A lead measure, on the other hand, is something you can change, and that although not the goal itself, has a direct and significant impact on the change you really want to make.
The names make sense: the lead measure is where the changes begin, upstream. The lag measure changes later, downstream, lagging behind. The lead is the lever, the lag is the boulder.
And the example they use in business books, oddly enough, is weight loss.
If you want to lose weight, your lag measure is the weight that the scale reports. But you can’t do anything to change your weight in the moment.
And so the lead measure most people use for the ultimate goal of losing weight is calories. Take in fewer and expend more — decisions you can make right now and throughout the day — and eventually, your weight will drop.
Of course, this is an obvious example; nobody I know sets out to lose weight simply by staring at the scale. We all know you’ve got to change something upstream in order to influence the number on the scale (or the way you look and feel, if you don’t care about the number).
But with other changes, it’s not so obvious: so often, we try to move a boulder without first finding a lever.
Do You Make the Mistake of Not Using a Lever?
Most of us know about setting goals, and even if you don’t do it with pen and paper, we all have changes we’d like to make. So even though we could stand to be more specific with our goals, it’s not the lag measure that’s usually the problem.
But how many people who want to drink less alcohol make “drink less” their only strategy?
The problem is that this isn’t as simple to influence as it looks: if you drink too much, it probably means that in the moment when you want to drink, you’re not good at choosing not to.
Certainly not everyone who drinks more than they’d like to is an alcoholic, but Alcoholics Anonymous works because it provides a better lead measure, one that is easier to influence than number of drinks: meetings attended.
So though our friend who drinks a little bit too much might not need that level of intervention, he can still learn from AA. He might hypothesize that if he meditates or exercises immediately after work, he can break his pattern of flipping on the TV and getting to work on the wrong kind of six-pack. In his case, “meditation sessions per week” or “workouts per week” might become his lead measure that provides the leverage for drinking less, the lag measure.
As another example, if you want to stop biting your nails — and I’ve been here — it’s easy to trick yourself into thinking that “Did I bite my nails today?” is itself a good lead measure. But again, the problem is that it requires willpower that’s hard for you to muster in the moment … otherwise you probably wouldn’t have the problem to begin with.
Could you instead focus on something further upstream, like “carry nail clippers in my pocket” or “use hand lotion every two hours” or “carry Band-Aids that I can use to cover a nail if I really want to bite it”?
You get the point, I hope. Find a lead measure that you can easily influence, without depending on a level of willpower you’ve never had before, that directly impacts the change you’re really trying to make.
But which lead measure?
It’s All About Finding the Right Lever
You know about Weight Watchers and their points system, right? “Points” is nothing but a simpler lead measure than calories, and its one that has turned out to be the right lever for millions of people.
So what other levers could you use to change habits?
- If counting calories isn’t your thing, you could try losing weight by choosing “meals made at home” as your lead measure. Set a target, like “90 percent of meals,” and aim to get closer to it every week.
- To start eating healthily, you could use “plant-based (or whole-food, or raw) until ___ o’clock” as your lead measure, and aim to hit that minimum every day.
- With running, the lag measure might be your marathon time, but your lead measure could be workouts per week, total mileage per week, or percentage of training time spent on workouts instead of just easy miles. (You’re tracking your runs, right?)
These are just examples to get you started; you’ll need to figure out the right lever for the particular change you’d like to make. But I’m hoping that you’ll take from this article the idea that exists a perfect lever for moving your particular boulder; you just need to find it. As pitiful as your previous attempts to change may have been, that’s just because you’ve been trying to move the boulder with the wrong lever — or worse, by pushing against it with your own weight and no lever at all.
Of course, it’s going to take you a few tries to find exactly the right lever, but that’s how successful habit change works. It requires a commitment that you’ll keep trying until you find a way that works.
So if you’re stuck, change your lever. Choose a new lead measure — one that you have the power to influence (without much willpower) that in turn influences your goal, your lag measure.
And pretty soon, you just might find that your lag measure, the goal you really care about, starts moving in the right direction.