Red Light, Green Light

March 11, 2024

In a recent article I talked about the Law of Addition. The basic premise is that the brain processes positive instructions differently than it does negative instructions. For a classic example: “Don’t think about a red truck” versus, “Think about a blue truck.” The first is impossible to obey. The second is impossible to resist.

This simple observation has far-reaching implications. But those implications are not always straightforward and obvious, especially when it comes to children versus adults.

Knowing the difference can save a lot of frustration.

What Parents Need to Know

For kids, it’s easier to stop a bad behavior than it is to start a new one.

According to Thomas Phelan, author of 1-2-3 Magic, children can usually stop doing an annoying behavior (a “stop behavior”) by the count of three, but initiating a desired behavior (a “start behavior”) requires more time – closer to the count of ten. That might not sound like much on the surface, but that’s more than a 3X difference.

Keeping this in mind can help you manage your own expectations for when morning routines and bedtime routines get stressful. It’s fine to be strict with stop behaviors (e.g., quit jumping), but you might consider giving extra time and scaffolding for start behaviors (e.g., go brush your teeth).

The sequence here is stop-start. Red light, green light.

Getting this sequencing right can make a big difference in your own daily stress levels.  

How This Changes for Adults

For adults, it’s the opposite. It’s typically easier to start a new behavior than it is to break an old habit.

Let’s say your breakfast usually consists of coffee and a candy bar, and your goal is to start managing your weight better. Advice you may hear from a nutritionist or physical trainer might sound counterintuitive: Keep eating the candy bar… but add an apple. (We’ll work on weening you off the candy bars later.)


It’s easier to add new habits than it is to break old ones. And it’s easier to break bad habits later on after better ones are in place.

Another common example: If you and your partner are having a lot of conflict, try not to focus so much on stopping the stuff that annoys you (e.g., being on the phone during date night). Focus instead on what is missing (e.g., ask me how my day was). Don’t go straight for the candy bar. Go for the apple first then deal with the candy bar later.

In other words… (drum roll, please)

Look for start-stop sequences. Green light, red light.

The order matters.

Implications for work stress? (Or any kind of stress for that matter.)

When we carry more stress, we tend to trade good habits for vices. We eat more junk food, we exercise less, we feel more lazy and don’t sleep well, etc., etc.

A common tactic is to try to muscle-through trying to cut back on vices, which is good… in theory.  

If you’re like me, though, it usually doesn’t stick.

Instead focus on one start behavior that can help the other dominoes fall. Green light, then red light.

Going for a walk (start behavior) usually helps to get rid of junk food cravings (stop behavior). The details will probably be different for you. The point is to focus on initiating good habits first, then paying attention to what bad habits start to naturally dislodge.

This is a simple concept, but it’s easy to miss in the busy-ness of everyday life.  

Get to know which start-stop sequences work best for you. And be on the lookout for rough days when you may need to be a little more strategic with your green lights.


Let's connect.

Call me on 806-600-4609 or submit this form for a free 15 min consultation and I will contact you as soon as possible.

Thank You! I've Received Your Message and Will Be In Contact Within 24 Hours.
Oops! Something went wrong while submitting the form.