New Year, New me
As much as it is the season to be jolly, the New Year is the time for paying back on all the jollity. With the strike of midnight on December 31st, countless people who should know better will proclaim their intention to become a better person, to change body shape or to live more healthily. Yet, few of us make the changes that will hold for any substantial period. How come?
The science of behaviour change shows many of the reasons why we are not very good at upholding our best intentions. Knowing these, and how to combat them, will give us a better chance of getting what we want. Here are four approaches that will help you to be more successful.
Combat what has hindered you recently.
It is wise to know how to handle what is most likely to offset your best plans. For example, it will be unwise to plan an exercise programme to start at the same time as your favourite soap opera comes on TV. Keep in mind that adopting a new behaviour is often more demanding that stopping one. However, stopping one behaviour may be imperative to support adopting the other. For example, watching less TV may be important for creating the time needed to spend more meaningful time with your partner or your children. This is called habit stacking; it only works for a proportion of people. Is it you?
Focus on the smallest level of meaningful change.
It’s all very well to focus on running the London marathon in the summer, but the running has to start somewhere. It makes real sense to start with short bouts of running. With a few weeks of making 10-minute runs happen longer runs can start to be included. For some people, even 10-minutes might be too much in one go, so doing 20-minutes of activity, alternating between walking and running, can end by accumulating 10-minutes of running. This same principle can be applied to studying (‘Reading more’ can become, ‘Read for 10 minutes three times/day’), writing (‘Do more writing’ can become ‘Write two sentences three times/day’) and/or managing stress (‘Relax more’ can become ‘Take a deep breathe before answering my office phone’).
Be clear on how long you want the change to last.
One of the least effective approaches is to approach change with no clear idea of how long the changes will be in place. Having a time-based goal can galvanise motivation; not all change has to be permanent. Indeed, short periods of change are easier to manage and secure. Living well for one day is more likely to happen than doing so for one week and so on. Yet, so many people set out with a vague notion of changing for good. That’s about the worst option if you want to be successful. Another time-based approach that can be helpful is to focus on change on a given day in the week; selecting the day when it is easiest to do will build confidence.
Record successes (rather than failures).
Recently US comedian Jerry Seinfeld was asked how he kept writing jokes for other comedians (he was making over $200m/year in doing this!) He described a daily routine of recording every day when he wrote jokes for 30-minutes on a large wall-mounted calendar. With alarming simplicity he describes how, once a chain of days was established, his task from then on was ‘To keep the chain going’. Of course, we all know that chains get broken; all we need to do when that happens is to start another.
Importantly, these points show that success is more likely when we address the fullness of the job-to-be-done. That means taking into the social, emotional and cultural contexts that surround and drive our behaviour. Being more systematic than ‘just giving it a go’ will give far greater chances of success.
Jim McKenna is Carnegie Professor of Physical Activity and Health and Head of the Active Lifestyles Research Centre in the Carnegie Faculty.