Last week I mentioned the typical approach to behavior change is wrong and antiquated. Specifically I used the example of trying to learn to ride a bike by signing up for the Tour de France.
And, while at first glance, that may seem like an extreme example, check out the traditional (American Heart Association) recommendations for the average American (aka for someone who is sedentary):
- Get at least 150 minutes per week of moderate-intensity aerobic activity or 75 minutes per week of vigorous aerobic activity, or a combination of both, preferably spread throughout the week.
- Add moderate- to high-intensity muscle-strengthening activity (such as resistance or weights) on at least 2 days per week.
- Spend less time sitting. Even light-intensity activity can offset some of the risks of being sedentary.
- Gain even more benefits by being active at least 300 minutes (5 hours) per week.
- Increase amount and intensity gradually over time.
Are you kidding me?!
We’re asking people to go from 0 to 150 minutes of activity, PLUS two days of weight training?!
That may as well be the Tour de France compared to what they’re doing now!
Ready to Fail?
No health professional has ever deliberately set up their clients/patients to fail. But working with outdated models of behavior change (or just hoping someone will change their health behaviors) isn’t much better.
This list of outdated approaches (which seldom work) are sourced from BJ Fogg who’s a leading researcher in behavior change. I bet as you look through this list you can tick off every single one as methods you’ve tried, or been told to try.
Being presented with information in the hopes it leads to attitude change and then behavior change – this is when a health professional gives you all the research about why your [current health behavior] is causing [your ailment/condition] in the hopes of convincing you it leads to change.
Setting or being given a big goal and then relying on motivation or willpower. – think New Year resolutions.
Stages of Change
Assuming you’ll move through the psychological stages until you’re ready to change – you know, those steps of behavior change we learned in Psych 101: precontemplation, contemplation, preparation, action, maintenance, termination.
Taking the Blame
When it’s assumed all behaviors are the result of choices – meaning if we would just make better choices (as if it’s SOOOO easy), then we could be healthy.
When scarcity or reciprocity serve as the starting point for your solution – perhaps you’re not quite ready to start that workout program, but your favorite trainer is only offering this 8 week program this ONE time so you have to jump on it if you’re going to ever get it.
New Age Behavior Change
Well, now that we’ve covered what doesn’t work (because let’s face it, it doesn’t!), let’s figure out what kind of behavior change actually does work!
When we remember what habits are (routines that save our brain time and energy) we can more easily decipher how to change habits (aka behavior change).
Combining the work of habit gurus like Charles Duhigg, James Clear, and BJ Fogg, the new age of behavior change is doing one major thing: simplifying!
First we acknowledge the anatomy of a habit (BJ Fogg’s work):
- Ability – are you able to do the behavior?
- Motivation – do you want to do the behavior?
- Prompt – is there a trigger for the behavior?
And then the behavior loop of a habit (Duhigg’s work):
- Cue – similar to prompt above
- Habit – the actual behavior itself
- Reward – the incentive for doing the habit
And lastly, apply James Clear’s Laws of Habits:
- Make it obvious
- Make it attractive
- Make it easy
- Make it satisfying
Once we have those behavior change components, we can see the place we’ve been getting it wrong is with the complexity of the habits we’re trying to change.
Stick with me here just a little longer and I’m going to bring it full circle, even if the section above confused you a little.
When you want to get healthy, it implies changing everything about your lifestyle at once – exercise, eat better, get more sleep, drink more water, meditate, and all the things. But that’s now how we’re wired to change!
Based on the work of the three experts above, we need to focus on one behavior at a time (the smaller the behavior the better) and when we have that established, then we can continue on to the next.
So to get healthy, perhaps you do want to do ALL THE THINGS, but let’s break it down. Let’s start with exercising. And to instill lasting behavior change, we’re going to break it down even further than that (to make it easy) and we’ll say step one is putting on your sneakers.
You don’t even have to go for a walk or run, just putting on the sneakers is the habit you’re trying to form. Easy right? In fact, so easy that it’s silly NOT to just put the sneakers on, right?
EXACTLY! When you’ve broken it down so far that it seems silly not to do the behavior, that’s when you’re on to real behavior change. Because since it’s so easy, of course you’re going to do it!
And then once you do it, you’ve succeeded in that habit. You’ve gained that confidence, you’re building that momentum. So after a while of just putting the sneakers on, you go for a two minute walk. Yep, just TWO MINUTES!
Because it’s almost silly NOT to go for a two minute walk since you already have your sneakers on, right? EXACTLY!
Here we are, full circle and you can see how the old school views of behavior change just don’t reflect how our brains are actually wired to change. But now that you know how easy it can be, it means you have all the power within you to be able to make lasting change, one small habit at a time that will compound to huge results.