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Saturday, July 29, 2017

How to Scientifically Make Life Changes that Stick

Overview: Dieters won’t stick to diets, patients won’t take their meds, and businesses can’t get customers to stay with them. Why? Personality, heredity, or just bad luck? It’s hard to “stick with it”— for things like diet, sleep, exercise, and whatever else is important to you—unless you construct a process around “it.”  Sean Young’s research and practice have identified seven forces or principles behind lasting change. He uses the mnemonic S-C-I-E-N-C-E to help us remember these forces: Stepladders (small steps can lead to big changes); Community (we’re pack animals, and follow the herd); Important (things must matter to us); Easy (we do ‘easy’ first); Neurohacks (we act ourselves into change); Captivating (we all like a wow factor); and, Engrained (repetition deepens habits in our brains).  Young then shows how these 7 forces can be applied selectively to alter three key behaviors (the ABCs): Automatic, Burning, and Common problems. Using stories, studies, and statistics, the author drives home his process for making lasting changes. Author: Sean Young is a professor at UCLA and director of the Center for Digital Behavior and the UC Institute for Predictive Technology. 

1.  Stepladders: Great journeys begin with the first step. Starting small makes a big difference. Not overwhelming people with huge first steps is critical. Take a small step, reflect, take the next one. Too much planning can become a barrier. Focus on smaller steps and goals, not dreams, to avoid being overwhelmed and disappointed by failure. It’s all about the “power of the incremental.” Rewarding yourself more frequently with small-step wins motivates you to keep trying—conditions the brain with regular dopamine releases. 

2.  Community: Despite thinking we’re fiercely independent, we follow the crowd—like the social, pack animals we are. Social connections offer us support and competition that can lead to healthy change. Communities share common characteristics, beliefs and cultures. Facebook is an example of how community forms and gets reinforced by likes, comments and shares. Here are 6 ingredients of good community: Trust, fitting in, self-worth, social pull, reward, feeling empowered. Connecting and contributing foster community. In social media, it might be as simple as inviting a connection and “liking” or commenting on posts. 

3.  Important: For us to continue doing something, it must be important to us. If a product does not solve a problem, customers won’t keep using it. The three top things that are important to people are money, social connections, and health. Being socially connected makes us more likely to do things. When we belong to CrossFit or Weight Watchers, the activity gets more important to us, so we follow through. Understanding what’s important to someone opens the door to them. 

4.  Easy: Make it easy for people to do, and they’ll do it. Learn how to remove barriers to make it easier for people to comply. You can control the environment (start dieting by keeping no junk food in the house); limit choices (keep choices to only a few—too many confuses people); or, draw a roadmap (show people the path to take and they will take it). 

5.  Neurohacks: We don’t think ourselves into change, we act our way into change and our minds follow. Using neurohacks, mental tricks, can help immensely. If you want to start loving your wife or husband even more, change your password to “I¬¬_love_my_wife.” Want to become kinder? Go out and practice kindness. Neurohacks work because people want to be consistent with their actions and self-image. For example, just physically smiling starts to make you feel and think more positively. And how you speak about self and others affects how you think about yourself and others. 

6.  Captivating: Making activities or products game-like, fun, and rewarding ensures they will be captivating and sticky. People will keep doing things if they’re rewarded for doing them—clipping coupons is a great example. We approach rewards and avoid punishment—mostly. To make things captivating: Make it fun; use carrots, not sticks; money is not the best reward; and, make the activity rewarding by setting reasonable goals. Rewards programs work because people envision what they might do in the future—even though many never do. Look at how many airline bonus miles go unused every year.

7.  Engrained: Routines to instill habits make change happen. Repetition creates rewards in the brain. Our brains are designed to make things easy and routine, because it saves energy. The brain remembers, adapts, engrains and changes to retain information it needs to remember to survive. It’s why babies remember their mother’s voice and respond positively to it. Repeating key behaviors, every day, at a particular place and time, engrains it on the brain. Conversely, we need diversity in schools; otherwise, kids get used to seeing only one skin color (similar to them) as safe and others as potential threats. 

8. The ABCs of Behavior: Specific problems require specific tools. Thus, you may use some of the seven tools with certain types of problems and other sets with another problem. Here are three specific, potential problems.  Automatic Behaviors: We all have behaviors that we’re unaware of—thus hard to change. To change such unconscious, automatic and deeply engrained behaviors, use easy and engrained tools. Drinking too much soda? Keep a bottle of water on your desk—not soda. On a diet? Keep processed foods out of the house. Burning Behaviors: These are urges or bad habits we’re aware of but can’t seem to stop. Smoking, playing video games, checking emails, and others. Make easy the things that you want to do, and hard if you want to stop them.  Limit time on videos or turn off email—set a timer to check. Common Behaviors: Many people try to get started on a fitness program. Doing it alone makes it tough. But add a fitness or weight-loss buddy to your life and watch things start to change. 

Stick with It: A Scientifically Proven Process for Changing Your Life—for Good, by Sean Young (HarperCollins, 2017), reviewed by Steve Gladis, July 2017.

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