The Rosh Hashana, Yom Kippur and Succos period is always a time of the year that we are trying to change ourselves for the better. We pray that at least some of these changes will carry through the year. But making permanent changes in our lives is difficult. Most of our behaviors, the good ones and the bad ones are ingrained from your youngest years. Breaking a bad habit, or taking a bad behavior and replacing it with a good behavior is a tremendous challenge.
When it comes to our health, as much as we can become educated in how to eat, how to exercise, how to sleep better and how to control stress, without changing the behaviors and habits that are ingrained in us, we won’t succeed in reaching our health goals. It has become clear that “expert advice” does not translate into behavior change for people who are not ready to change. After all, despite doctors’ orders, nearly a third of prescriptions are left unfilled. Despite federal guidelines, the average American’s food intake lines up with current recommendations on only 2% of days (NPD Group 2011). And even though physical activity guidelines are clear, 80% of Americans do not meet them (CDC 2013a). Americans spend $60.5 billion on weight loss each year (Marketdata Enterprises 2013), but over two-thirds of Americans over age 20 struggle with excess weight. So how is it possible for us to change our unhealthy habits into healthy ones? Natalie Digate Muth is both a doctor and registered dietician. In a recent published article she talks about 8 principles to behavior change. Use these principles to help yourself make the changes needed to get healthy and stay healthy.
1. Changing ingrained behaviors is hard
Behaviors are rooted in habits, and habits are difficult to break. After all, the brain forms habits as “shortcuts” so we can focus attention elsewhere. Many people’s unhealthy behaviors have been ingrained for decades. In some cases, it may be more effective and enjoyable to create new habits rather than make drastic changes to break old ones. In fact, B.J. Fogg, PhD, an experimental psychologist at Stanford University and founder of the Tiny Habits® program, advocates just that. He has found that a trigger (an existing habit such as brushing your teeth) plus a very small version of a wanted behavior that occurs after the trigger (a push-up after brushing your teeth) plus instant celebration is an effective way to create a new habit.
2. Effective interventions are tailored to readiness to change
Someone who has never considered changing, but is being pushed by others to do so, may benefit from behavior modification information in the sense that it may lead to contemplation to change. However, don’t expect the information to suddenly compel the person to act. Consider a smoker. Most smokers know that smoking is bad for them and is a leading cause of cancer. However, repeatedly sharing this information is not likely to make someone quit, especially if the smoker feels that the immediate benefits outweigh the risks. But over time, this information may sink in and compel the person to begin thinking about change.
3. The old methods rarely work
It’s becoming common knowledge that simply learning about nutrition information or exercise guidelines if you are not already motivated to make a change is not effective. In fact, when asked what one tip he would share about behavior change, William R. Miller, PhD, a psychologist said “I suppose it would be that unhealthy behavior is seldom due to a knowledge deficit. What obese and sedentary person doesn’t know the risks? People get stuck in ambivalence about behavior change, and the helper’s ‘righting reflex’ of telling them what to do is unlikely to make much difference. Change is promoted by calling forth people’s own motivations for change.” If you have to talk yourself into change, any results will be fleeting. On the other hand, someone who is in the midst of change (and already committed) may benefit tremendously from information or expert advice.
4. Motivational interviewing
Motivational interviewing is highly effective for people who are ambivalent about change. Motivational interviewing was first described more than 40 years ago, when it was used and studied as a tool to help alcoholics quit drinking. Since then, its efficacy with regard to a wide range of behavior changes has been proven through hundreds of scientific research studies. Without a doubt, this communication approach helps people who are ambivalent move toward change. Ask yourself why you want to make this change? How will I go about making this change? What are three good reasons to make this change? How important is it for me to make this change?
5. When trying to be convinced to change, it’s natural that the person want to make a strong, persuasive case
However, this approach triggers a defensive reaction, prompting you to defend your position and strengthen your resolve not to change. By contrast, evoking arguments for change can be helpful. Nudges add up. Brian Wansink, PhD, of Cornell University, has published groundbreaking research on behavior change, mostly demonstrating how small environmental changes can lead to big behavioral changes. For example, when health conference–goers ate at a buffet with healthier foods at the front of the line and less-healthy options at the back, they ate 31% fewer less-healthy items than conference-goers who ate at the same buffet when healthier foods were at the end of the line (Wansink & Hanks 2013). Wansink refers to this environmental redesign as a “nudge.”
6. Nudges add up!
Use the nudging principle into effect in two ways. One way is to rearrange some of your basic behaviors and practices; for instance, placing fruits and vegetables in easily visible containers front and center in the refrigerator. Another is to provide gentle nudges to spark change; write yourself a message reminding you to implement changes you want to make of send yourself an email.
7. Environmental factors are more powerful than individual choices
The bigger picture must be included in any effort to help someone change. Environmental factors are often referred to as “social determinants of health” and include things like housing, transportation, social networks, food security, education, and access to health care. A key aim is to make the healthy choice the easy choice. Make healthy food more widely available. Another example is to use active transportation (walking to school or work) and for built-in physical activity opportunities in schools and workplaces.
8. You can’t make someone else change
You can’t make someone change, but you can help bring forth your own motivation to change. If you have a solid understanding of behavior change principles and a basic understanding of how to put these principles into action, you can succeed in drawing your internal motivation to change. What comes from that is powerful and lasting!
Basically, no one can force us to change our behaviors and we can’t force ourselves. Dig deep and find the motivation for change from inside of yourself! Make sure your environment is set up for success, and remember that education alone in areas of healthy eating, exercise and activity will not bring a person to change. Make your changes one small transformation at a time and build on that. What better time of the year is there than now to start the process! Using these 8 principles of change to your advantage will “add hours to your day, days to your year, and years to your life.”