Monday, January 18, 2016

Want to Change Your Behavior? First,Change the Odds

My last post was Why You Don't Keep New Year's Resolutions is Way More Interesting than How You Do.  In this post, I will describe how we consistently underestimate how hard behavior change actually is.
New Year's resolutions (NYRs) are a little like gambling in Las Vegas.  It is not that you can't win, but it really helps to know how badly the odds are stacked against you.
An article in Fast Company a few years ago called Change or Die, gave an example of patients with heart disease so severe that they had to undergo bypass surgery, a traumatic and expensive procedure that can cost more than $100,000 if complications arise.
"About 600,000 people have bypasses every year in the United States.  The procedures temporarily relieve chest pains but rarely prevent heart attacks or prolong lives. Around half of the time, the bypass grafts clog up in a few years. The causes are complex. It's sometimes a reaction to the trauma of the surgery itself. But many patients could avoid the return of pain and the need to repeat the surgery — not to mention arrest the course of their disease before it kills them — by switching to healthier lifestyles. Yet very few do. "If you look at people after coronary-artery bypass grafting two years later, 90% of them have not changed their lifestyle," Miller said. "And that's been studied over and over and over again. And so we're missing some link in there. Even though they know they have a very bad disease and they know they should change their lifestyle, for whatever reason, they can't."
So if people who know without a doubt they can avoid pain, avoid more expensive surgery, and can improve the quantity and quality of their lives have trouble changing their health compromising behavior, what chance do your NYRs to spend less time on Facebook or make more home cooked meals?
There are multiple reasons why behavior change is so dang difficult.  One well known reason is that the environment still has all the reinforcers for your old behavior and is not set up to support the new ones.  You want to eat less carbohydrates, but your partner doesn't have your weight problem.  Moreover, your kids are fussy eaters and growing like weeds and they really like pasta. Making something separate for yourself is extra work and besides that yummy pesto pasta is right there and sure smells good.
Or you want to quit smoking.  But your friends still smoke.  To not be tempted, you have to avoid your friends.  Not smoking is tough enough and stressful.  And then you can't hang with your friends either?  In a day or two you will be questioning whether it is worth it.
Both of these examples illustrate how an environment that does not change creates challenges for making changes.  They both also highlight the fact that the rewards (health) for the new behavior are long term and are competing with short term rewards (hanging out with friends, extra work to make different food).  The difference in the timing of the rewards is another factor making behavior change hard.
If you can't change your environment or the timing of the rewards, you can still resist but that takes a lot of will power.  And this leads to the next problem.
A third reason behavior change is hard is that a fair amount of research points to the fact that will power is a limited resource. In their recent report What You Need To Know About Willpower: The Psychological Science of Self-control, the American Psychological Association states "A growing body of research shows that resisting repeated temptations takes a mental toll. Some experts liken willpower to a muscle that can get fatigued from overuse."
Every decision to not eat a second helping, walk past the candy dishes at the office, not eat the pasta draws energy from this will power reserve and if you have to make too many of those decisions, you weaken and can succumb to the temptation.
None of this is to say that behavior change is impossible.  It is clearly not.  Just because the deck is stacked against you in Vegas, doesn't mean you can't change those odds.  In Poker and Black Jack, you can change the odds if you are willing to put the work in...study Expected Value tables, count cards, study the other players, memorize decision rules, etc.  Not exactly a rockin' good time, but through efforts like these, you can tip the odds in your favor.
So on your resolutions, New Year's or otherwise, if you really want to achieve them, start by acknowledging how difficult behavior change is.  You are not going on a hike.  You are mountain climbing.  A tad more prep is required. Clean your house of all temptations. Change your routine.  Get a coach.  Get a friend to go out with you who does not do the things you are trying to avoid.  Make a public bet.  Commit to giving money to some Hate Group every time you stumble.  Get large visible props.
That last one is something the comedian Jerry Seinfeld did.  In Jerry's case, he wanted to write comedy every day.  Every day he wrote funny anecdotes, he put a giant red X on that day of the calendar.    The objective was to not break the chain of Xs.
This is what it takes.  Doing things like what is listed here will dramatically increase your chances of making and sustaining the changes and yet...it is still going to be really hard!
That is why taking on behavior change is best done with a little humility.  Executive coaches like me often tell our clients at the beginning of an engagement that the behavior changes they want to make could take six months to a year.  And all of us have had multiple clients say, “It won’t take me that long.  Just tell me what I need to do and I will change it.”  Ahh, no you won't and yes it will.
In my next post I will talk about an approach to behavior change that is better aligned with how our brains work.

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