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Making it Last

By Dan Gordon '85

Published Jan 1, 2018 8:00 AM

There’s now a SCIENCE to help us keep our New Year's resolutions.


Illustration by Charlie Gentile.

If you've resolved to make a major behavorial change in the new year, welcome to the club. You’re going to exercise more. Drink less. Eat healthier. Quit smoking. Break your smartphone addiction. Most of us have at some point attempted to transform ourselves in ways that would improve our lives, but it’s the sustaining, not the starting, that trips us up. The majority of dieters, for instance, end up weighing more than they did when they started, and as many as 40 percent quit in the first week. Gyms are packed in early January, but if you can wait until later in the month you won’t have to fight the crowds.

The failure rate of these well-intentioned efforts comes with a considerable cost. “We’re taught that it’s our fault if we can’t stick with a change, so we feel badly about ourselves when we don’t follow through, which just makes it worse,” says psychologist Sean Young ’01, founder and executive director of the UCLA Center for Digital Behavior and UC Institute for Prediction Technology and an associate professor in the David Geffen School of Medicine at UCLA. “These failures cost our society billions of dollars when you consider the higher rates of depression and increased health-care spending, among other effects.”

But there is a science to forming healthy habits and breaking problem behaviors. In his 2017 book Stick with It: A Scientifically Proven Process for Changing Your Life — For Good, Young draws on decades’ worth of research, including his own, to identify evidence-based strategies for implementing lasting personal change. He also points to commonly held beliefs about effective behavior change that aren’t helpful. “We’re told to become more educated about a problem, but education alone doesn’t change behavior — people continue smoking, for example, even when they know it’s bad for their health,” Young notes. Another misconception is that inspiration is critical. “The reality is that there are ups and downs, and we’re not always going to be inspired to continue our change. But that doesn’t mean we can’t stick to it,” Young says.

Young also points out that not all behaviors are the same. Some we practice unconsciously, such as standing up straight; others we are aware of but feel powerless to change, like overuse of our phones; and some require conscious action, such as eating better or making time for exercise. Different forces act on these behaviors, and by understanding what they are — Young uses the acronym SCIENCE, a reminder that these are rooted in research — we can use them to our advantage.

Start Small
It’s been ages since you engaged in any kind of regular workout routine, but you’ve vowed to exercise 45 minutes a day, five days a week for all of 2018, no matter what. Then, in week two, “what” rears its head. You have to work late. You’re not feeling 100 percent. Soon the missed workouts snowball as you begin to realize this just isn’t doable.

The S in Young’s SCIENCE framework stands for stepladders, and it’s about setting incremental goals. “By taking smaller steps, we don’t set ourselves up to fail,” Young explains. Although the concept seems intuitive, we are nonetheless prone to being victims of our grand aspirations. Instead of focusing on the ultimate dream, which can feel overwhelming, break it up into smaller, achievable steps.

Keep Good Company
The first C in SCIENCE is for community. By making your endeavor a social experience, you’re more likely to follow through — whether out of friendly competition, support from your peers, or simply because you don’t want to disappoint the people who are rooting for you. Young and his colleagues have created online social communities dedicated to specific behavior changes — called Harnessing Online Peer Education, or HOPE — and have found in a series of studies that participants are much more likely than nonparticipants to succeed.

Important Matters
I is for important, and this is an obvious one: Your chance of achieving a sustainable change improves if it really matters to you. Interestingly, though, Young has found that people can successfully implement new behaviors — getting HIV tests, for example — even when they don’t regard it as important, as long as they draw on the other forces. And, conversely, motivation alone isn’t always enough.

Easy Does It
The first E in SCIENCE is for easy. Take steps to make desired behaviors convenient and unwanted behaviors difficult. If you have to drive 10-15 minutes for junk food, you’re less likely to indulge than if it’s a 10-15-second walk to the kitchen. If you pass your gym on the way to and from work, or you work out at home, you’re more apt to stick with it.

Reset Your Brain
When you’re feeling less motivated, quick mental shortcuts can reset the brain, much like hitting control-alt-delete on your computer. These neurohacks — the N in SCIENCE — are the most counterintuitive force in Young’s framework. “We’re taught that we can will ourselves to do something — that if we change our mind, our behavior will follow,” Young says. But “Neurohacks say that if you want to change, start with your behavior, and your mind will follow.” Struggling to motivate yourself to exercise? Put on your workout clothes, and it will be easier to follow through. Then do the same tomorrow and the next day; soon your brain has been programmed to think of daily exercise as the default.

Eyes on the Prize
Rewards improve the chances of successful behavior change — but not just any rewards. “Points and badges have been used to motivate people, but they don’t work for everyone,” Young says. The reward needs to be captivating, the second C in SCIENCE. That doesn’t mean it has to be tangible. In the online communities in Young’s HOPE program, participants say they derive rewards simply from positive discussion of their efforts.

Don’t Even Think About It
The final letter in SCIENCE is for engrained. “If we make a behavior so routine we don’t have to think about it, it becomes easy for us to continue doing it,” Young says. Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg has said that he owns multiples of the same gray T-shirt so he doesn’t have to decide what to wear each day, clearing time for other decisions. As with the other SCIENCE tools, the key here is to focus on changing the process, rather than the person. “People assume they have to become a different person to make lasting changes, but the science shows we’re unlikely to become someone we’re not,” Young says. “Fortunately, we don’t have to. We just need to tweak our own processes, which is much easier.”