Every Monday for five years, Natalie Luke looked in the mirror and said, “I’ve got a fresh start; this week will be different. I will lose those pesky pounds.” However, week after week, diet after diet, nothing changed. Natalie figured she simply didn’t have sufficient willpower to succeed.
When we fail to meet New Year’s resolutions, we assume it’s because we’re weak willed. However, willpower combined with silver-bullet solutions is insufficient to create lasting change.
Our research identifies six sources of influence that shape behavior. These personal, social and structural sources act on everyone all the time whether they recognize them or not. Those who succeed at change are those who recognize and recruit all of these sources to support new habits that will help them reach their goals. Those who don’t recognize and recruit the sources of influence tend to fail. Think of change like a tug-of-war. Even the strongest person will almost always yield to six others in a tug-of-war. Simply trying harder is pointless when you’re hopelessly outnumbered. When Natalie understood this, everything changed.
One Monday at age 45, Natalie performed her weekly ritual and realized “vowing” to change was not enough, she needed to get serious about changing her behavior if she wanted to look in the mirror and feel good about the reflection. It was then that she created a change plan that leveraged the six sources of influence aimed at behavior change. Two months later, Natalie was more than half-way to reaching her goal of losing 25 pounds by the end of the year.
Here are strategies in the six sources of influence to help people achieve their weight loss goals. The key to success is using at least one strategy from each of the six sources of influence:
1. Personal Motivation: Love what you hate. Motivate yourself to get healthy by changing the way you think about your health and weight. Natalie uses daily visualization exercises and listens to a popular podcast to change her negative perceptions about her ability to lose weight.
2. Personal Ability: Do what you can’t. Learn the weight loss skills you lack. Natalie uses a popular workout program that teaches her how to perform exercises that use muscle confusion to increase calorie burning.
3. Social Motivation: Turn accomplices into friends. Find out if your friends are helping or hurting your progress. Natalie lets others know about her weight loss goals so they are conscious and respectful of her exercise time.
4. Social Ability: Enlist coaches. Often, changing habits requires help. Natalie’s coach is the winner of The Biggest Loser season 4. He coaches Natalie to make changes that not only help her succeed but also maintain her weight loss.
5. Structural Motivation: Invert the economy. Motivate yourself to stay on track by planning rewards for small successes. Natalie selects a new outfit she wants to buy and shows her friends so they can encourage her to earn that reward for meeting short-term goals.
6. Structural Ability: Control your space. Don’t underestimate the power of your environment. Because one of the largest barriers to Natalie’s success is the extra time she spends at work, she keeps a clock in plain view in order to leave the office early enough to exercise.
From our research we discovered that those who create a multifaceted change plan targeting all six sources of influence are 10 times more successful in reaching their goals. When your strategy is informed by good science, the differences in effectiveness are not incremental, they are exponential. When we escape the willpower trap and develop competence in engaging all six sources of influence, we can change ourselves and influence others for good.